In nearly a century in business, Joan Thomas said, the Framingham Baking Company has never raised prices more than once a year. This year, though, is different. Different because in the 90 years since the bakery opened, it's never seen flour prices more than double in three months.
In nearly a century in business, Joan Thomas said, the Framingham Baking Company has never raised prices more than once a year.
This year, though, is different.
Different because in the 90 years since the bakery opened, it's never seen flour prices more than double in three months.
"It's doubled since Christmas," Thomas, the bakery's owner, said this week. "It's crazy. It was $27 for a 100-pound bag at Christmas, now it's $55.75.
"We just raise prices. A loaf of bread was $1.90, we raised it to $2.25. That's something I've never done in 90 years, but basically that's only covering that increase in flour. To pay our bills we had no choice, we had to go up on our prices," Thomas said.
Bakers are finding themselves in similar predicaments, as a world-wide shortage of wheat - the grain most flour is made from - drives prices to virtually unheard-of highs.
The cause of the shortage?
An unusual confluence of smaller-than-usual harvest, foreign drought and a growing number of farmers abandoning wheat in favor of subsidized crops, particularly corn, which is used to produce ethanol.
"Two years ago, I didn't think I'd be talking about this," American Bakers Association Robb MacKie said this week, of the price spike. "It really is a combination of things."
For starters, MacKie said, there's simply less wheat to go around.
Following weak crops in Australia and Europe, China and other developing Asian nations turned to the U.S. crop to meet their demand, but found the weakest U.S. harvest in more than a half-century.
At the same time, MacKie said, many farmers who once grew wheat have turned to a new cash crop - corn.
"There's a finite amount of acreage that can go into food production," he said. "We're burning more and more of that in our gas tank rather than putting it on our tables."
While MacKie hopes to see the situation ease with a winter wheat harvest that's predicted to be good, he worried whether many bakers would be able to survive much longer.
"We are at a 25-day surplus stock of wheat," he said. "Typically, we're at three months. We're operating without a safety net, so any blip at all, and we're in a world of hurt."
For many small bakers, they're already there.
"The prices are going crazy," said Sid Brasil, manager of Silva's Bakery in Hudson. "We used to pay $18 for 100 pounds, now it's $57. We raised prices, but we cannot increase them more than that, because the customers are not going to buy. It's very hard right now."
"It used to be, it would go up 10 cents, or 25 cents, but then it would back down," said Michael Rhoads, owner of B&R Artisan Bread in Framingham. "(But) last July I started noticing it was going up every time I ordered it, and it was going up by a dollar or two every time. That was pretty unprecedented in my decade as a baker."
Sensing a price spike was in the offing, Rhoads did something many other bakers thought was foolish - he negotiated a contract with his flour supplier to buy the product at a set price.
"No one was signing contracts," he said. "I'm lucky ... my rep was telling everyone to sign a contract, and I said, 'Sure, I'll get in on that.' "
Many other bakers, though, haven't been as fortunate.
"I've gotten to buy a lot of used equipment in the last year, and that's because a lot of places have gone out of business," Rhoads said.
Even larger bakeries are feeling the cost crunch.
"It's on my mind all the time," said Jack Rush, owner of Mazzarelli's Bakery in Milford. "Thank God we're wholesale. I'm sure these smaller guys are getting killed. If you're a small bakery depending on walk-in business, you're in deep."
Last June, Rush paid $15.75 for 100 pounds of flour. Today, he said, the price is $57.
"It costs me almost $1,000 a day, just in flour," he said.
After 90 years in business, Thomas hopes she can keep the Framingham bakery open, but admits she worries how she'll make ends meet if prices go much higher.
"That's what I'm afraid of," she said. "With 90 years behind me, maybe I'll be able to (get by,) but if I was a new business, I would never be able to make it."
As the fourth generation of her family to run the bakery, Thomas is luckier than many other bakery owners, but still has trouble making ends meet.
"My mother owns the building, but sometimes she still doesn't get the rent check," she admitted. "The checkbook runs in the red every week.
"I'm hoping we can make it. I don't know how much more I can go up on bread. But we've got a good reputation and a lot of faithful customers. We made it through one depression, let's hope we can make it through another."
Peter Reuell can be reached at 508-626-4428, or at email@example.com.