Interview with Andris Lagsdin, Inventor of the Baking Steel
A few years ago A fellow named Andris Lagsdin wrote to me here at Pizza Quest to introduce himself and to tell me about a tool he had developed called The Baking Steel. I was skeptical that it would work as well as he promised but he offered to send me one, and also one for Brad English, to play around with. Needless to say, we both loved the Steel and now use it often, not only in for general cooking and baking but also during many of recipes experiments you read about here in in “Brad’s Corner.” When we first received our Baking Steels the product was just getting off the ground. But recently, when I was on a teaching tour through Texas, I was asked at nearly class what I thought of the Steel, especially compared to a baking stone. Well, frankly, the Baking Steel wins for at least two reasons: it’s more effective and conducts heat rapidly and efficiently into whatever I’m cooking on it, whether bread, pizza, or meats. The other plus is that it’s unbreakable, unlike my last ceramic baking stone which, when it slipped out my hand as I was transporting it, shattered into four pieces when it hit the ground.
When I got home from Texas, I contacted Andris about all the questions I was getting. Sure enough, this is no longer an underground, chef’s secret — seems like nearly everyone knows about the Steel by now! So I asked Andris if he’d do an interview and, in addition to saying yes, he also told me about a new Baking Steel product, which you will read about below. Looks like Andris is not only the creator of a terrific product, but also the creator of what now looks like a growing brand. I’ll let him take it from here, Enjoy…..
PQ (Peter): Andris, you’ve got an interesting name. Can you tell us about it and about yourself and, also, how you ended up as the “baking steel guy”?
Andris: My junior year in high school we took a class trip to Montreal. We were required to bring our birth certificates. Upon scanning mine for the first time I noticed my name was actually spelled A-n-d-r-i-s. Up until my junior year in high school I always went by the name Andy. My dad was born in Riga, Latvia in 1943. I am technically a Jr., however my dad “Americanized” his name growing up because he didn’t have the patience of mis-pronunciation. I just loved it so, after that trip, I embraced Andris. But all my high school buddies still call me Andy.
I created the Baking Steel as a side-hustle in my family business. But, after we launched on Kickstarter, that was when I became the “Baking Steel guy.” Haven’t had a day off since, and that was almost 4 years ago. Obviously, a slight exaggeration but when you are doing what you love every day, it’s not work.
PQ: What have been some of the challenges you faced, both in creating the steel but also in marketing it and getting people to take it seriously? Along these lines, how much of your sales are to professional chefs as opposed to home cooks?
A: In early February, 2011, I read an interview in The Wall Street Journal with Nathan Myrvold about the launch of his upcoming book, Modernist Cuisine. At the time, I was completely removed from the food business and working with my dad at Stoughton Steel Company. But, as a former “foodie” I was inspired by this work. My last culinary adventure was working with Todd English at his Olive and Figs restaurants in Boston. Reading the WSJ interview still feels like yesterday. Even though I hadn’t named it yet, the Baking Steel was born that night in my office. I took piece of scrap metal home that evening and made some pizza dough over the weekend and literally couldn’t believe how well that crust baked. Epic!
I have had lots of ideas in my lifetime, but this one just felt so incredibly close to me. Unfortunately, our existing business at Stoughton was very busy and the thought of adding a “kitchen” product to a construction equipment manufacturer product line didn’t make a whole lot of sense. So I literally tabled it. That was February 2011.
I woke up one day, in December of 2011, determined to bring the steel back to life. It became an obsession. I spent the next 6 months developing the product and doing extensive research on how to bring a product to market. One of the best books I read was “Crush It” by Gary Vaynerchuk. If you don’t know Gary, you need to Google him.
I was doing a lot of research and development for the steel. My wife even came up with a sweet name, The Baking Steel. I loved it. The Steel could do a lot more than pizza. I remember hitting Home Depot with a measuring tape and measuring internal dimensions of ovens. I wanted the Baking Steel to fit into virtually every home oven. We finally came to the conclusion of 16 x 14 x 1/4, which weighed 15 lbs.
In August of 2012, we Kickstarted The Baking Steel. In between the “aha” moment and Kickstarter was literally a year and a half, finding the courage to trust that inner voice in my head — and a lot of yoga, reading, and good eating. But I’m so glad I did; the Baking Steel has changed my life.
Almost all of our marketing is geared for the home. But a lot of professional chefs who use our Steels or Griddles at home, and they see the benefits of using them commercially as well. So we end up doing a lot of custom work for commercial applications.
Working in a family steel business was a blessing when I finally decided to really go for it. I had all the machinery I needed already, so there was no crazy start-up cost to cover if the Baking Steel failed. I also enjoy the benefit of having my brother, Eric Lagsdin, running the show behind the scenes at Stoughton Steel, so I have to throw a huge thank you to him. He does a great job of keeping the guys on the manufacturing side of things motivated and of ensuring that we are always current with inventory. And, typically, orders that are placed on Monday are shipped on Tuesday. Basically, there are a lot of moving parts and Eric makes it all happen behind the scenes.
PQ: How are sales going now and what can you tell us about the future of the company? Are there any new products or spin-offs in the offing?
A. Sales are great, Peter; slow and steady growth as we continue to build the Baking Steel brand. We now offer a Griddle version Baking Steel. It’s virtually a Baking Steel on one side and a stove top Griddle on the other. It does everything the Baking Steel does — times 100. Think steak and eggs, pancakes, high temp searing etc. It’s a 25 lb. steel plancha for the home.
I also teach pizza classes once a week in our test kitchen with Fresh Chef Craig (more about him shortly). This is an amazing experience. I call them micro-marketing activities. We get to bring about 8 folks in at a time to teach them the art of making pizza at home. We act as guides and teach techniques we have learned from you about slow fermentation. So, between using amazing ingredients, “Reinhart” dough techniques, and the Baking Steel, you won’t find a better pizza anywhere.
Besides that we have a couple of other product ideas for later 2017, we may or may not “Kickstart” them, but it’s in the same space. And we just finished the “Baking with Steel Cookbook,” which is due out later this year.
PQ: How do you deal with companies that try to knock off your design and undersell you? Have you seen any impact from that?
We have had a few “knockoff” companies literally copy what we are doing. Some are cheapening the product by offering “thin” steel. That really isn’t going to work. The Baking Steel works so well because of the weight, so we embrace the competition.
And my feeling about knockoffs, none of them will be as passionate about what they are doing as I am, or our other team members. We are not just selling a slab of steel, we are selling the Baking Steel Brand that will change how you cook at home. We have the best customers. I just remind myself to feel grateful each and every day. It’s been such an amazing experience.
PQ: We’ve seen a lot of your pizzas and other foods on Instagram and they look fabulous. Who are your culinary inspirational heroes and role models, and what are your current favorite things to make on the steel.?
I have read most of your books on pizza and breads, and you were and are an inspiration to my pizza and bread making so, thank you, Peter. And there are so many other folks who I also admire in the culinary world. The list is long and continues to grow: Kenji Lopez from Serious Eats, Tony Gemignani, Chris Bianco, Jim Lahey, Jenn Luis, and Ken Forkish among others. And I learn so much from our customers. The questions and comments they submit are our lifeblood.
I also work with a talented young chef, Craig Hastings (CIA Grad), who helps inspire what we create in the kitchen everyday. “Fresh Chef,” as we call him, has gotten us involved with a CSA, so we always have fresh, local produce on hand, which is really great! We love being able to support other small, local businesses. Not only does Craig have mad skills in the kitchen, but he also brings a lot of energy to the customer service side of the business and Fresh Chef also digs social media. He’s been a very valuable addition to my team, no question. Which reminds me of a cliche’ that is so true: Surround yourself with uber talented folks and great things will happen.
My favorite foods to make are pizza, breakfast on the Griddle and smash burgers.
PQ: Any advice for future entrepreneurs who’d like to launch their own products? Also, how can our readers contact you or get more information?
Yes, listen to that little voice inside your head. Get yourself in a good place, physically and spiritually, and hustle. If you have a product idea, make it and send it to friends. You need feedback. Take it all in, modify and adapt, and make it again. Then trust your own intuition — you know best. I can’t tell you how many “experts” I spoke with during the process that wanted to put their hand into our pockets before we even sold one unit. My advice, skip the consultants. A lot of hard work and desire goes a long way. And always remember to feel grateful, even during those challenging days.
PQ: Thanks so much for sharing all this with us and, especially, for creating such a unique, game-changing tool. Congratulations and best of continued success.
Thank you Peter! You made my day….
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Pizza Quest Info
Pizza Quest is a site dedicated to the exploration of artisanship in all forms, wherever we find it, but especially through the literal and metaphorical image of pizza. As we share our own quest for the perfect pizza we invite all of you to join us and share your journeys too. We have discovered that you never know what engaging roads and side paths will reveal themselves on this quest, but we do know that there are many kindred spirits out there, passionate artisans, doing all sorts of amazing things. These are the stories we want to discover, and we invite you to jump on the proverbial bus and join us on this, our never ending pizza quest.
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