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  • Writer's pictureTeresa Finney

How one Atlanta pop-up baker gets things done

With the rise of pop-up shops, small businesses are increasingly going beyond the brick-and-mortar. The new model offers a low barrier to entry for prospective entrepreneurs—but, as baker Teresa Finney explains, customers might still be catching up. 

 

Illustration by Khoa Tran

Every day I open Instagram and see desserts I want to eat from businesses around the city. Here’s a slice of ube cheesecake, almost fluorescent purple, from Anthony Fisher of Seven Fingers Baked Goods. There’s a trio of towering biscuits from the husband-and-wife team behind Sugar Loaf ATL. The page for Choux Maker reveals a colorful assortment of eclairs and “all things pâte à choux,” while Galette Atlanta posts a picture of neat rows of savory pastries to entice customers to their stall at the Avondale Estates Farmers Market. 


What unites this eclectic array of pastry professionals is that they’re all pop-ups. They sell their food at restaurants, bars, coffee shops, and other establishments that agree to host them, or set up at farmers’ markets, or take orders directly for pickup or delivery. Some rent space in commercial kitchens; bakers with state-issued cottage licenses can bake and sell their goods right out of their homes. Atlanta is a place where beloved small businesses frequently shutter due to astronomical rents—a symptom of a city that prioritizes commercial real estate development. We’re lucky to have a robust pop-up community of cooks and bakers doing things outside traditional food service. 


Atlanta is a place where beloved small businesses frequently shutter due to astronomical rents—a symptom of a city that prioritizes commercial real estate development.

At my own Decatur-based cottage bakery, At Heart Panadería, I focus on reimagining classic Mexican pan dulce through the seasons. I bake from home, taking cake, conchas, and cookie orders as they come in via email or, despite my best efforts to fend them off, sometimes Instagram DMs. I only schedule customer pickups Thursday through Saturday, as I’ve learned in the three years of operation that is what works best for me and my business—an outside-the-norm bakery where I work for myself and get to do things on my own terms. I’ve learned from businesses like Betsy Gonzalez’s cottage bakery Osono Bread. Gonzalez’s beautiful sourdough loaves and creatively flavored doughnuts—like Earl Grey decorated with candied kumquats—keep people lining up before the Grant Park Farmers Market opens on Sunday mornings. Osono has been a guiding light to me on how a bakery can exist, and be successful, beyond the brick-and-mortar. 


Before making the jump to bakery owner I worked a myriad of mostly service jobs, some office assistant–type jobs. I’ve never made a lot of money from my work, so with the decision to be my own boss came financial anxiety—but also the freedom of working for myself. Running things on a micro basis means the barrier to entry was significantly lower than opening a brick-and-mortar bakery, even as the price of everything from ingredients to storage for those ingredients continues to rise. The gargantuan cost of commercial rent is one thing I don’t have to worry about. No employees rely on me for paychecks. Since I’m baking from my dining room in a 1950s bungalow, the appliances I’m using are a bit smaller and therefore cheaper than what I’d have to purchase if I was baking out of a commercial kitchen. 


Before making the jump to bakery owner I worked a myriad of mostly service jobs, some office assistant–type jobs. I’ve never made a lot of money from my work, so with the decision to be my own boss came financial anxiety—but also the freedom of working for myself. Running things on a micro basis means the barrier to entry was significantly lower than opening a brick-and-mortar bakery, even as the price of everything from ingredients to storage for those ingredients continues to rise.

Of course, there are downsides. I’m always running out of flat surfaces; the house is uninsulated so my sourdough starters are finicky at best and dormant the rest of the time; there’s not much separation between home and work space, and of course I am doing all the work myself. A decent work-life balance looms just out of my reach: When I’m not baking, I’m writing a weekly newsletter with recipes and essays and doing freelance recipe work for various publications. I’m fortunate that my income is supplemented through that freelance work since I will never make bank running a bakery. I only just last year got health insurance through the Marketplace. There is no rainy day fund. 


The rise of the pop-up model has required a certain amount of flexibility and creativity from bakers and cooks; however, potential customers might still be catching up. I notice discussion online about a perceived lack of bakeries in Atlanta; tweets from locals bemoan never-ending lines for bread and pastry. I think about the numerous cottage and pop-up bakeries run by people pulling all-nighters to fulfill orders or stock pastry cases for their farmers’ market stalls. I think of all of the innovative bakers here who may not have been trained in a traditional restaurant setting, and who come from various work backgrounds, but are still more than capable of feeding people food from their respective cultures—or innovative and delicious reinventions of such food. 


A decent work-life balance looms just out of my reach: When I’m not baking, I’m writing a weekly newsletter with recipes and essays and doing freelance recipe work for various publications.

The bakeries are there—part of the solution is knowing not just to look, but where to look. Instagram can be a lifeline. As we know, the app was vital at the beginning of the pandemic not just for brick-and-mortar restaurants hoping to stay connected with customers in quarantine, but also for scrappy, newly jobless cooks and bakers who still needed to work. Almost four years later, it continues to be indispensable for pop-ups. Eater Atlanta also keeps a running list, and Punk Foodie is another comprehensive resource—complete with a weekly newsletter and guide to pop-ups happening in the city, as well as a pop-up finder web app


Instagram was vital at the beginning of the pandemic not just for brick-and-mortar restaurants hoping to stay connected with customers in quarantine, but also for scrappy, newly jobless cooks and bakers who still needed to work.

These vibrant businesses enrich Atlanta’s cultural and culinary identity, making some of the most fun and interesting food in the city. At my pop-ups, I find myself educating people on my use of masa harina, and what masa harina even is. The backbone of my bakery is the ancient, indigenous process called nixtamalization—where corn kernels are cooked with a lime solution until the kernel is tender before being dried out and ground to a fine powder to make masa harina. Across Latin cultures, masa harina is used in savory applications like tamales and corn tortillas. At my bakery, I use it in cakes, crème pâtissière, and bread and pastry dough. It’s an experience that I’m proud to share with people, and one that I’m only able to bring to fruition through my cottage bakery. 


To support a pop up/micro/cottage bakery requires a willingness to meet your baker where they’re at—which may mean accepting that a cottage bakery is open for business “only” four days a week, has a limited menu, or asks for a two-week lead time for orders. If your baker and their team (if they have one) are rested and ready to go when they are open, they’re more likely to do their best work. 


You don’t need a physical brick-and-mortar business to make food good enough to be served to the public. The pop-up community in Atlanta is a shining example of this. I would love it if the city we all care for put its lively, and truly originative, pop-up and small business community before commercial development. Until then, if we want more bakeries in our city, we should expand our minds about what a bakery can even be.


I would love it if the city we all care for put its lively, and truly originative, pop-up and small business community before commercial development.

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