Way back in 1980, Keith Nikkel and his wife, Dianne, moved from the Bay Area to Truckee in search of a simpler life. They bought the Ponderosa Deli that operated for years on downtown Donner Pass Road where Best Pies Pizza currently resides, making gourmet sandwiches for locals and visitors alike.
“At some point back in early 90s, the artisan bread movement was really getting going,” says Nikkel. “I had a passion for good food. I knew better bread was available, just not here.”
It had been several years earlier when Nikkel first started experimenting with his own sourdough recipes in the back kitchen.
“It was all about trial and error,” he says. “There wasn’t the Internet, Google or YouTube. There weren’t even many books about it. People were really tightlipped about their formulas. They wouldn’t let you near their bakeries. I found a couple of paragraphs in some cookbooks and started playing around with it. I filled up my Dumpster many times before I got it going.”
Eventually Nikkel was able to create a successful master starter of flour, water and yeast spores from Napa Valley grapes.
“If you go to the grocery store and see the dusty grey powder on grapes, those are wild yeast spores,” he explains. “This bacteria gives you the sour flavor and the yeast to cause the bread to rise.”
Truckee Sourdough Company is still using the original mother starter that Nikkel mixed more than 20 years ago, feeding it several times a day to provide fodder for the bread.
“Nowadays you can go online and people will tell you exactly how to do it,” he says. “I was trailblazing back then. We started selling out of the deli. People would drive from Carson City to pick up the bread, so I knew we were on to something. We sold at the local farmers’ market and it was really well received. I’d never been inside a bakery, but we built one, finding people to sell us the right kinds of equipment. It all started out in one room.”
Meanwhile, Nikkel was knocking on doors to get his breads into local grocery stores.
“We started at Lucky’s, the grocery store where SaveMart is now,” he says. “Then I went to Safeway and told them, ‘Your employees are coming over here to buy my bread. Don’t you want it in here?’ Once I was in those corporate stores, it kept growing. From there it was word of mouth. The product truly sells itself.”
Nowadays, Truckee Sourdough is served in more 60 restaurants around the Tahoe Sierra and nearly 200 grocery stores from Western Nevada to Susanville, Lake Amador, Chico, Sacramento and all the to Marin County. Every night they send out 16 trucks to make early-morning deliveries throughout the region. The only days they don’t deliver are on Thanksgiving and Christmas.
The Baking Process
Truckee Sourdough’s production process is a wonder to behold. Inside the sizeable building on West River Street, it looks more like a well-tuned factory than what most people would envision as a local bakery.
To keep business moving on time, Nikkel’s employees start mixing 200 to 300 pounds of dough around 3 a.m. At 5 a.m. there is crew of production workers shaping the dough. They put this raw bread into fruit boxes or freezers to help it rise or cool. In the late morning they start baking.
By then an additional crew has arrived to do the slicing and packaging of the product. In the late afternoon, they start organizing orders to be delivered to the 600 to 700 daily customers overnight. All in all, the company employs between 60 and 70 workers from the area to a make this happen.
“We have one family where the mother, the father, three daughters, one son, one cousin and their husbands and wives all work here,” says Nikkel. “We have some people who have worked here so long that their kids are working here now.”
Full-time employees and supervisors receive health-care benefits and vacation time while Nikkel’s two sons, his wife and a fiancé make up the management of the company.
“Our payroll certainly contributes to local economy in significant way, but in the end, we are really just a family-run business. It’s difficult for small businesses like us to compete with the corporations since they’ve got a lot deeper pockets, but we do what we can,” Nikkel says. | truckeesourdough.com