How SoCal-Grown Flour And Grains Are Powering LA's #QuarantineBaking
When my husband told me he had ordered 150 pounds of flour and whole grains, I had no idea what it would look like, how we'd store it or why he thought this transaction was a good idea.
He's a longtime home baker, typically churning out a couple loaves a week, but #quarantinebaking had inspired him to ramp up his output. To continue feeding our two sons and my parents while contributing to his weekly bread-for-citrus barter and sharing his bounty with whoever else, he needed more whole wheat berries, which we mill at home, and exponentially more flour.
Things started making sense when he told me he had placed an order with the King's Roost, a Silver Lake store that specializes in do-it-yourself cooking supplies and hands-on workshops.
In late March, founder Roe Sie (his first name is pronounced "roo") noticed a surge of new customers. As supermarkets sold out of commercially available flours, people turned to King's Roost for its organic, artisan flour and other whole grains. Like many other companies, including King Arthur Flour, Sie scrambled to shift gears and keep up with demand. Working with one of his former employees, Taylor Erickson, he launched a bulk ordering program, supplying a growing customer base with whole grains from California-based heritage producers.
"I think we'll have a lot of converts," Sie says. "The quality of California-grown grains and locally sourced flour is way fresher." He also thinks their flavor is more complex and nuanced. Even "whole wheat" commercial flour is heavily processed to make it shelf-stable.
"By the time we got our first pallet in, the following week was an avalanche of orders. It took about a month to get caught up," Sie says. The first portion of my husband's order, for instance, arrived in about 10 days while the remaining 50 pounds of Red Fife wheat berries came a week later.
Like my husband, thousands of bored, anxious Angelenos have been looking for quarantine projects. And what's more practical than making food? Sie understands those impulses.
The Los Feliz resident opened his DIY emporium in late 2014 to dive deeper into his interests -- raising chickens, making soap, roasting coffee, aquaponics (a symbiotic method for growing fruits and vegetables that involves live fish and hydroponics) and, now, milling flour and cooking with whole grains.
A year later, the business moved from a small corner location on Fountain Avenue near Thomas Starr King Middle School to a larger space on Sunset Boulevard and Lucille Avenue, close to the Sunset Junction. Sie outfitted the shop with a kitchen where he could teach workshops and host guest instructors.
Although the physical space is shuttered, Sie's direct network of suppliers has remained intact. He is quick to express gratitude to the farmers and food workers who have made that possible but, he says, current circumstances are "a reminder of how fragile our whole system is."
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Before coronavirus, King's Roost typically received one 2,500-pound pallet every three to four weeks. Sie had helped organize the standing bulk order -- containing flour from Central Milling and whole grains from Fat Uncle Farms and Bergman Family Farms, among other growers -- for the L.A. Bread Bakers group as well as other "semi-professional and intense amateur bakers who know what they want." In April, at the peak of grocery store shortages and the quarantine baking craze, Sie was receiving six pallets per week, a 24-fold increase.
Since then, orders have stabilized. His most recent delivery amounts to a little more than 6,000 pounds. Sie has also added a second pre-order pick-up site, in Long Beach.
"Sixty [thousand] to 70,000 pounds of grain have come through the store, and I'm not there for any of it," he says. While Erickson single-handedly handles those massive quantities, Sie oversees the business's administrative duties from home.
Within a week or so after placing and paying for an order online, customers receive an email with pickup info, including an alphabetically-assigned pickup window (people whose names start with A through F should arrive between 12 p.m. and 12:15 p.m., and so on). Sie makes exceptions for frontline workers who have less flexible schedules. The 48-hour distribution cycle encompasses the pallet delivery, divvying up of orders and customer pickup.
You don't have to buy grains in triple-digit amounts. You can opt for a five-pound bag of flour. My husband is a pragmatist who likes to reduce trips -- and maybe a closet doomsday prepper. I'm just hoping bugs and rodents don't discover our stash while we wait for professional-size, plastic storage bins to arrive.
Then there's the educational component. "I'm getting a lot of inquiries," Sie says. "How do I introduce new people to these grains?"
While baking with Central Milling ABC flour isn't much different than using most brands of commercial flour, working with other relatively obscure flours and home-milled grains requires trial and error.
Grains contain varying levels of protein and gluten, so some are better suited for sourdough breads while others are more useful for quick breads like banana or zucchini loaves. The learning curve is especially steep for those making maiden voyages and challenging themselves by using, say, natural starter instead of packaged dry yeast.
Sie has added half-a-dozen new tutorials to the King's Roost YouTube channel, and previous videos have suddenly gained traction. An under-the radar 2015 clip about making wild yeast starter racked up nearly 2 million views this spring. (It helps that his wife, Trish Sie, has directed some of the band OK Go's most viral videos.) Topics include how to make flour without a proper home mill and techniques for managing natural starter.
The coronavirus pandemic has also forced other baking and culinary enterprises in Southern California to evolve. Tehachapi Grain Project, a heritage grain-growing effort founded by Alex Weiser, could no longer focus on large orders for chefs and restaurants.
"Our situation changed dramatically overnight," says Tehachapi manager Sherry Mandell. "The upside is people now realize that flour is grown by a farmer, and there are local farmers that are filling the gaps and helping create this local infrastructure for real food."
Mandell's exchanges with chefs and restaurateurs have reshaped her perspective and inspired a more collaborative approach to her work. While "figuring out how to be the supply chain, the farmer and the teacher" as she makes her rounds to farmers' markets, professional kitchens and restaurants, Mandell has a front row seat to what's happening in L.A.'s food community.
She has given away grains to keep chefs busy and inspire their creativity -- remember, grains are used for many foods besides baked goods -- and has developed and renewed partnerships with markets and food makers, connecting the public to Tehachapi Grain Project.
"I see all the possibilities but I also see all the pain," she says. "How to try to intertwine them into a system that can come out on the other side is really tough. The only way I can do it is to pull people on board."
For both newbie and avid L.A. home bakers, often buoyed by a shared purpose and passion, other resources are also available.
The California Grain Campaign, a consortium of growers, chefs, retailers, educators, environmentalists and food justice activists, has hosted educational Zoom sessions. It has also partnered with the nonprofit Community Services United to supply Village Market Place, a food hub in South L.A., with quality grains and products as part of the California-grown "bakers' pantry."
Alhambra artist Bob Dornberger using materials such as copper and mahogany, is crafting handmade bench scrapers, ideal for cutting dough and shaping bread loaves.
Meanwhile, Sie has remained at home, remotely overseeing operations at King's Roost and trying to get his hands on more countertop-sized home flour mills (because some customers who want to deepen their commitment to using whole grain flours). He is waiting for a shipment of Mockmills and expects they'll sell out. Bakers who are skeptical about buying another specialty baking item can refer to an instructional video about alternative tools.
Making these products and methods more accessible is part of Sie's flexible approach: "It doesn't have to be a binary choice between total reliance on supermarkets and off-the-grid prepping."