Courtesy of Ella Newcomb
College second-year Ella Newcomb started her business selling loaves of homemade sourdough to students at the College through her Instagram @e.newcomb23 during this past fall semester. Her business rapidly grew as word spread of the “Sourdough Girl,” but Newcomb kept up with the pace. She is currently home in Denver, CO, but plans to resume selling bread to Obies during the upcoming summer semester.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you start baking bread?
During summer quarantine, my sister was home, and we have a really good family friend who was doing a similar bread business in Denver. He gave us some ingredients and taught us how to make sourdough — it was something that we would do together.
How long was that time in between when you learned how to bake bread and when you realized you could make money off of it?
It was like … three weeks. I started baking in late July with my sister, and I hadn’t really baked a loaf by myself. Then she kind of gave up on the bread stuff — she decided it wasn’t her thing. But I did two days of selling bread in Denver just to see if it was working. Then I announced it on Instagram to see if people were interested in it at Oberlin, and I got a lot of positive responses. So when I got to Oberlin, I just started baking. I was lucky to have an apartment that had a kitchen.
Was it weird getting texts from strangers asking for bread, or did it help you get to know anybody? Were there any connections made through that?
It was surprisingly not weird. I’m a very extroverted person, and my first year I was constantly meeting new people. Going into my second year, I thought, “This is gonna suck — because of COVID, I’m never going to meet any new people!” But it was fun to meet new people through this bread experience. Part of the reason I was very excited about this is because I ate in a co-op my first year, and I have this thing about home-cooked food — food that’s cooked with love. I loved the idea of baking for people and hand-delivering it to them, of getting to meet them and knowing that they’ve enjoyed it when they buy more.
Do you think you’ll keep trying new specialty breads in the future, or are you sticking to sourdough?
I got a bread book for Christmas, and I definitely want to try some different kinds of bread. I love ciabatta; it’s my favorite bread. I definitely feel like that’s something I’ll experiment with. The reason I think I’ll probably stick with sourdough is — I actually learned this from one of my bosses at Barefoot Dialogue — sourdough tastes different depending on who makes it. The flavor comes from the bacteria on the baker’s hands. I loved the idea that when I was baking with my sister, it was this mix of our two bacteria, and whenever I bake with someone, it’s a new flavor.
Wow. Obviously, that leads to me to think about COVID-19 — did you feel like you were being very safe? Were you ever worried about exposing customers through pickup?
I was definitely nervous about it, but I bake my bread at 500 degrees, so it would probably destroy any viral matter that would have gotten on it during shaping or any other part of the process. I was also getting tested, so I definitely didn’t have COVID-19 when I was baking. I always wrapped it, so I never directly handed the bread to people; you got a wrapped one! They come with stickers too, which I love. I always met outside, which I thought was kind of nice, and it was a nice way to interact with people in a safe way.
Yeah. I also feel that way. It’s funny to talk to you now, because all my experiences picking up bread from you happened in the middle of some other story. One time I was on a date, and I ran from the date and picked up bread and ran back. It wasn’t a first date, so it wasn’t that bad, but the guy thought it was very funny. Another time, I was going to go to Mass on the night that I came to see you, and I was all dressed up for Mass, wearing a chapel veil.
I remember that! I think you were probably my most interesting pickups because everybody else is kind of boring. They show up, they take their bread, and they leave. You always had a story, and I enjoyed it.
You talked about co-ops earlier and about homemade food. Did you know anyone who baked bread for the co-ops?
I ate in Pyle Inn my freshman year, and Pyle was actually the reason I came to Oberlin. My brother was in Pyle for three years at Oberlin. I never actually held a cooking position at Pyle — I think I only cooked twice. Two of my really good friends were breadmakers our second semester, but only for a month and a half before we got sent home. A lot of people ask if I’m going to be a breadmaker when I’m in a co-op next fall, and I don’t think so. Sourdough takes so long, and I don’t know how to mass produce it without taking over the kitchen for the whole day. I probably won’t take on a bread-making role in my co-op, but hopefully if I have a kitchen I will continue to sell bread.
Do you think this is a lifelong thing? Will you keep baking bread after you graduate?
Actually, funnily enough, my neighbor who buys bread from me weekly now, who’s an amazing breadmaker, asked me if this was my “career.” I was like, “I’m in college! I’m not making bread out of my parents’ house for the rest of my life.” Right now, what I’m envisioning is that when I’m old, I’ll be baking bread with my kids and things like that. My dream is — when I’m like 80 years old — to own a bakery in Italy and only sell sourdough. But it’s not really the career path that I expected to go down, and I still don’t really expect to be going down it. I do think it’s a lovely thing that you can do wherever you are, and it’s a lovely thing to bring to people.
Do you have any interesting stories about baking?
I think my favorite story about my bread experience was this one time that I bought a 50-pound bag of flour from Amazon. It was delivered to the mailroom, and I had to transport it from Wilder Hall all the way to Firelands Apartments. My lovely friend came and picked me up with her car, but then I had to carry it to the elevator and to my room. I had to take the bag and dump it into my plastic bucket that I keep all my flour in. It was an incredible workout, and it was the most pain I think I’ve ever been in, but it was a fun adventure.
(for incoming photo – Courtesy of Ella Newcomb — College second-year Ella Newcomb, better known as the “Sourdough Girl.” )