When Erin Hill finished high school in 2000, she thought about going to college but couldn’t figure out what to study. While taking general classes at Kellogg Community College, she worked at a bookstore for a year and didn’t like it. Then she worked at a bakery and found her thing.
“At the time, it was really stressful, because most people go to college right away. I felt like, ‘I can’t figure out what I want to do with my life!’ You feel like you’re behind. But in the long run it was the right thing to do,” Hill says with a mirthful chirp of a laugh.
Hill is sitting at a long stainless-steel table in the industrial kitchen of The Bakewell Co., the small business she owns in Kalamazoo that employs up to 21 people in the summer, making 2,000 quiches a week to sell at 14 farmers’ markets from Holland to Marshall.
Hill, who is 35 and lives in Climax, grew up in Battle Creek as the oldest of four kids. Her parents were hobby farmers who sold poultry and pork and eggs from pasture-raised chickens to friends and family before they started selling their Pleasant Hill Farm products at the Battle Creek Farmers' Market 16 years ago.
Hill started Bakewell in 2009 by bringing a few quiches to market to sell to her parents’ customers. She sold out the first day.
At the time, she wanted to start a full-scale bakery selling cakes and pastries as well as quiche. But while the sweets she later brought to markets languished on her parents’ table there, people got continually excited about the quiches.
“Nobody else sells quiche exclusively in all the markets we’ve been to,” Hill says. “Somebody might have one or two, but nobody else specializes in it like we do.”
That’s her theory for the popularity of her quiche. The ingredients she uses can’t hurt either. Two favorite quiches are the Sausage, Cheddar and Chive and the Goat Cheese, Spinach and Roasted Red Pepper. The Butternut Squash with Sausage and Tomato Preserves is another scrumptious option, as is the Potato and Caramelized Onion with Brie and Smoked Gouda.
A small Bakewell quiche for one person sells for $6. A medium quiche, which will serve two to three people, is $12, and a large, which can serve up to six, is $20.
The shape of Hill’s quiches are also just unusual enough to stand out at farmers’ markets. Baked in tart rings called entremet rings, the quiches aren’t sloped like traditional pies but rather have vertical edges with a tidy, modern look.
Hill got the idea for the quiches’ unique shape from a job she had after she graduated from the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College in 2004. She worked six months at Gleneagles Hotel, a five-star luxury hotel, spa and golf resort in Scotland, where she spent half of her time in the fine-dining kitchen as a line cook and the other half in the pastry kitchen producing desserts. The hotel served a chocolate tart Hill loved, made by putting a shortbread crust into entremet rings and then filling it with rich dark chocolate — a process not unlike placing vegetables and meat into an all-butter crust and then filling it with eggs and cream.
The tidy shape, which makes Bakewell’s small quiche look like a big hockey puck full of fluffy goodness, often draws people in, according to Hill.
“When people don’t know what we’re selling right away, that helps us have a conversation,” she says. “People guess we’re selling cheese or pizza. They’ll ask what we’re selling, which helps us engage them as they’re walking by.”
For ingredients, Hill and her team source everything as locally as possible, getting meat from her parents’ farm, butter from a Michigan dairy supplier based in Kalamazoo, and vegetables from vendors at the farmers’ markets where Bakewell sells quiches.
“We go loaded with quiche and come back loaded with vegetables,” Hill’s younger sister Andrea, 33, says. A former nurse, Andrea has been working for her older sister full time for the past two years.
“I’ve been bossing her around my whole life,” Hill jokes.
“She’s the boss, and I’m the minion,” Andrea jokes back.
In the summer, Erin tends to stay in the kitchen. She says it’s challenging to run the business that way. That’s where Andrea comes in. “I do the odd jobs that have to get done,” Andrea says. “I’ll call people back and go run and get stuff.”
The sisters' easygoing relationship and gentle camaraderie make it easy to imagine Bakewell as a fun place to work.
Andrea is also a firefighter for Newton and Climax townships. “There’s been a few times when my pager goes off and I run out the door. Erin’s like, ‘Whoa, come back here!’” Andrea says, laughing. “I come back eventually.”
In addition to her sister, Hill has two other employees who work part time during the winter. One rolls out crust and makes quiche; the other creates marketing materials.
On market days in the summer, Hill’s day starts sometime between midnight and 2 a.m. She tries to get home around 6 p.m. on Fridays so she can get some sleep before turning around and coming into work.
“Fridays are kind of a crazy day for us,” she says, explaining that they start baking for Saturday on Thursday. “So Thursday and Friday we’re doing a lot of baking, and then stuff has to be packaged and divided up to go out to all those markets.”
Andrea arrives later in the day on Friday to start the packaging, and the sisters often pass each other. “About the time I come in at midnight, Andrea leaves,” Hill says, “and then I work the rest of the night.”
Employees arrive at 5 a.m. on Saturdays to load freezers full of quiche into minivans for delivery to the markets.
Hill would like to figure out how to expand her business throughout the year. She’s looking toward online sales, increasing cold shipping to customers throughout the U.S., and possibly opening a retail space selling full-scale bakery items, as she first imagined.
While quiche makes up 90 percent of Bakewell’s sales, the company also produces bread pudding, brownies and pot pies. It also makes small, traditional English treats called Bakewells — tarts with a shortbread crust and almond filling and a little bit of jam at the bottom — which sell for $1. Hill discovered the classic treat, named for an English town, during her stay in Scotland and chose the name for her business because of the quality the name suggests.
“They’re kind of addictive,” Andrea admits. “You start eating one and think, ‘I need a couple more.’”