After years as a pastry chef and consultant, Ricky Webster used COVID-19 to make himself the client. The result is his Browne’s Addition bakery & cheese shop, Rind and Wheat.
Rind and Wheat
509.596.9900 | rindandwheat.com
1516 W Riverside Ave | Spokane, WA 99201
On Easter week, 2001, an eighteen-year-old Ricky Webster was elbow-deep in cookies and icing, baking and decorating dozens of cookies as an apprentice at a small bakery on New York’s Upper West Side. Soutine Bakery was a long-standing institution owned by renowned chef and food writer Ruth Reichl’s best friend, Madge Rosenberg, who was, herself, a celebrated figure in the neighborhood for her sweet confections. Several hours and countless strokes of royal icing later, Webster’s boss came in to check on his work. Dismayed by the inconsistencies in his decorating, Rosenberg picked up the trays of cookies and dumped them in the trash.
“That’s not how we do things here. You need to realize that you wasted an entire day on those. People who come in, they come for the same thing. It’s consistency, quality, and precision.” Devastated, Webster retreated to the back and washed stacks of dishes for an hour while he cried.
Rosenberg later apologized for her harshness, but Webster learned an important thing about himself that day. “At 18 years old, fresh out of high school and living by myself for the first time on the other side of the country from where I grew up, reality just got slammed into my face. And at that moment, I thought either I storm out and never come back, or I take what she said and pick myself up and start over again.” He came back the next day, with a better understanding of what it takes to run a thriving business. “I was just part of a bigger picture that I didn’t quite realize at first. I had to show up and do my job and work hard to get better at it.”
An education in musical theater was what Webster had moved to New York to pursue, but his time at Rosenberg’s bakery helped to grow his interest in the culinary arts, which was initially fostered by his parents at an early age. After he left the East Coast, he came home to California to work in retail while honing his cooking and baking skills at home. He worked at Home Depot, sold window coverings, then moved on to work at food chains like Jamba Juice and Panera Bread. The cumulative experience he gained from working a variety of jobs at such a young age helped to mold his business acumen, and while still working at Panera, he decided to take the leap to starting his own cookie company, Cookie Canvas, to satisfy both his need for a creative outlet and to be his own boss.
“Cookie Canvas was like the Ben & Jerry’s approach to cookies. You get to create cool flavor combinations.” Webster sold his cookies at Farmers’ Markets, and while he did have a base of loyal customers, he still ended up being thousands of dollars in the red at the end of his first year. Once again, he learned new – and hard – lessons about managing a business. “I didn’t really know what I was doing, but that was the best business school I could have ever attended.” Cookie Canvas sparked Webster’s dream of owning his own brick-and-mortar bakery someday, but the economic downturn of 2008 put a pause on that dream.
Webster decided to give acting one more try, so he moved to the Los Angeles area to find audition opportunities. At the same time, he was also offered more stable work in the baking industry as a pastry chef at Sweet & Savory Cafe in San Marino, and he subsequently got hired as a shop manager, helping to open a new organic bakeshop, Buttercelli, in Sherman Oaks. While at Buttercelli, Webster was noticed by the Food Network and was asked to join as a contestant in Cupcake Wars. He didn’t win that competition, but in the weeks spent as a contestant on the show, he learned important lessons about working well under pressure.
After Cupcake Wars, Webster was hired by famed pastry chef Duff Goldman to be executive sous chef at his new Southern California bakery, Cake Mix. Working at Cake Mix under the mentorship of Goldman, Webster was able to take his cake decorating skills even further, and when ACE Hotels hired him to become its Executive Pastry Chef in 2013, Webster was ready to bring some of his more ambitious pastry dreams to life.
Webster’s job at ACE Hotels brought him to the Inland Northwest, at the Red Lion Hotel near downtown Spokane. In June of 2017, he pitched the idea of creating a gingerbread house at the hotel lobby that guests can walk through. The life-sized gingerbread house became one of Spokane’s biggest holiday spectacles that year, raising over $5000 for “Blessings Under the Bridge,” and Webster’s talents once again drew the attention of Food Network producers.
In 2018, Webster joined, and won, Food Network’s Christmas Cookie Challenge, which came with a prize of $10,000, and in 2019, the Hallmark Channel tapped him as a contestant on their inaugural Christmas Cookie Matchup, which he also won, taking home $25,000.
When Spokane’s Red Lion Hotel changed ownership, Webster lost his Executive Pastry Chef job. But he was able to successfully interview with the Sysco Corporation, where he was hired as a chef and consultant. There he was able to summon the skills he had learned throughout his years in the industry to help restaurant clients figure out how to navigate their business and employee needs.
In March, when Covid-19 forced the shutdown of the hospitality industry, Webster’s job at Sysco was put on hold, and, like many in the industry, he was forced to sit in isolation with his thoughts. While the idea of owning his own brick-and-mortar bakeshop had been on the backburner throughout his years of climbing up the culinary ladder, quarantine forced Webster to reevaluate his goals and dreams.
“I got to the point where I woke up, and I turned the TV on to CNN, and at the end of the day, the TV was still on that same channel, and I got so sad and depressed and frustrated… And finally, one day, my partner Andrew came home from work and turned the TV off and said, ‘You need to stop this right now and do something else.’ That’s when I made the commitment to turn myself into one of my clients. I made myself spend 8 hours a day as my own consultant, and that’s when the business plan for Rind And Wheat came to life.”
The challenges of staying in business during the pandemic are monumental; the hurdles of opening one during this time are even more daunting. “I know, a lot of people tell me I must be so brave to open a bakery during Covid. But I tell them, opening a shop at any other time is equally as scary! And I’ve never been as scared in my life of anything as I am now, so it’s the same exact feeling I will be having, whether I’m opening during a pandemic or during ‘normal’ time. Right now just feels like the right time for me.” It’s a spirit of resiliency, cultivated by his years of successes and failures that’s now helping Ricky to surmount the obstacles ahead of him.
Coincidentally, a space at the Dormitory Building near Spokane’s Browne’s Addition became available around the time Webster was looking for a space for Rind And Wheat, and support from coworkers, friends and family, both financial and emotional, helped him get his business plan into action. Finally, in mid-October, after a few pop-up previews at the Wonder Building’s Saturday Market, Rind And Wheat opened its doors to customers eager to get a taste of Webster’s baked goods and specialty cheeses.
Debuting a cheese and bakeshop during a pandemic takes a lot more than just tenacity and resilience. Webster also has to differentiate himself from already existing bakeries in town by offering products that are unique and creative, to build excitement from prospective customers. The croncha, Rind And Wheat’s signature pastry, is Webster’s own special juxtaposition between a French croissant and a Mexican sweet bread roll (concha). Another regular on the menu is the Portuguese egg tart (pastèis de nata), a tribute to Webster’s cultural heritage.
His cheese selection is a revolving mix of various cheeses from around the country and the world, some of which are hard to find — like Grafton Village Cheese & Crown Finish Caves’ smoked and aged cheddar, “Barnburner,” which is sold out at the source for months at a time. He also plans on having seasonal rotations of international pastries as well as on creating special baked goods using produce sourced from local farms like Green Bluff’s Hidden Acres Orchards.
“Why bread and cheese? It’s because those are the two most comforting foods I can think of. They just go together so well. I hope that when people come in to Rind And Wheat, they can be transported to a different world, where they can forget their problems for just a moment while they enjoy a bite of sweet pastry or a slice of savory cheese on a cracker.”
story and photos by Ari Nordhagen