Executive Profile: Jeff Renner, owner, Best French Bread in Town
Though his business' name boasts that it's "The Best French Bread in Town," owner Jeff Renner's beginnings were humble.
"I made bread as a little kid, standard homemade bread. My grandma taught me,” the Scio Township resident said. “She had arthritis and couldn’t make it anymore, but the family loved it, and I was interested.”
By high school, Renner had lost interest in making bread, but as an adult, the baking bug bit him again.
Renner said he had more time for exploration when he was in graduate school in the early 1970s.
“I taught myself at that time to make good bread,” he said. When he finished graduate school, he spent a summer in Europe, and he said the food and drink he discovered there was “inspiring.” He also was inspired by Julia Child’s 2-volume “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
Renner said he combined Child’s bread recipe with a recipe that came with a French bread pan he purchased from a local store called Kitchen Port, added some innovations of his own and came up with the recipe he still uses today.
At first, as a stay-at-home dad of two children, he made 8 baguettes at a time and sold them at school bake sales.
“And then, people began to ask me to make the bread for them even when there was no bake sale," he said. "After doing that for a year or more, I realized I had the makings of an at-home business if I wanted.”
He started by giving away samples and business cards at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market, and shortly, he had a mailing list of more than 200 individual customers. Over the years, Renner moved his bakery business from his home kitchen to a more professional bakery space in his attached garage and added second-hand professional equipment.
As his children grew up, he began baking year round and picked up some commercial accounts. He still baked for a few individuals, but orders from the Village Corner and Fresh Seasons made up most of his business. When Fresh Seasons closed in October, Arbor Farms almost immediately picked up the account.
“I’ve been selling as much as I can make,” Renner said.
Renner said he feels lucky his wife is tolerant of their arrangement. She works for the University of Michigan Hospital, and he supplements that income with his bread business. He said the success of the bread business has also been a lucky stroke.
“This is not what I thought I was going to do when I grew up,” he said. “I haven’t had a life plan or a business plan, and it’s all worked out very well.”
He said his least favorite expression is when someone says, “knowing my luck” and then follows it up with some dire prediction.
“With my luck, something good is going to happen. It’s all about outlook, he said. "We have modest tastes and enough money to be happy. How does that saying go? You can’t always get what you want, but you can want what you get.”
Education: Bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Michigan; Master’s degree in biology from Eastern Michigan University.
Family: Wife of 41 years, Nancy; son Matt and daughter Emily; two grandchildren, Zoey, 3, and Owen, 11 weeks.
Residence: Scio Township.
Best business decision: To resist offers of partnership or expansion and to stay small scale and low stress. Thanks to Nancy for supporting this.
Worst business decision: I haven't made any bad decisions that I know of.
Best way to keep a competitive edge: Have a great product, deal with people fairly and be friendly.
How do you motivate people? I have enough trouble motivating myself.
What advice would you give to yourself in college? Major in what you think about when walking across campus. Aside from sex, that is. You are going to spend more time with yourself than anyone with else, so study what will make you an interesting person to yourself.
Word that best describes you: Gregarious.
First Web site you check in the morning: The Arlo and Janis comic strip.
What keeps you up at night? Happily, nothing. I'm not a worrier by nature.
Pet peeve: Bad use of the English language in print by people who should know better.
Guilty pleasure: The Internet.
First job: Mowing neighbors’ lawns as a kid, then busboy in high school.
First choice for a new career: In the next life, a university professor.
Favorite cause: Social justice and the environment.
Favorite book: The last book I read was “The Deal Maker: How William C. Durant Made General Motors.”
Favorite movie: “The Big Sleep” with Bogart and Bacall.
Favorite hobby: Home brewing of fine beers.
Favorite restaurant: Arbor Brewing Company.
LinkedIn, Facebook or Twitter? Facebook
Typical Saturday: Lazy day with Nancy, except when household chores intervene, starting with a leisurely breakfast doing the NY Times Crossword together. Having dinner with friends.
What team do you root for? Michigan.
Wheels: 2000 Ford Focus wagon, 2008 Honda Fit.
Sarah Rigg is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to AnnArbor.com.