Al Jensen worked as an oceanographer at the Naval Oceanographic Office at Stennis Space Center for 37 years. When he retired in 2003, he pursued a long-time interest in baking bread.
“I was baking bread for parties for four or five years before I retired,” said Jensen, who with his wife, Vivian Jensen, owns Serious Bread Bakery on Main Street in Bay St. Louis. “When I retired, I wanted something to do. I always pretty much wanted to bake bread. I went to a King Arthur Flour course on baking bread.”
His bread-baking career started with making 150 to 200 loaves of bread a week that would sell out at farmer’s markets in a matter of hours. While part of the enjoyment was the people he and his wife would meet, he also liked the income.
“It was a lot of hard work, but it would bring in $500 for six or seven hours of work,” Jensen said.
The couple had a number of rental properties when Hurricane Katrina hit, flooding their historic home in Waveland that had never been flooded since being built in 1889, and damaging their rental properties.
“We thought we were fully covered with insurance, but we had no flood insurance,” Jensen said. “Our insurance company gave us $14,000 when we
had damages of $155,000 to our house. Six months ago we finally completed rebuilding our house. Even with the homeowner’s grant we received, you are never made whole. We probably lost another $100,000 to $200,000 with our rental properties. We had six mortgages.”
After Katrina they had a choice. They could have declared bankruptcy and moved to a less disaster-prone area of the country, and live comfortably on their retirement income. Instead, “my wife and I decided to fight it out. For six years we have been trying to meet our bills and survive. So far we have.”
In addition to repair costs, insurance is so high on the Gulf Coast that it is difficult to rent homes for enough to cover a mortgage. So the Serious Bread Bakery is not a hobby in retirement, but an important source of income.
“The business is making money,” said Jensen, who works on average 12 hours a day, seven days a week. “A year ago this past March, we opened at our present location, and literally doubled our business. We like to make bread, and we like our customers. We see a lot of the same people all the time, and we see a lot of new customers. We have a lot of fun at this. Otherwise we wouldn’t stay at it.”
Jensen said superior bread starts with the best flour. They use King Arthur and other quality flour. He disdains the commercial breads that use a lot of sugar. In most of his bread, 45 pounds of dough has only a quarter pound of sugar. He uses no sugar at all in his multi-grain sourdough. He also uses less yeast than many bakers, only 1.5 teaspoons in the starter and another 1.5 teaspoons when he adds the starter to the flour for the 45 pounds of dough.
Many people consider sourdough breads healthier because they contain natural beneficial bacteria (probiotics). Jensen has had some people tell him that they can eat his bread when they can’t eat any other bread.
The most common starter he uses for leaving is poolish. Starters include a portion of a previous batch of bread that is mixed in with the new flour.
Offerings at Serious Bread include a multi-grain whole wheat sourdough, multi grain, western French (some call it a rustic bread), roasted sunflower seed bread, New York deli rye, oatmeal cinnamon raisin bread and garlic olive oil flatbread. Multi-grain and flatbread are the most popular. They also sell oatmeal blueberry scones, oatmeal cranberry scones, a Bay St. Louis muffin, oatmeal raisin cookies and chocolate chip cookies.
Jensen makes bread the old European way. By soaking the grains for eight to ten hours, phytic acid is dissipated which makes the minerals and nutrients more available. The bread is rich in iron, calcium and magnesium.
Work about the Serious Bread bakery as gotten around. The business has even been featured on WGNO-TV in New Orleans.
“A number of people come through here and are surprised to find a bakery in a little town,” Jensen said. “We think the bakery needs to be in the community and we like being a part of the community. We hope to leave it as a legacy.”
Vivian Jensen said her husband takes recipes and tweaks them. She thinks his flatbread is especially good, and loves the smell of rosemary and garlic that waft through when it is baking.
“The flatbread is his baby,” she said. “It makes the best tasting foundation for a pizza possible.”
For a while now people have been suggesting the Jensens ought to also sell sandwiches. So they have decided to expand next door. The bread business continues to be hot.
“All breads are not created equal,” she said. “Our bread is different.”