Dan Koester was one of the many Americans who started baking sourdough at home to relieve boredom during the COVID-19 lockdown. Koester was the head baker at Soho House Chicago, supplying the restaurant concepts throughout the hotel and members’ club. Stuck at his home in Buena Park, he would bake two or three loaves at a time — too much for just his family and their neighbors.
“I just put it on my Instagram and said, ‘Hey if you want a free loaf of bread, come pick it up, just let me know,’” Koester says. “I did that for about a month, baking six to nine loaves every week, and that kept me busy. It was really great to do that for the community and meet people. That time was so weird, so just having a small interaction of handing somebody a loaf of bread was pretty awesome.”
Soho House officially laid Koester off in the summer of 2020 and while he quickly found another job with a bakery, they kept pushing back his starting date as the pandemic dragged on. Tired of waiting, Koester decided to start selling his baked goods on Instagram as Dan the Baker in September 2020. “A lot of other pastry chefs had done that, so I thought I’d give it a shot,” he says. “The first week was pretty amazing. People responded well and it felt great to have a full weekend of baking. I knew right at that moment that I was going to keep going with this.
Koester has since launched a new bakery which began operating out of the Emily Hotel in Fulton Market in February. Koester has nearly 19,000 followers on his Instagram account, where he posts shots of trays of croissants, sweet and savory Danish, kouign amann stuffed with seasonal jam, and loaves of sourdough. He shoots all of the pictures himself on his iPhone and takes orders by direct message.
“I’ll be the first to admit I’m just kind of figuring things out as I go along,” Koester said. “I just keep posting and putting new things on the menu and trying to keep customers coming back.”
Two Soho House baking alums have joined Koester at the Emily, and he recently hired a third person to help meet the growing demand. Along with supplying his seasonal treats to the hotel’s coffee shop, he offers them for pre-order pickups from the cafe on the weekends and delivers throughout the city daily to individual customers and his seven wholesale accounts.
The business sells a couple thousand croissants and pastries a week, regularly changing up the offerings along with the bread selection to incorporate seasonal ingredients and flavors which have included pumpkin cruffins and strawberry and cream tarts made with fruit from Mick Klug Farm. His lease at the Emily runs through August of next year and he’d like to eventually find his own space.
“I think I want to have a robust wholesale bakery with a retail section, but part of me just wants to have a tiny bakery where it’s just me and one other person,” Koester says. “I want something where the retail is really small and cozy and you can see the magic that’s happening with the bread and croissants behind the pastry case.”
Koester graduated from the French Pastry School in Chicago in 2016 and says it was fun watching other people learning and developing a new appreciation of baking during the pandemic. The sourdough craze drove many home bakers to social media in search of inspiration and information about how to improve their techniques but also exacerbated an already disrupted supply chain. “I ended up going to Chefs’ Warehouse and buying a 50-pound bag of flour so I could just keep it in my storage unit,” he recalls.
When Koester moved to Horner Park soon after starting his Instagram business, the first thing he did was put in a new oven so he could keep baking for his growing list of customers. His three-year-old son enjoyed handing off orders.
“At the time I thought I’d love to have a bigger kitchen and now I’m looking back and that time was so simple,” he says. “I’d wake up and I’d be at work and could more or less do whatever I want. The grass is always greener, I guess.”
After about six months of baking from home, Koester returned to Soho House — this time using the space to produce products for his Dan the Baker orders.
“I lost a lot of customers because everyone was on the North Side and now I was in the West Loop so it took a little while to build up a following again, but overall it was pretty successful,” Koester says.
He did some pop-ups, selling his baked goods in coffee shops, but the majority of his growth continues to come from Instagram. When Koester posted an announcement that his lease at Soho House would be ending in December 2022, the Emily Hotel reached out to offer him space.
“I was able to move seamlessly,” he says. “At Soho House, I was in the main kitchen and had to work around them. Here, I have my own space set up how I want and I love the location and still being able to be in the West Loop. They’ve got a beautiful cafe, so being able to put my pastries out there has been pretty great as well.”
Koester hopes that his business will help continue to grow the appreciation for bread that came out of COVID lockdown.
“You go to places like San Francisco and people will purchase a loaf of bread every day or every other day,” he says. “The people who are buying it are very passionate about it so I think it’s just a matter of time to get more people familiar with it and passionate about it.”