Baker-Entrepreneur Ren Weiner on Paying It Forward | Grilling the Chef | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Baker-Entrepreneur Ren Weiner on Paying It Forward

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Ren Weiner - JAMES BUCK
  • James Buck
  • Ren Weiner

Ren Weiner, aka Miss Weinerz, imagined being a kindergarten teacher in Vermont, with a pottery studio and maybe a side gig as an EMT. As it turned out, Weiner is a baker in Burlington who approaches their work with the creativity and resourcefulness of the kindergarten teacher we all wish we'd had. (Weiner uses they/them pronouns.)

An old cot set in front of their house is painted red and repurposed as a platform for receiving deliveries at their home-based business. Their yard is a space for growing vegetables and herbs and for constructing structures — a shed, a mini hoop house — from materials on hand. Their fun with written language, especially food words, includes spelling "time" as "thyme" and turning "do not" into "donut" — as in, "Donut give up."

Weiner will also come to your rescue, but the remedy starts in a kitchen or garden, not an ambulance. With Miss Weinerz retooled for "apocalyptic end times," the company has an offshoot delivery service, BBz Delivery Collective. It delivers food and other provisions to homes in Burlington five days a week and has a rotating schedule for neighboring towns. Some weeks it makes 20 deliveries, other weeks about 300, Weiner said.

Products available at the online store include Weiner's baked goods, local vegetables, face masks, botanicals and free condoms from Vermont Cares. (PPE, the website calls this last item.) BBz has an option that helps people provide groceries to food-insecure neighbors through a "pay-it-forward community-care" program.

"There's been [similar] little realms of this as a cultural nicety," Weiner said. "When things start hitting very hard, people buy gift certificates and [ask], 'Can you pass it on?'"

Weiner moved to Burlington 10 years ago and cooked at local restaurants, including Bluebird Tavern, ¡Duino! (Duinde) and Misery Loves Co. They launched Miss Weinerz in 2014. In late winter 2019, before the pandemic struck, Weiner was planning to hire people to help with the baking. They had been rolling, cutting, frying and glazing by hand about 2,500 donuts a week. (Coworkers help Weiner with other aspects of their business, including communications, gardening and delivery.)

"We were figuring out ways to fit other people in my kitchen," Weiner said. "And now nobody can be in the kitchen with me."

Weiner, 34, has a knack for storytelling: detailing intricate and insightful tales about attending art school in Philadelphia, co-owning the Sunflour Café in Westchester County, N.Y., and other adventures. They talked about Miss Weinerz and the delivery collective in a phone interview and topped it off with an email to Seven Days.

"Maybe in another world, I would have been a good monk," Weiner wrote. "I am down with a life of service, not into servitude tho. Ownership is a concept I have trouble grasping."

SEVEN DAYS: Why'd you move to Burlington?

REN WEINER: I came up to visit some friends, to take a trip. My friends took me to the [City Market, Onion River] Co-op, they took me to American Flatbread, they took me to Radio Bean. And I was, like, I have to live here. So I came back a month later with my résumé, and I walked my résumé around town.

SD: What is it about Miss Weinerz — your home-based baking business — that propelled an expansion during the pandemic?

RW: I lost 90 percent of my accounts, but I didn't lose 90 percent of customers. I never had direct access, [so] I had to build the bridge into retail. My staff and I pivoted from wholesale, large-scale production to small-batch direct sales.

We knew that what we were offering was a sense of normalcy. We were very aware from the beginning that it was going to be emotionally difficult. But as long as we could find a way to do it that was going to be safe, we'd all keep going.

I dropped my prices so that more people would be able to afford the product. There isn't a middle person. We kind of felt like it was a need beforehand: We wanted to offer direct sales to people. But because of the cumbersomeness, it wasn't anything we could figure out.

Now that we don't have the wholesale business taking up so much time, we're able to put that time and effort into how to be a better distribution system with direct sales.

SD: Your new food delivery service, BBz Delivery Collective, offers products ranging from buckwheat brownies to sour pickles to botanicals. It also has an option for getting food to people in need. How does that work?

RW: We've had over 200 requests for free boxes. We received so many donations from our customers to pay it forward. People can add a donation, choose the amount. Some people have thrown in $1, some people have thrown in $500. We were able to get a ton of vegetables and get it out to folks in the community. It's great.

BBz is a service that I, as a single business purveyor, can utilize. I essentially wholesale to this delivery collective, so I don't have to do everything, and I can focus on making really good products. And somebody else [on the four-person team] can focus on Google Maps, because that's what they like to do.

SD: What music do you listen to when you bake?

RW: I listen to a lot of Missy Elliott.

SD: Can you talk about the networking website Food Fight Vermont you helped organize and what you guys are trying to do?

RW: Food Fight Vermont was put together as a digital platform to incubate conversations around food. In the spring and summer, people are out seeing each other and running around; it allows for creative conversations to happen.

When winter would hit, or a pandemic, and people can't get out and casually ... run into each other, there's a high level of isolation that happens.

We wanted to have a place where we could bridge those physical barriers and be able to meet with people. If we're going to really think about the big-picture thing that we need to, we need a commons in which commerce and competition aren't the center of the gathering.

SD: You've previously told me about dumpster diving at your local Dunkin' Donuts when you were a teenager. What's the connection between that and becoming a donut maker who specializes in using local ingredients?

RW: It's social commentary. It's the original artist's statement. Why do some people have access to food and other people don't? The excuse of commerce, the excuse of capitalism, is a laziness within our system, as well as just evil.

We have a cultural tradition of [eating] donuts and ice cream and spaghetti. And I'm bringing more whole-grain, local food into the nostalgia of the industrial food system that myself and others were raised in and now have an emotional attachment to. It helps cross a lot of bridges in accessibility.

SD: Since the pandemic, there's been a sharp rise in food insecurity in Vermont: a roughly 50 percent increase among adults and 60 percent for kids. If you were in charge, how would you address this?

RW: You have to have figured out at this point that I'm an anarchist at heart and I don't think anybody should be in charge.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Cakes, Cukes and Condoms | Seven questions for baker-entrepreneur Ren Weiner"

BBz Delivery Collective delivers to Burlington Tuesday through Saturday and to surrounding towns on a rotating schedule with curbside partners.