When Kate Pepper split with her partner, she was left with nothing. To make ends meet, she began baking rustic breads that have since won her a loyal following and a thriving business.
Kate Pepper grabs her large wooden peel and shifts some bread around her oven using the shovel-like tool. Despite its racks on racks of rising sourdough loaves, it's not a bread oven.
"It's an old pizza oven from LA somewhere. It's really finicky with the baking," Pepper said of her Craigslist find. "It was a thousand bucks, though—you couldn't beat it."
It's hard to imagine a dreamier place for a bakery. String lights dangle from lush trees around the woodshop-turned-bakeshop in a quiet Ojai, California residential neighborhood. It looks straight out of Sunset magazine.
It's a picturesque setting, but it is not how Pepper pictured her life turning out. The bakeshop is located at her parent's house, where she lives with her daughter, Frances. She used to live in the house right next door with her long-term partner until the pair split.
"It kind of fell apart five years ago. We have a little girl, she just turned eight. When she was three years old, he kind of quit on us, so I was out," Pepper said. "I walked out of the 12-year relationship with nothing. It was his house, his business, his everything."
Pepper moved back into her childhood bedroom and tried to figure out how to support her family.
"You hit a certain point in your life and things happen and you have to reevaluate your beliefs and how you thought your life was going to go, and then you just have to put your head down and start working," she said.
"When I left, I had this three-year-old and three part time jobs. I was working for a catering company as a waitress, I was working at a nursery, I was working in the back kitchen at The Farmer and the Cook downtown. Ten bucks an hour."
Between her chaotic employment situation and splitting custody with her ex, Pepper was hardly seeing her daughter and wanted to find a better way to earn a living. She decided to give baking a shot.
"My bread has been something I've been doing for a long time," she said. "My mother always cooked a ton of stuff and baked everything from scratch—she's amazing. So I just have learned over the years."
Pepper had a little experience baking professionally. She baked bread for her ex's community-supported agriculture program. To take things to the next level, she studied Chad Robertson's Tartine Bread cookbook and picked up shifts at Milo + Olive in Los Angeles, where her brother worked as a chef.
"I was able to go down there for about a six-month stretch just one day a week," Pepper said. She would drive from Ojai to LA and work three shifts in 24 hours. First, she'd hit a 12-to-8 o'clock shift. After getting some sleep, she'd work the 3-to-11 o'clock shift, followed by a 12-to-8. Then it was time to drive back to Ojai.
"I learned about scaling up, bulking, and expanding, how to work in a kitchen," she said of her time at Milo + Olive.
"It's been quite a process," she said. "I started out with nothing. I got this crazy weird rack fridge, I got this oven. I pieced together what I had and it's slowly grown."
What started slowly three years ago has taken off rapidly. She sells her baked goods from her home bakery on Fridays and Sundays, as well as the Patagonia Farm Stand every Thursday in nearby Ventura, California. Because customers can order through her website ahead of time, Pepper usually sells out the night before.
Social media has been a game-changer for the single mother. Pepper amassed more than 18,000 followers on Instagram, leading to positive IRL opportunities.
"The Instagram took off and hooked me up with people in the bread industry," Pepper said. "I've been able to meet a bunch of them and work with some of them which has been incredible. I spent some time at Tartine, which was awesome."
Though she's learned valuable information through stages at Tartine or Chez Panisse, not everything works back at home in Ojai. The Bay Area climate is completely different from Southern California's, which matters for something as temperature-sensitive as bread dough. As Ojai sits in a valley in the Topatopa Mountains, Pepper is constantly adjusting to the swinging temperatures, not to mention her family life.
"If my bread is a little different every day, it's because I couldn't get to it fast enough that night because I had to put Fran to bed, or we had to do homework, or we had an event to go to," she said. "Everything I'm doing is going to be a little bit off, or a little bit different."
Pepper calls her work "beyond rustic."
"My stuff is just wild, and I hope it stays that way," she said. "I want it to be a sort of contained feral wildness where there's a simplicity to it and a feeling to it that's me."
Pepper has outgrown her bakeshop and hopes to open a business in town. The only thing stopping her is the financial challenge of renting a space in affluent Ojai. "It's really hard to find something that's affordable so I have to look for investors in some way."
Expansion frustrations aside, Kate's Bread continues to thrive.
"I didn't ever think I was going to be a baker—not my thing. That was not something I saw in the cards for myself. But, it just so happened that that's the thing I fell into. It's good," she said.
"I complain, as we all do, but I couldn't be happier with this business and how people have responded to it. It's been so perfect. I know I'm on the right path."