Getting to know Emily Downs
An artisanal bread baker and pizza maker, Emily Down has worked in the food industry for many years. Most recently, she was supplying fresh baked bread to various restaurants in Sussex, NJ and her wood-fire pizza truck business—Emily’s was ranked among the best pizzas in New Jersey. We reached out to Emily to talk about her journey and to hear about how she was able to get creative to make it through the worst of the 2020 Covid pandemic.
Take us back to the beginning: How did you get into the food industry?
You know, looking back, it was something I just sort of fell into. But, at the same time, it was like it was always meant to happen. I grew up in an Irish-Italian family, and my Italian grandma was an avid baker. In fact, she was simply an amazing cook—she made everything from scratch—and food was a big part of our family. I remember every Saturday night, my cousins would come over and we would make pizza. On a personal note, I LOVED bread; something I never grew out of I guess!
Fast forward to my post-college years, I was working as an intern for a documentary film company in San Francisco and I realized I needed to make money! Pizza joints seemed more accessible than the restaurant scene, but at the same time it was essentially 100% male dominated. Long story short, everyone said no to me working in the kitchen. I gave up, and started to look for a place to work as a server. I walked into a place called Pizzeria Delfina, asked for a job, and they said: “Sure, do you want to make pizza?” I couldn’t believe it. So, like I said it seemed like it was meant to be; right when I had given up, I got my first pizza job.
From your website it seems like you are baking a lot of bread these days, but obviously you have spent years making pizza. Do you think you have specialized more in one area?
I have just been very lucky. I have had so many wonderful job experiences that taught me so many things. Also, they were jobs I could not really apply for; they just happened.
So in terms of specializing, no I have simply had the opportunity over the years to do different things. I have worked making pizzas with a gas oven in San Francisco, then baked bread with a huge brick wood-fire oven on a dairy farm in New Jersey. From there I was working under Jim Lahey at Sullivan Street Bakery, baking with large gas ovens. Now, of course, I am making pizzas again, with a woodfire oven.
I appreciate the different skills required for each environment. Bread baking is more about dough because it’s all about different types of dough, the shapes, forms etc. I love the process of making pizza in a woodfire oven. It is very tactile, all hands-on: caring for the fire, stretching the pizzas. It’s almost therapeutic.
How did Emily’s Hearth start?
This new adventure actually started in sort of a challenging moment in my life. I had a newborn and had taken a year off to focus on being a mom. It had been really difficult to continue working in the food industry and balance my home life so it seemed like the right decision. After that year though, I felt like I could not just walk away from the work that I loved.
So, I bought a wood-burning oven, a trailer, all the initial supplies and got access to 2 local Farmer’s Markets on Saturday and Sunday. My dad would come to be my assistant and my mom would watch my daughter. Talk about a small-scale operation! It was absolutely a team effort and I would never have been able to get things off the ground on my own.
All this started in May of 2016 and during those first couple years the main focus was the farmer’s markets and catering at private events. As the business grew, I ended up renting a fixed space at a juice bar—Get Juiced. The owners were such great people and I was happy to have a place in my community. It has been a really exciting and rewarding journey.
Talk to us about the challenge of the pandemic and the creativity and work required to adapt and survive?
It was scary because everything stopped. Other than pizza, I also had a signature loaf that I would cut up and sell at markets, plus I had a pool of stable restaurant clients I was baking breads for. Obviously restaurants closed so that revenue dried up. No more juice shop. Goodbye Farmer’s Markets. I basically had no income.
I had to really switch things up. Firstly, I had to focus on baking breads. I went from 1 signature loaf to 10-15 types of bread and I started to deliver them to individual buyers. I remember the beginning was extremely challenging. I worked a 12 hour day, drove around making deliveries, and made $100. Eventually, things got easier. The new bread business picked up and, although most restaurants were still closed, I could set up outdoors at Get Juiced to make pizzas. Slowly but surely the situation stabilized, as Covid restrictions relaxed. I feel very fortunate to have made it through!
What is next for you?
I have to say I am a bit nervous about the future! Everything seems to be happening so fast now. Farmer’s Markets are all opening back up, the bread delivery business is going strong. I actually have a double stand at one market and two others that requested I come. It is super exciting, but I am basically on my own at the moment! I had to let all my employees go at the start of the pandemic and only recently find myself in a position to be able to hire help again. So, things are moving quickly and there is a lot of work on the horizon. But, after such a difficult last 12 months, I am excited to have these sorts of problems again!