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Starting out small has proved successful for Oshkosh baker

After four years of selling sourdough-based products at the Oshkosh Farmers’ Market, Thunderbird Bakery will soon open doors to its first brick-and-mortar location

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December 2, 2022

OSHKOSH – Many startup businesses begin small – getting their start in the garages and basements of the folks behind them.
In the case of Thunderbird Bakery, it was in the owners’ driveway – in a handmade, wood-fired oven, to be exact.

Trent Wester and his wife, Lizz Redman said they first sold Wester’s sourdough bread at the Oshkosh Farmers’ Market in 2018 – a step the couple described as an outgrowth of their desire to start a business together after moving from New Mexico to Redman’s hometown of Oshkosh.

Though Redman has a master’s degree in health and human development with an emphasis in sustainable food systems and had helped launch several food start-ups, the duo said it was a new venture for them both.

“We knew so many people who wanted a bakery here, and my husband enjoys baking, so he started baking at home, just for fun,” Redman said. “Then he thought, ‘Let’s do a bakery.’ He made delicious bread, a good, quality product, and that sparked the beginning.”?

Redman said they sought out commercial kitchen space when the 40 loaves he would bake Friday night into Saturday morning after his full-time job sold out within a couple of hours at the farmer’s market.

Gradual growth
Redman said in the beginning, Thunderbird Bakery opted to focus on wholesale sales of bread as a startup.

She said this decision was made for two main reasons – one, because there is inevitable waste that comes from retail space, and two, because the grant they were eligible for through the Greater Oshkosh Economic Development Corporation was positioned for food manufacturing/wholesale businesses.

Redman said they received the grant, pursued licensing through the state and by fall 2019, Wester began baking full-time.
“It was a great decision because the (COVID-19) pandemic set in a few months after we opened the commercial kitchen,” Redman said.?

Though she has learned some lessons along the way from helping others in their food business endeavors – such as lack of cash flow, for example – Redman said she had never had access to those food startups’ full financial pictures.

Nor had she and Wester ever navigated balancing their roles as both a married couple and business owners.?

“When you’re fully in it day after day, you note the day-to-day shifts (that you need) to make along the way,” Redman, who assumed responsibility for retail sales, packaging orders for home deliveries, human resources responsibilities, basic bookkeeping, marketing and business development, said.

Wester is what Redman refers to as the “boots-on-the-ground” operational leader, managing the production of breads and pastries. 

Sourdough-based products
Redman said all Thunderbird Bakery products, from the breads to the pastries, are sourdough-based.

Sourdough, she said, is naturally leavened, which means no commercial yeast is used. Sourdough is a naturally fermented product.

Redman said Thunderbird Bakery’s most popular bread choices are the Country Sourdough Sandwich Loaf, perfect for everyday use, as well as Seeded Whole Wheat Sandwich Loaf and Violet’s Sourdough Rye.

Co-owner Lizz Redman said all Thunderbird Bakery products are sourdough-based, including its cinnamon rolls, which account for a quarter of all sales. Shaena Ragna Photography Photo

These, she said, are complemented with a rotation of seasonal breads, be it Rosemary Polenta or an Onion and Cheddar Loaf.

Not to be forgotten, Redman said, are the desserts in the form of the bakery’s handcrafted pastries, especially its star seller, cinnamon rolls. 

“Our cinnamon rolls are made with croissant dough and sourdough, and they account for a quarter of all our sales,” she said.
A variety of European croissants, monkey bread and other pastries, Redman said, round out the dessert menu.

Redman said all Thunderbird Bakery items are handcrafted, made with Wisconsin butter and dairy and are sold wholesale to numerous cafes, restaurants, small grocers, area farmers’ markets and on the business’s website.

She said the bakery’s customers span from Fond du Lac and Ripon to the Fox Cities.

“We found a nice niche with these businesses and are now growing out of our 1,500-square-foot facility,” Redman said. “It’s worked well for us for a few years, but we’re ready to scale up because we need capacity for ovens and (workspace).”

Brick-and-mortar location
That solution lies in a property Wester and Redman purchased located at the intersection of 6th Avenue and Knapp Street in Oshkosh.

The former Reichenberger Meat Market and Grocery location, Redman said, has a storied past.

Starting as a meat market in 1915, the space evolved into a meat market/grocery store/corner store before it was sold in the 1970s and used as storage.

Since the property has only been used for storage since the 1970s, Redman said there is a lot of work to be done to renovate and restore it “with a nod to its original history and to have it feel like a historic, special and warm place to be.”

She said their vision is to create a retail space with about 1,000 square feet for a small cafe – with a planned opening by the end of 2023.

Lizz Redman said sourdough is naturally leavened, which means no commercial yeast is used. Sourdough is a naturally fermented product. Shaena Ragna Photography Photo

That would be followed by a second phase, which would include the move of the bakery’s production kitchen to the property.

In the meantime, while restoration of the 6th Avenue and Knapp Street location is going on, Wester and Redman said they have other plans in the works, which include a more imminent physical presence downtown thanks to a short-term lease opportunity.

“There is room available in the Beach Building in the Rise and Grind coworking space, replacing a coffee shop that didn’t survive COVID, where we will be able to offer a retail space,” Redman said. “We’ll offer Wisconsin roasters’ coffees and our pastries and breads, as well as (have) a space for customers to come in, enjoy and sit, which we’ve never had before. It’s something people have been asking for since we opened.” 

The space – anticipated to open by year’s end – also includes a drive-thru, which Redman said nudges Thunderbird Bakery to up its game by adding some hot breakfast and lunch items, such as hot, stuffed croissants, to the menu.

She said she’s excited to offer retail sales in a modern, clean and well-lit location.

“It’s a great canvas for us, and we’re going to add some color with a custom pastry case built out of salvaged windows from a Wisconsin schoolhouse and bring in some other historic pieces to tie us to the (future location) at Knapp Street,” Redman said.

She said the pop-up cafe is a perfect segue to a more permanent location, offering an opportunity to expose more consumers to their high-quality product offerings while getting their feet wet in a retail space. 

“2022 marked significant growth in our wholesale business – 80% just this year,” Redman said. “And since we don’t expect that level of growth to continue with that (segment), we want to focus on retail as well. This space will offer our retail products in a convenient way.”

Broader reach
Currently, Redman said wholesale orders are delivered Wednesday through Saturday.

In addition, retail customers in Oshkosh and Neenah who order Thunderbird Bakery goods receive their orders via delivery or pickup from 3-6 p.m. on Thursdays each week. 

“It’s a specific time and model, but people have found it to work,” Redman said. “Being set up for pickup and dropoff is something we were grateful to have set up before COVID.” 

The couple said they are excited to see how the pop-up cafe fares and see how it allows Thunderbird Bakery to broaden its customer base.

“People have been eating bread as long as we’ve been milling grain, and bread is such a staple of our diet,” Redman said. “We strive to make the highest quality bread we can. It’s great we appeal to older people who remember going to bakeries and taste the bread and say, ‘I haven’t had bread like this in a long time,’ as well as younger folks and younger families who appreciate the quality.”

According to the Thunderbird Bakery website, the bakery is named after the Thunderbird Ranch, a 100-acre piece of property in the mountains of New Mexico that Wester’s great-grandfather purchased in the early 1900s.

More information on the Thunderbird Bakery, its owners and its products can be found at

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