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'A labor of love:' Midlothian man reimagines his career after layoff by opening Europa Crust Sourdough Bakery in downtown Richmond

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Working a one-man bakery, Jeff Laine endeavors to make every movement count.

Whether his task of the moment is to feed his sourdough starter or mix, shape the dough on the baker’s table or, when the alarm on his watch sounds, remove hot bread from the ovens where he can bake up to 16 loaves per hour, he always tries to accomplish something else along the way: replenish the display shelves near the shop’s front door that’s usually propped open with the seven kinds of bread he makes, stack flour-dusted bamboo loaf forms atop an oven or clear clean dishes from the steaming dishwasher, which he runs 14 times a day. All the while welcoming customers to the shop.

At Europa Crust Sourdough Bakery, there is a lot of flour, but little wasted motion.

“Literally, no breaks,” Laine said of the busiest stretches of his 12-hour days. “There’s constantly something going on.”

A year ago, Laine, 57, of Midlothian, could scarcely have imagined himself shaping dough in a storefront window at the corner of East Main and 14th streets in downtown Richmond, but the pandemic changed everything.

As business slowed in the food industry, where he had worked in sales since graduating from college in 1987, Laine was laid off from his job as a regional sales manager of a food ingredient company last March.

At that point, he began to view a sourdough hobby he had dabbled in while stuck at home — like so many others — in a more serious light.

He baked bread for family and friends who raved about it.

As he honed his skills and his breads went from looking like flying saucers (though tasting fine) to handsome artisan loaves, he started considering making his baking a cottage industry: selling at farmers markets and such.

Then he learned about an empty downtown storefront and envisioned himself in that window, beckoning customers with the alluring aroma of baking bread wafting through the propped-open front door. He launched Europa Crust in August, specializing in old world-style sourdough, and here we are.

In his past jobs, Laine spent considerable time on the road. He had an expense account and a company car and took maybe 100 flights a year. Now? He now drives a fun, but temperamental 24-year-old Ford Mustang convertible and works 70 hours a week in a relatively confined space.

“But it’s a labor of love,” he said. “There’s something therapeutic about making bread.”

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Laine’s story illustrates one of the common ways people become entrepreneurs, said Jay Markiewicz, an assistant professor and executive director of entrepreneurship programs at Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Business.

“The script is: Person has a side project they love, Person loses job (or quits), Person turns side project into their main gig,” Markiewicz wrote in an email. “Jeff is proving that script for us.

“A message we give our VCU students is to ‘always have a side project.’ So for those out there with the entrepreneurial spirit, ask yourself what side project you can be working on right now. Becoming an entrepreneur is a real option when we have a passion for our project and the desire to do the hard work.”

A pandemic might not seem the best time to make such a career leap, but Markiewicz said, “Nothing can be farther from the truth.”

A pandemic, he said, is an example of an “emerging concern,” which he defined as a significant change that introduces new problems to the landscape.

“It is the precise time for entrepreneurs to step in to solve those problems,” he said. “Times of emerging concerns often result in an explosion of side projects that may turn into viable businesses. Jeff’s story is encouraging to all of us who one day aspire to be entrepreneurs.”

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This all started about a year ago on a sleepless night when Laine started poking around online and stumbled onto a YouTube video about Poilâne, an internationally famous sourdough bakery in France.

He was mesmerized by the process. That night, he went down a YouTube rabbit hole, binge-watching videos about sourdough bakers, and he came away thinking baking sourdough bread might be something he could do on the side.

He purchased a book, “Poilâne: The Secrets of the World-Famous Bread Bakery,” authored by Poilâne’s third-generation owner baker and owner. Using Apollonia Poilâne’s recipe, he made his own sourdough starter, which is at the heart of it all, baked some bread, and …

“They were right,” said Laine, who honors Poilâne by having a copy of that book resting prominently among the freshly baked loaves on a shelf in his shop. “It was unbelievable. I couldn’t believe how good the bread was compared to everything else that’s out there.”

Sourdough “starter” is a fermented flour and water mixture, a sort of science experiment, that contains wild yeast and good bacteria that allow sourdough bread to be naturally leavened, meaning it doesn’t require commercial yeast to rise. Starters require regular “feedings” of flour and water to keep them going (and to replenish what’s removed for baking). If properly tended, they can last indefinitely.

With sourdough, Laine found he could bake a basic loaf of bread with only flour, water and salt. He was amazed by the taste and texture, and he appreciated the natural approach. He experimented in his home kitchen, then moved to the garage when things got a little messy. (“Flour was everywhere,” he said.)

He shared loaves with friends and neighbors. The feedback early on, his longtime friend Trace Carson recalled, was, “This is great, you should sell this” a suggestion that Carson said probably “went in one ear and out the other.” Then Laine lost his job, and the idea of selling bread started to sound pretty good and didn’t seem so wild a dream.

In those early days, Carson ate a lot of what Laine jokingly refers to as his “flying saucers,” shapeless, unintentionally flat bread.

“I wouldn’t say they were bad, but they were not pretty,” Carson said. ”He’s come a long way.”

Carson, as a previous owner of a small business, was a source of advice for Laine and later became a partner in Europa Crust as the venture took shape.

“He’s the whole behind-the-scenes thing,” Laine says, “and I’m the guy in the window who everybody knows.”

Though Laine had worked many years in the food world and is savvy about things like flavor profiles, he had never worked in a kitchen, so it’s been a learning process and a physical grind.

He’s grateful for the support and encouragement of his wife, Susan — “I could not have done any of this … she’s been very tolerant through this whole process,” he said — and their four children, and he’s needed the energy and endurance gained from years as a competitive cyclist, something he doesn’t have much time for now.

“I don’t think the average person would be able to do it,” Carson said of his friend. “I give 100% credit to Jeff. He certainly has a passion for sourdough, for the bread-baking itself. His work ethic is second to none. I don’t know how he does it. The other quality I really admire is his pursuit of perfection. He is consistently trying to find ways to make the bread better.”

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Almost six months in, the business is holding its own. Carson says that almost from the beginning, he and Laine have been able to at least cover costs.

They started modestly enough, if launching a new retail business can ever be an exercise in modesty. To set up shop, they acquired second-hand equipment: mixers from eBay, double-ovens from home remodels and run-of-the-mill refrigerators where the dough does its final rising and gains additional flavor the longer it chills.

Making sourdough breads is a multistep process that is as much art as math and science. The basis of all he does are his sourdough starters. By their very nature, starters are living things, and some people become so attached to their starters that they name them. Laine calls his Harriet, Hazel and Henry.

He uses different starters, made with different flours, for the various types of breads he makes. Harriet, Hazel and Henry reside in plastic tubs in the back of his shop. He has backups of each starter safely stashed away in the event something ever happens to the originals.

“My whole business would be gone if I didn’t have those,” he said.

At the moment, Laine makes seven breads, all sourdough-based, though not all have the distinctively tangy taste often associated with sourdough.

Besides his whole-wheat French sourdough, a traditional San Francisco white sourdough and a rye sourdough, he offers an Italian, a five-grain, a baguette and Nissu, a Finnish sweet bread made with cardamom that was always on the table when he was growing up in northeast Ohio. The Nissu that Laine makes is adapted from the recipe that his great-grandmother brought from Finland when she immigrated here in the early 20th century.

The whole loaves sell for $8, half-loaves for $5, boules are $6, baguettes $3 and $5.

He has enough faith in what he’s accomplished so far to consider adding more breads to the lineup and to envision one day of having a central kitchen, where all the mixing would be done, a refrigerated delivery truck and several satellite bake-and-sell shops. And some help.

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While wrapping up a primer of the sourdough process and a tour of his shop on a recent afternoon, Laine pointed out the well-worn door set up behind the counter and told a story.

This door led to the bedroom in a great-aunt’s house in the Cleveland area. The day after her husband, Laine’s great-uncle, died, she said the image of Jesus appeared in the grain of the door, and if you look at it at the right angle you can kind of see it. When she died decades ago, the family sold the house and kept the door. It went to Laine’s dad. A few years ago, it came to Laine.

When he started experimenting with sourdough in his garage, he put the door to use as a baker’s bench. When he moved downtown, Carson suggested he needed a “real” baker’s bench, but he should frame the door and have it in the shop.

So, the ghostly image separates the front of the store from the kitchen — and bolsters Laine every time he sees it, making him think that maybe he’s on the right path doing the right things.

“I’m not overly religious, but it’s definitely an assurance … when you’ve got that image staring at you every day when you walk through that door,” he said. “Because it’s scary: How do you just quit your whole career at 57 years old and start over in the middle of a pandemic. Right?”

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