Technology grad Leigh Rowan, ’83, taps her know-how to run businesses efficiently to create a successful food truck bake shop while helping other vendors and reinventing Fort Wayne’s local food scene.
Loving lessons from her grandmother have evolved into a full-time business venture for Indiana State alumna Leigh Rowan, ’83.
The mechanical technology graduate left her busy corporate career for more flexible working hours as owner of the Big Brick House Bakery. The one catch is her business — which started as a storefront in Wabash and is now driving the local food scene as a food truck vendor in Fort Wayne — is not necessarily less busy, just more satisfying for the soul.
“That’s part of the fun of the business is getting to know the customers and the flavors they grew up with,” Rowan said. “I had someone ask, ‘Is your Apple Pie good?’ The best compliment is ‘It tasted like grandma’s.’”
Indeed, Rowan’s own grandmother, Ruth Robbins, is present in everything she bakes, so creating a link to memories for other people is all the more meaningful. She regularly takes old recipes — or sometimes just the story of a dish — from her customers and tries to recreate them. One of her biggest successes was a Raisin Pie that her customer cried after tasting Rowan’s version.
When Rowan opened Big Brick House, it was on her grandmother’s birthday.
“When Dad was at college and Mom was at work, my grandmother raised me. She was one of those old-fashioned bakers — a pinch of this, a dash of that — so that’s how I learned to do all of that stuff,” she said. “I really wanted to pay homage to her inspiration.”
After sampling Rowan’s creations, it’s clear her grandmother is looking down on her smiling. Her carrot cake carries an earthy spiciness in the generously raisin-studded cake, flavors that are rounded out by the not-too-sweet cream cheese frosting. And you can’t miss the unmistakable rich butter taste in the frosting.
This particular confection is served as more of an individual cake — think: a super-sized cupcake, perfect for sharing (if you have enough self-control to stop at half).
Her salt-crusted tomato-basil bread is perfect to slice for sandwiches or enjoy simply toasted with butter or dipped in olive oil. It’s made with Rowan’s hand-milled whole red and white wheat flour and a perfect balance of savory spices and sweet sundried tomatoes.
Again, the most problematic quality of Rowan’s baked goods is how to not devour them in one sitting.
Part of her secret is uncompromising quality ingredients — she avoids genetically modified items and uses chemical-free grains as fresh and locally sourced as possible. She even grinds her own flour with a stone mill.
“It is different baking with freshly milled flour than store-bought flour,” Rowan said. “It absorbs moisture different; it’s affected by humidity more, so there are different things you have to be aware of.”
She just added a gluten-free kitchen to her operation, and Rowan is researching adding homemade pasta to her offerings. She said she tries to be more than just a baker, but also run a service industry.
While Rowan has always put her family first, the flexibility of the bakery isn’t something she’s always had in her career.
“My husband and I were both working 70 hours a week, and nobody was raising the kids. We both quit our jobs and took a step back to be more family-oriented,” she said. “We were both so driven, but at some point, you can drive yourself to, ‘Hey, when did the kids turn 16?’ You can raise your kids, or they can grow up. There’s a huge difference.”
Rowan also gets to work alongside her husband, Kevin, who has worked in restaurants before, when his full-time job at Dalton Foundries in Warsaw has a plant shutdown. Her children, Bridjet and Luke are now 22 and 32, respectively.
While Rowan’s connection to her customers and family are admirable qualities, it’s her business practices that make her a tremendous asset to her community.
“She’s more than an idea person — she can put legs on a thing and make things happen. That’s a rare combination. It’s easy to come up with an idea and say, ‘Yep, you got it. See ya later,’” said Bill Brown, president of the Fort Wayne Downtown Improvement District. “I really admire her tenacity and her ‘Let’s do it, let’s make it work.’”
Brown first met Rowan when she walked into his office and said she wanted to start a winter market in Fort Wayne. She’d already united the previously fragmented efforts by the farmers’ market and food vendors, but by the end of summer, everyone — including the customers — were saying how much they’d miss it.
In just six weeks, Rowan had found a location and worked out all the details with the vendors. Their first winter market, they had 1,200 customers in three hours.
“I believed it was going to be a great asset for everybody, and it has been,” she said.
Her next goal? “My next thing is to try to help Fort Wayne develop a year-round market, get a building to give a permanent home to the markets,” she said. “I’ve joined a group here that’s going down that path, to help keep the vendors’ perspective alive. It’s kind of one of those things that they need someone to keep them grounded and say, ‘Yes, this is doable.’”
Based on her previous successes, Brown has complete confidence in her goal. “I wouldn’t doubt Leigh would play a significant role in that,” he said.
On a mid-summer Thursday with temperatures delightfully in the mid-70s, business people, dressed in suits and on their lunch break, mingle with families enjoying a steak taco, slice of pizza or bowl of red beans and rice. Live music and tables invite everyone to stay a while longer.
Rowan says she sells out at the end of the lunch period, because most folks grab a dessert as they head back to work.
“Leigh took the initiative and started the Fort Wayne Farmers’ Market and kind of took control of that,” said Cris Lamb, a fudge vendor. “That’s what it needed, was for someone to come in and put everything together and working with all of the markets … work together to consolidate events and make sure the public knows about the local produce, the local vendors.”
Lamb has been selling fudge for seven years and has witnessed the transformation from the pre-Rowan era to today. She likes how it’s more business-friendly now.
Brown likes how the summer market attracts so many people downtown.
“We get between 250 and 400 people coming here for food trucks, food vendors, entertainment, tables and chairs. It’s really become an attractive feature for people. You can look at the kids over here having their picnics and things like that,” he said.
Also this summer, Rowan was nominated for best bakery in Fort Wayne — the first time for a non-brick-and-mortar bakery.
When she isn’t making award-worthy baked goods or transforming the Fort Wayne food economy, Rowan is mentoring her competitors. She shares her spreadsheets and business tips, taking a “rising tide lifts all boats” approach.
“I work with other bakers on … truck deliveries. I get truck deliveries, but not everyone is big enough to get truck deliveries, so I let them jump on my order so they have access to lower prices, which gives them a little extra profit margin and a little more sustainability,” she said. “At a certain time, if some of these new bakers don’t keep their price points down, then they’re not going to make it.”
Rowan knows all about keeping prices competitive. This year, she raised her prices for the first time in five years of business — despite skyrocketing costs. How?
“I try to take my business knowledge I’ve gained prior to becoming a baker and adapt that to mentoring and running my business,” she said.
As supply costs increase, Rowan made her business as efficient and productive as possible, therefore avoiding having to pass on those increases to the customer.
“As you become more labor efficient, you don’t have to raise prices (when costs increase). That’s always been one of my things when I talk to these smaller bakers: ‘You have to become more efficient and effective where you have things,’” she said. “I share my spreadsheets — it’s not top secret. Here’s my profit margin; you have to do what makes sense for you.”
She also taps her training as an athlete. She initially signed on to Indiana State with a track scholarship. A knee injury sidelined Rowan during her first year.
“You know, when you’re in sports, you learn goal-setting, hard work, time management, but those are lessons you carry throughout your life,” she said.
While Rowan’s first independent business effort — the storefront in Wabash didn’t work out because of bad economic timing — she learned from the experience.
“This is OK whether I succeed or fail. You have to believe in yourself enough and know that if you fail, I still tried and to learn something from that. It’s only a failure if you don’t learn anything. Everything else is just a life lesson,” she said. “You learn and develop yourself. A diamond became a diamond only after a thousand years of pressure. You’re only on the Earth for a hundred.”
Keep up with all of Rowan’s projects and baking adventures on Facebook: go to facebook.com/bigbrickhousebakery.