Written by Sam Prager
Photographed by Bethany Reid
Enthusiastic is one word to describe Hustle & Dough’s Ali Rohrbacher, whose initial goal to make sandwiches at home to save money led her to become a head baker and chef nearly five years later at one of the city’s most exciting new eateries.
Hustle & Dough, which proudly boasts itself as Memphis’ first sourdough bakery, resides within the lobby of the Arrive Hotel, a new boutique hotel located on South Main.
The concept behind the bakery has very humble beginnings. It started as a hobby of Rohrbacher’s, before evolving into a passion project, a blog, a catering side-gig and eventually a full-fledged career.
Through books, video tutorials and practice, Rohrbacher taught herself the nuances of baking and “talked” her way into a career.
“I was born and raised here in Memphis, but my parents are transplants who are both from the Northeast. So, I wasn’t raised in a Southern family. As far as food, I don’t have a cultural culinary heritage, but I like to say I have a dessert heritage. My family highly prioritized desserts and pastries. My parents were hard core about having 100 percent maple syrup and homemade whipped cream. People here eat table syrup and Cool Whip, so as a young child I understood the importance of quality ingredients, but I didn’t grow up in a family of cooks. My mom cooked dinner and stuff but nobody cooked as a profession. I never even had any aspirations to work in this industry. My first job in high school was at Central BBQ on Summer Avenue, which I worked at for about a year. After that I told myself I would never work in a restaurant again. Well, look at me now!” she laughs.
After graduating from high school Rohrbacher left Memphis to attend The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington.
“As far as a career I really had no idea what I was going to do for the rest of my life, but my dad just really wanted me to go to college, graduate on time and get a degree. I love reading and arguing, and I was really good at reading and arguing about books, so I thought I’d study literature,” Rohrbacher explains. “But I had no aspirations to be a teacher. I knew I definitely didn’t want to be a teacher. Ironically, I’m teaching people every day now and constantly having to reteach and continue teaching myself things so that I can teach my staff even more.”
After earning her degree, Rohrbacher left Washington and moved back to Memphis in 2012. An attempt to be frugal led the graduate down a very different career path than she has imagined.
“When I came back to Memphis my ex-boyfriend and I were ordering Garibaldi’s meatball subs twice a week for delivery. It was adding up and we weren’t making very good money at the time. I had already started cooking stuff from scratch and could make pretty good meatballs, but I didn’t know how to make rolls. So, I thought to myself, ‘If I could figure out how to make these soft rolls then we wouldn’t have to spend so much money on Garibaldi’s every week!’” she laughs. “So, I literally made a roll that was out of “The Joy of Cooking.” I struggled through it and made some rolls and they were OK, but they weren’t as good as Garibaldi’s. But they were good enough to put meatballs on. I was like, ‘Damn those rolls were ugly. I need to try and make them again.’ So, I made them a couple of more times. I made some larger ones. I made some with garlic cloves on top. So, on. Eventually I got this book called “Bread Revolution” by Peter Reinhart. It’s about sprouted flour baking and full-grain baking which, in the book, he postulates is the new frontier of American baking.”
As a highly competitive perfectionist, Rohrbacher’s mission to simply recreate a Garibaldi’s meatball sub led her down a rabbit hole of flour, yeast and sourdough. She began teaching herself one of the most complex and complicated sectors of the culinary industry.
“Part of that book was about culturing a sourdough starter. I followed the steps and made one. The process took about a week. I was struggling to do some of those recipes, and I was becoming incredibly frustrated every time, but it only encouraged me to try harder the next time. I have a very competitive personality type, especially with myself. During this time, I was running every day and was tracking my time to make sure I was doing better every day. My bread hobby ended up taking over and replaced my running hobby,” she laughs. “Anyway, I was struggling because sprouted flour is totally different than bread flour. Sprouted seeds are plants, they’re not grains anymore. So, all of this enzyme activity happens differently. It’s all different on a molecular structure. So, quite literally they are different animals. We, not literally, but metaphorically. So, I’m struggling, struggling, and struggling some more. I end up becoming infuriated with just how much of a mess everything is and how nothing is coming out the way I wanted it to. I was at the grocery store one day and thought that I might as well buy a bag of bread flour. I ended up mixing about half and half bread and sprouted flour thinking maybe that would help and it worked. I had been constantly struggling for three months on a daily basis with this bread, but I realized once it worked that I had built this baking intuition and had started to actually understand fermentation cycles. I had built all of these skills just by struggling with sprouted flour. I was like, ‘Oh my god. I had fucked up for so long.’ I had struggled so hard that I had become obsessed with figuring it out and I just need to add bread flour. It was the most ridiculous, roundabout way of finding a passion, hobby, and eventually a career.”
During this time Rohrbacher was working two office jobs. However, her passion for bread would end up becoming more of a third job than a hobby.
“Every morning I would wake up early and bake bread. I’d go to my day job and my night job and then come home and bake more bread. Eventually I started making so much bread that I started giving it away to all my friends because it was too much for me and boyfriend to eat. Then all of the sudden they all went on this Paleo diet and were like, ‘Stop giving us bread! We can’t eat anymore bread! Seriously stop!’” she laughs. “But by that point I was hooked on baking bread. I couldn’t stop, so I had to figure out something to do with all my bread. I ended up making this Instagram account doing like a bread subscription for people.”
Together with a friend whose hobby was photography, Rohrbacher took her bread hobby to the next level. She began blogging about bread and started a website called Hustle & Dough, which was the beginning of the bakery she runs today. The name, she adds, came from crowd-sourcing name ideas from friends on social media and the winner won a lot of free bread.
“I just got super interested in reading about grains, and I realized, at the end of the day, it’s about the grains. So, I ordered a German-made tabletop stone mill that’s encased in beech- wood. It’s actually quite beautiful. So, I bought this when I was just starting out and I began buying grains in bulk. I was living in a studio apartment and basically half of apartment had become a bakery. So, I was like, ‘I’ve got to start a side hustle because I’m spending all of my money on bread,” she laughs. “Basically, I started to offer monthly or weekly bread subscriptions. It pretty much was a guarantee that I knew at least some of the bread I was baking would go to people. I would literally bake one loaf of bread at a time in my apartment’s electric oven with a Dutch oven inside of it. When the bread was ready, I would run down my three flights of stairs and hand the bread to my customer who was waiting outside. They’d Venmo me like $5, and then I’d run back upstairs to bake another loaf for the next person. I was spending my whole weekends selling bread like this for about a year, all while still working two other jobs. At that point I knew I needed to talk my way into a commercial kitchen. I couldn’t teach myself any more or learn any more within the space of my apartment.”
In 2015 Rohrbacher connected with Chef Elijah Townsend at Caritas Village and managed to secure a volunteer exchange opportunity. In exchange for making pastries for special events and catering orders, she was allowed to use their kitchen on Sundays when the restaurant was closed. This allowed the baker to start taking small-scale wholesale orders for local cafes, such as City & State on Broad.
From there, Rohrbacher landed a head baker position with City & State’s sister restaurant, The Liquor Store. Though short lived, that opportunity led to a position with Fuel Cafe and eventually a full-time position baking for the Crosstown Arts Commission in the Crosstown Concourse.
This was her first introduction to a Deck Oven, which Rohrbacher describes as “an oven invented to replicate all of the best parts of baking in a hearth oven, but with electricity.” While at Crosstown, she was still doing side order for Hustle & Dough as well. However, being able to work with equipment of that caliber was a game changer for the baker.
“Pretty much everything I had learned was from reading books and watching countless YouTube videos and then doing it myself. So, having the opportunity at Crosstown to work with these ovens was a huge thing for me. Literally my whole goal was that I was working overtime at multiple part-time jobs to save money so that I could leave Memphis to facilitate further training at more established bakeries around the country, but what I was able to do was stay in Memphis and continue self-training on this equipment.
“I continued to practice every day and incorporate what I wanted to learn into the program that I was running at Crosstown. Eventually I became the ‘head baker’ and got to run the bakery by myself. I was also the only person on my team. It was a lot of work, but it gave me a lot of freedom to do whatever I want without the redundancies of having to teach people and schedule and so on. I was able to just plug myself in as a baker and test my capacity to produce things. I was also taking on a few side gigs baking for catering companies. I was spending a lot of time baking, but I was able to test my capacity and see what I could really do. Ultimately, I wanted to figure out if baking was even something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, but I was able to meet all of the challenges head on. It was a test I was giving myself, and it proved to me that this is absolutely what I should be doing,” explains Rohrbacher.
While working at Crosstown, Rohrbacher received a message from the would-be manager of the Arrive Hotel. He had reached out to her saying that the Arrive Hotel, a new boutique hotel that would be opening in Memphis later that year, was interested in opening a bakery and would like to meet with her.
Rohrbacher, who was certainly happy with her current position at Crosstown Arts, assumed they were interested in some consulting or contractual work.
To prepare for the meeting, Rohrbacher brought was she describes as a modest sample of her work: several baguettes, a loaf of fresh country sourdough, English muffins, several other pastries, but nothing “too fancy.”
“I never thought it was going to turn into anything other than maybe taking some time to meet with people to talk about bread. Which I’m always down for,” she laughs. “But in the meeting, I realized very quickly that it was an interview and that they were looking for someone to run the hotel’s bakery. We ended up having very similar opinions on different bakeries across the country. They told me about their background and it just so happened that our opinions about a lot of things matched up pretty well. Which made me pretty excited from a conversation standpoint, but I could tell that it was vibing in a way that was pretty encouraging as far as this being a potential employment opportunity. I told them I would never ever take on the full-scale responsibility of opening a bakery or teach a whole team without the opportunity to learn from some of those other prestigious bakeries we had talked about. I know myself, I know my limits, and I know that that would be too much to ask with my current experience. I had really just started working with the equipment. I was finally making bread that I was truly happy with, but that doesn’t mean that I was ready to start sourdough bakery without learning from sourdough bakers. They literally started laughing. They’re were like. Oh no. If you take this job, we’re going to be sending you to stage at some of the best sourdough bakeries in the country.’ In that very moment I was like ‘Okay. I will accept whatever offer you give me because my life just changed in a single moment and I can’t believe this is happening. Holy shit.”
Right after the meeting concluded, Rohrbacher was taken on a tour of what would become the Arrive Hotel, which had already been completely gutted. She was shown the blueprints of the kitchen and accepted the job.
She left her position at Crosstown and began staging at some of the most reputable bakeries around the country. For those of you unfamiliar with the term, staging is similar to an unpaid internship for restaurants, in exchange for experience you work for high-end restaurants or bars, generally, for free. Rohrbacher staged at Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York, at both Jordan Kahn’s Destroyer and the Lodge Bread Company in Los Angeles, and at the San Francisco Baking Institute and Josey Baker’s, The Mill.
On November 1st, 2019 the Arrive Hotel and Memphis’ first sourdough bakery, Hustle & Dough, opened to the public.
“Basically because of Arrive Hotel my five-year-plan was shortened into six months. I never thought I was going to get an opportunity like this. I never thought I’d be able to open a sourdough bakery in Memphis. I always thought that I would have to leave to be able to do anything like this. I never thought I would have the opportunity to run a bakery, much less in Memphis, Tennessee. Especially at such a pivotal time where there is so much culinary growth in the city. And I get to be a contributing factor to that? I get to make great bread and share it with the people in Memphis? It wasn’t even a part of my 5-year plan to be doing this, but I’m super psyched that it’s a part of my this-year-plan. I think it’s a great opportunity for me and it’s a great opportunity for Memphis. I’m just plugging myself in and doing the labor. I’ve got that. I was already doing this at home, but now I’m getting paid to do it. It’s incredible.”
Rohrbacher plans on continuing to perfect her craft and push the city’s bread forward. You can visit Hustle & Dough at 477 S. Main from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily.
“There’s no such thing as bad bread. Some bread is just better than other bread,” Rohrbacher laughs.