When Small State Provisions opened Saturday, July 3, MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price arrived too late. Everything had sold out in 45 minutes. Everything, that is, except one molasses cookie, which Owner and Head Baker Kevin Masse was kind enough to give to Nan.
In addition to wanting to try Kevin’s baking, Nan knew she wanted to meet Kevin to learn more about how he started his baking company, built a community presence, and connected with GastroPark.
NAN PRICE: Give us a little background. Have you always been entrepreneurial or wanted to own your own business?
KEVIN MASSE: I haven’t considered myself somebody who’s always entrepreneurial. However, I’ve always wanted to do something in food. Coming from a large Italian/Irish/American family, baking and cooking have been integral to my upbringing.
When I graduated from high school, I wanted to go to culinary school. My parents, while they supported and loved the idea, told me they thought I’d be better off going to business school and working in business for a while then moving into something food-related down the road. So, after I graduated from college I worked for a brand media agency in New York for about 10 years. My background in marketing has been extremely beneficial to what I’m doing with Small State Provisions.
NAN: Why a bread baking business? How did this start for you?
KEVIN: My husband and I moved to the Hartford area five years ago from New York City. He’s a professor at Trinity College, which is what brought us here.
A twist of fate and connections via Trinity and the company I left to move here led me to meeting and becoming friends with local cookbook author Terry Walters, who teaches sourdough classes. She was the very first person I ever baked sourdough bread with and the starter we used that day is what we now use here at the bakery.
Coming from New York City, we had lots of options where we could get really good bread. And while I think there are some fantastic bakeries here in town, I always felt like I missed something from New York, so I set out to find that by creating it myself.
NAN: Tell us a little more about starting out.
KEVIN: I used to get overwhelmed wondering: How do you start a business? What do you do first? Where do you go? With any entrepreneurial process, you have to be willing to look at where the stumbling points are, break them apart, and figure out the first thing you need to do. For me, I had to figure out how to start selling bread out of my house, which is where I started.
That meant I had to get my cottage food license here in West Hartford. That was step one. Then I needed to form an LLC. Some people decide to open a full-scale bakery and do it in one shot. The route I took was a little more organic. It started with questioning how to start selling a couple of loaves of bread out of my house every week and evolved into now selling hundreds of loaves a week out of our little bakery at GastroPark.
NAN: How did you connect with GastroPark?
KEVIN: GastroPark co-owner Tate Norden, who also owns the Iron & Grain food truck, was one of my customers. He had found me on Instagram and was placing regular orders for bread every week. Late last summer, we were chatting and he said I should check out what he was building at GastroPark. At that point, the project was still in the works, but they hadn’t opened and the inside hadn’t been built out yet.
The cottage food industry in Connecticut has a $25,000 annual revenue limit. When I spoke with Tate, I was already starting to reach the upper ends of that limit. And once you hit that limit, you have to either stop selling and wait until the next fiscal year or transition to a commercial operation.
I had already started thinking about the latter option when I visited the GastroPark. When I saw the space it was very raw but I thought: I could make this work. At that time, I was also talking to the folks at Swift Factory, which had commissary kitchens available. I decided to go with GastroPark and not Swift so I could welcome the community directly into my bakery. At Swift, because it is a commissary kitchen, I would have had to remain a 100% delivery model for the business. I chose to locate at GastroPark for the ability to tap into the community here and become part of the community. I wanted to create a business and a space where people feel seen and they feel like they know the person making the products they’re going to enjoy.
NAN: Let’s talk about the transition from baker to business owner.
KEVIN: It’s been beneficial to take stock of what I know and what I don’t know. And for the things I don’t know, I find people who do know. I did accounting classes in college, but when you’re so hands-on with the actual craft of what you’re doing you don’t want to take time away to be doing things like bookkeeping. I recognize that’s not my area of expertise, so I found someone who can do that for me.
Fortunately for me, my dad was an entrepreneur who ran his own successful business for 20 years. He recently retired and I was able to ask him to help me with the books. And my stepdad is a certified public accountant. So, he helps with all my taxes and things like that. I’m grateful to them both.
NAN: What do you foresee for the future of Small State Provisions?
KEVIN: When I was building out the bakery, my vision was I’d be a one-man operation. I thought I would just sell my bread and make some cookies and scones. As we were planning the business and starting to build out the space, I quickly realized that was a fool’s errand and I wasn’t going to be able to do that.
It’s challenging when you start a new business, you want to have control over every aspect, so it’s hard to turn over some of those things. Fortunately, I’ve been able to bring in talented staff, including my first hire, Jonah Gershon. As a recent graduate from Hall High School, Jonah was home for the summer after his Freshman year at Cornell University when he started with me. The people I’ve found to replace him have visited the bakery and shown a passion for baking. I hire for personality and I train for skill. None of the people working for me are professionally trained bakers, myself included. We’re kind of writing the playbook as we go.
In terms of the future, I want to be a place where people can come and feel connected and have a great experience. Down the road, there might be a point where we outgrow the capacity of this space, but for right now, this space has become my baby and I love it.
And it’s home. I love the way I’ve designed the whole thing myself with an architect, thinking about the full customer experience, what it’s like to walk into the space, that’s been very important to me. So, our goal is to continue to build here and to put out really good products.