The adventurous bakers among us have tried our hand at sourdough baking a time or two. Maybe we cosseted a jar of starter long enough to bake a few loaves of bread, but we lost interest and soon we lost our starter as well.
Tracy Gribbon, founder of Georgia Sourdough Company, is not that person. Three days a week, she and her team are working with hundreds of cups of sourdough starter in six 20-liter buckets. What they feed today will go into tomorrow’s batch of sourdough crackers. Not bread. Crackers. In three different flavors: Sea Salt, Cheese, and Everything.
Anyone who has tried producing crackers at home knows they aren't easy to make. Not only do you need dough that will bake up flaky and crisp, but you need to roll the dough out thin and evenly. And you need an oven that bakes evenly so the thin dough doesn’t burn in some spots and underbake in others.
Gribbon, working in restaurants as a beverage director, started making sourdough crackers pretty much by accident. Her aunt and uncle, who had lived in Alaska, were on the HGTV show, “Elbow Room.” As part of the renovation, the show built the couple a pizza oven. That got Gribbon and another uncle thinking about creating a really great pizza dough to use in that new oven.
“’How about sourdough?’ he asked and so I made a sourdough starter and then made dough for a pizza crust. I didn’t know you could fast track sourdough making by buying starter. I made my own, just by putting a mixture of flour and water on the counter and feeding it twice a day. And it worked.”
Sourdough is definitely a thing in Alaska and her aunt started talking with her about all she had learned about sourdough and sharing cookbooks. “I read about the health benefits of sourdough and how it had more protein. I had no idea. I just thought it was cool bread.”
She tried pancakes, coffee cakes, bread and crackers. The bread wasn’t working out well, but the crackers were very successful. So successful that she started sharing them around. “I was in a CSA with Greg Hutchins of Heritage Farms and I took some crackers to him. I asked if he wanted to include them in the ‘add-ons’ he offered to his CSA clients and he said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
The timing was right. Gribbon was ready to leave the restaurant world. She started selling her crackers at farmers markets and that led to stores putting her crackers on their shelves. You can still find her on Saturday mornings at the Peachtree Road Farmers Market talking to customers and listening to their feedback. But you will also find her crackers on the shelves of 64 stores and the number is growing.
“I’ll hear, ‘My sister-in-law brought me these crackers and I want them in my store.’ That’s how we got started in retail stores. Lucy’s Market in Buckhead and Ancient Awakenings in Woodstock were two of my first retail customers. Local Provisions in downtown Newnan is another. That store is full of Georgia Grown products. Among the things in my favor is that there aren't a lot of people who make crackers.”
Another thing in her favor is her crackers’ clean ingredient list. The Sea Salt crackers have just four ingredients: King Arthur organic baker’s classic flour, grass-fed butter, sunflower seed oil and sea salt.
In Georgia Sourdough’s shared kitchen space in PREP Atlanta in Chamblee, Gribbon and team start work early. “We pretty much have about 60 liters of starter going all the time. We’ll use about 30 in production, and then feed it and let it sit, eat and do its thing. The other 60 liters are waiting for the next day’s baking.”
They cream melted butter with sourdough starter in a 60-quart mixer, then add the rest of the ingredients. They need to make two of these big batches of dough for all the crackers they produce each day.
The dough is divided and then rolled out to fit on a sheet tray. The women flattening the dough with silicone rolling pins make it look easy, but a day’s production of 300 full sheet trays is hard work. The rolled out dough is cut with a pizza cutter and docked to reduce puffing, then the sheet trays slide into one of the four baker’s convection ovens that line one side of the kitchen. Those 300 sheet trays will give them enough crackers to fill 250 bags each baking day.
Gribbon thinks of her three original flavors - Sea Salt, Cheese and Everything - as primary colors. Now she’s thinking about adding “shading and pastels” as she works on perhaps a flavor that blends herbs and olive oil or gluten-free crackers using brown rice flour or even creating a new seasoning mix, in addition to her house-mixed "everything," to dust the crackers.
As she looks to grow her offerings she reflects on what it takes to succeed in the food business. She warns that it’s hard. “There are a lot of deep valleys and steep hills. You have to keep going. One thing that’s worked for me is that I’ve been lucky in what I call my ‘ignorance.’ I really didn’t know what I was getting into. But I took small steps and didn’t talk myself out of something because my website wasn’t perfect and I didn’t have logo pens to hand out. Listen to what your customers are saying and get where you can.”