Suffolk lawyer's bread business rising
Robert Biancavilla's love of forensic science has fueled his 26-year law career, spent mostly as a homicide prosecutor. Now his passion for another science, one involving the orchestration of salt, water, yeast and flour, has opened the doors to another calling: artisan baker.
"I love the chemistry of bread baking for the reasons I love forensics and DNA as a prosecutor," said Biancavilla, 58, a Suffolk County assistant district attorney. "It's harnessing the natural yeast and using that to create these beautiful loaves of bread."
This month, Biancavilla launched Duck Island Bread Co., a Northport wholesale operation producing about a dozen types of bread and pastries from scratch. While his job as a prosecutor remains his top priority, after he retires he hopes to grow his baking operation from a rented commercial kitchen to a storefront.
Baby boomers busting out
Biancavilla joins the growing ranks of baby-boomer entrepreneurs, often finding their passions or economic aspirations in businesses far afield from their original professions. In 2011, 55- to 64-year-olds made up 20.3 percent of new entrepreneurs nationwide, up from 14.3 percent in 1996, according to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, an organization that fosters entrepreneurship.
And Biancavilla is not the only one from a background outside the culinary world to be seduced by making bread.
Jeffrey Hamelman, director of the bakery at Vermont's King Arthur Flour Co. and an instructor at its baking school in Norwich, Vt., said he often sees older students who come from other professions.
"How many people spend eight hours a day in front of the computer screen and don't see anything tangible at the end of the day?" he said. Bread baking "can be a profoundly affecting act because you can put your arms around the whole thing, and you can't always do that with your white-collar work."
Biancavilla makes all his products -- from olive bread to pain au chocolat -- by hand, often using natural yeast cultures he grows himself. He eschews additives and taste enhancers, relying instead on an often lengthy fermentation process to give his breads their natural flavors.
His products are sold at Northport's Caffe Portofino and the Northport Farmers Market. At his recent debut at the farmers market, he sold all 150 loaves of bread -- priced from $3.50 to $6.50 -- in the first two hours and all his pastries by the market's close at 1 p.m. The next week, his sales doubled.
Biancavilla, who has always enjoyed cooking, fell hard for baking bread three years ago after a six-day artisan bread baking workshop at the French Culinary Institute in New York. Since then he has spent most of his weekends and vacations taking workshops and classes at places like King Arthur's Baking Education Center. His start-up costs, including his education expenses, were about $12,500, he said.
"There's such a calm or peace you get from creating something," Biancavilla said. "We take salt, water and a natural leavening agent and we take flour, and basically what you do is coax the goodness out of it."
But make no mistake. Learning the art of baking bread takes patience, Biancavilla said. His first creations were "frightening."
He works about 14 hours a week in the kitchen, producing about 300 loaves of bread and a variety of pastries.
"There's a big commitment from my wife and daughter because they have to put up with me," said Biancavilla, who also teaches law at night at Hofstra University's law school. "You can't open a small business without a family's commitment."
And running that business takes another set of skills and preparation, said Matthew Sonfield, a Hofstra University professor of management. "Just because it's fun and you think you have a skill in this field doesn't mean you're going to be successful starting a small business," he said. "You have to do major amounts of homework analyzing markets, analyzing competition and [making] cash-flow projections."
When the time comes to open his own shop, Biancavilla will have to invest in labor and equipment like a hearth oven, which can cost more than $60,000. Even then, he doesn't envision a large operation.
"My focus is on making a reasonable profit," he said, "and a really terrific product."
At a glance
Duck Island Bread Co., Northport
Owner (and sole baker): Robert Biancavilla
Production:300 loaves of bread a week, plus some pastries