Prologue: In 2019, Midland Young Professionals (MyPros), a program of the Midland Business Alliance, launched their first MyPros Community Crowdfund. The goal was simple – if the business participating in the crowdfund could raise at least $10,000, they would receive an additional $10,000 in matching funds. The $10,000 in matching funds from the Midland Business Alliance originated as a gift from the Midland Area Community Foundation’s Impact Investing Committee. This gift from the Community Foundation to the Business Alliance represents the Foundation’s support of the Alliance’s goal to support one of Midland’s four focus areas, “Building our Livelihood.”
The first business that benefited from the MyPros Community Crowdfund was Pizza Baker. Since then, three other businesses have been beneficiaries – Aviator Cookie Company, Aster, and Grove Tea Lounge. On May 5, 2023, MyPros launched two more crowdfunds to run congruently – Three Bridges Distillery & Taproom and Nor’East Outdoors. The Community Foundation’s Impact Investing Committee approved a gift of $40,000 to the Business Alliance to further support their mission. With this more significant gift, MyPros launched the crowdfund promising a 2:1 matching contribution instead of a 1:1 matching contribution. If each participating business can secure at least $10,000 in community contributions, they will receive an additional $20,000 in matching funds. To learn more about these crowdfunding campaigns or contribute, please visit Three Bridges’ campaign at www.patronicity.com/threebridges or Nor’East’s campaign at www.patronicity.com/noreastoutdoors.
A pizza chat with Pizza Baker, by Renee’ Deckrow
Through tear-filled eyes, Janet Baker shares: “The exhilarating thing was [that] the support from the community was overwhelming in that short period of time. So that just spoke to us. I know it spoke to me that we have something here that no one else has. And they really want us to come in and be here. So, yeah, we raised that money in six days. I know others did it in shorter periods. But we were the first ones. So, yeah, it was awesome.”
We really want you here, Baker Family. You have enriched our community with your inclusive vision and filled our tummies with pizza so authentic I feel like I am eating it in an old-world cafe in Italy. Janet, Jameson, Jim Baker, and I pull up trendy orange chairs to sit at tables; I would later learn they are made from the floorboards of a family farmhouse. We settle in to chat about the heart behind this wonderful pizzeria, how our community – through the MyPros Community Crowdund – provided a much-needed matching grant, and what the Baker Family hopes for next.
I look over at Jameson, who is smiling ear to ear, and ask him to get us started, and he gleefully obliges, “My name is Jameson Baker, and we are at Pizza Baker – a local woodfired pizza business put together by my father. We have been open for three years, and we’re gonna make it our fourth year, this year in August.”
At this, Jim Baker, aka” Dad,” interjects, “We actually opened in 2014 as a mobile business. We would take our pizza oven to people’s homes and do graduation parties. This led to people asking us to set up in public spaces to make our pizzas. From private party caterers to being a food truck vendor at local Farmer’s Markets, we grew in confidence to finally open a brick and mortar.”
As I remember fondly the two years we shared a commissary kitchen at Live Oak, I look over at Jameson, smile and say, “I loved having you in the Plaza.” Jameson always made everyone feel so welcome as their “order taker”… he would even often remember what I liked on my pizza… a truly remarkable gift.
Jim shared that his heart behind Pizza Baker was originally to give his son Jameson a summer job. Jameson was going to the postsecondary special education program at Midland County’s Educational Service Agency, and Jim wanted to provide him with a way to gain skills and a sense of worth and to allow them to work together.
“Jameson started out by taking money and gradually learned different aspects of the business. Now he can even stretch his own dough, make his own pizza, launch it, cut it, and eat it!” Jim said as we all laughed.
Eating the pizza definitely seems like the best perk of the job!
“Two things that set us apart from every other pizza in the area are our commitment to work with people with disabilities and our signature sourdough pizza crust,” Jim shares.
Agreeing and enthusiastically nodding, I tell the Baker family how much our family loves their pizza. We travel often and have had the opportunity to eat pizza from around the world, but there is something special about the Pizza Baker recipe. I tell the Bakers our son always likes to meet up there when he is back in town because he loves it so much!
“Yes,” Jim responds, “being in Midland with a multi-national company headquartered here, our clients are from all over the world. And we’re frequently told that you know, woodfired pizza is big in Brazil. I didn’t know that. But we have Brazilians who tell us, ‘We just love coming here because it reminds us of home.’ I have another customer whose father was in the military and spent several years in Naples. She said this is the closest pizza she’s had from when she was a little girl in Italy. That’s a high compliment! So yeah, I think we got a good product.”
And, as I look around the walls and see local art from Creative 360’s Express Yourself Art Shop, where people with varying complex abilities can showcase their artwork, a beautiful puzzle mural representing Autism, and look out their big windows showcasing their excellent downtown patio space, I add that they also have a very welcoming space and great neighbors. Located in Downtown Midland, Pizza Baker shares an entry with Three Bridges Distillery & Taproom and often collaborates with them and other nearby businesses. They also work with Arnold Farms by sourcing their hydroponic microgreens for their salads and fresh basil.
“I want to offer our guests good quality ingredients that are locally sourced in a comfortable space with great people,” Jim emphasizes with pride.
I look over at Janet and can see how proud they both are of Jameson, their staff, and the success of Pizza Baker. I also can feel their immense gratitude for our community, especially MyPros, Midland Business Alliance, and the Midland Area Community Foundation, through their crowdfunding efforts.
Jim went on to share, “When we were getting ready to open the shop, they approached us and asked if we’d be interested in applying for a program they were putting together to raise funds for a local start-up business. And so, we completed the application and were awarded the crowdfunding program’s beneficiaries. It was launched at Wake Up Midland on a Friday morning in April , and the crowdfunding campaign was supported. The campaign was supposed to run for up to 30 days, and then if we raised $10,000 from the community, the Midland Business Alliance [via a grant from the Community Foundation] would match with $10,000, but the community responded in less than a week! We were over the $10,000! It was an overwhelming donation, and we were awarded that money plus the match. This gift allowed us to buy equipment that wasn’t in the budget. Mainly, our dough mixer is an Italian spiral dough mixer that gives our pizza dough the texture it has. We were also able to purchase outdoor furniture. These things really helped the business get jumpstarted.”
Janet describes this campaign as “wind in their sails.” As a traveling nursing home administrator, Janet has provided the Baker family with financial stability through the foundational and growing years of Pizza Baker. But, impressively, within this last year, she has joined Jameson and Jim full-time at Pizza Baker! She shared, “I love watching the staff grow. I love watching Jameson grow and am amazed at how he learns new things every day from us. The amazing thing to me is when we are swamped, we can rely on him to do the little things like grabbing more trays or cleaning off the tables for our guests. It just amazes me how focused he can be.”
“Janet’s career allowed us to build Pizza Baker without worrying about financial strain on the family because her income provided a solid base. So Jameson and I [Jim] could concentrate on doing this. But now Pizza Baker supports us financially. It’s fully off the ground and fully operational. I think we were still working on some things, but yes, we’re happy with the direction.”
“People come here because they’ve heard we have good pizza, especially on the weekends. But people come to Midland and want to see what we’re doing here because they’ve heard that we support youth with disabilities. And so, it started as something we wanted to do for our son. But now the operation here allows us to give a meaningful work experience to other people with disabilities besides our son.”
“We have an individual who’s blind, and he, with assistance, can provide a skill set that needs to be done. He can’t do everything that a nondisabled person can do, or a typically developed employee can do, but there are things that he does well, and he contributes a great deal. Our newest employee has Autism, so when we bring someone in with a disability, we take time to assess and discover what they can do. If they can’t do everything, we try to find if there are one or two things they can do well, then have them work on those tasks.”
“Another employee we hired was very shy in the beginning, but now he’s really developed confidence. Just watching him come out of his shell through our encouragement, we have seen him grow so much. When I asked ‘how has Pizza Baker helped you?’ He replied, ‘Well, you helped give me the confidence to drive now.’ He is even looking to move into an apartment on his own, potentially. So, it’s just nice to be able to help someone flourish and become just a better person.”
“When we interviewed him, he wouldn’t talk. And I remember thinking, how can I figure out who he is if he can’t speak to me? But when I asked him about baking, his eyes lit up, so I took him and showed him the kitchen and the different equipment, and through nonverbal communication, we knew he would be a good fit. And he’s been here since we opened!”
I look at Jameson and ask, “What’s your favorite part about working with your family?”
Jameson replies, “My favorite part about working is I get to run the cut station. I bounce back and forth between cutting and order taking.”
Janet adds, “Actually, that’s one of his strengths – taking orders. That was the first thing that he did when we were mobile. And if you’re a regular, even semi-regular, customer, you always order the same thing. So he will put your order in before you open your mouth.”
“How about you, Jim?”
“I’m happiest here with the dining room being full. Yeah. And the smile on people’s faces. When we’re back behind the counter, and I look out into the dining room, especially when there are new customers, I can look at them and look at their faces when they take their first bite of the pizza. Most people here love the pizza, but we’re not for everyone. Some people don’t like the char on the crust, and that’s okay. But, you see, I’m not here to serve everyone. And this isn’t a typical thought, but I have a product I believe in and want to share with people. It’s really that simple.”
“This is the first business we’ve ever owned. I’ve always worked for somebody else. And when you own your own business, it’s not a job. It’s what you do. It’s your purpose. And I’m glad; I just wish I had done this 30 years ago. But you go through life, and every experience forms you into the person you are, so the Jim Baker today is not at all who the Jim Baker was ten years ago, and who knows what the future will bring?”
Who knows, but I see many people who will enjoy delicious, artisanal pizza made with love, passion, heart, and care because of your family. And persons with complex abilities being given an opportunity to work with dignity, respect, and gain confidence. Thank you so much for your time, for sharing your inspirational story, and for pursuing this noble dream. Midland is better for it!
Last question – what are you excited about next?
Jameson gets the final words and shares, “I am 27 going on 28 and excited about summer starting and getting to do softball again.”
Me too, Jameson. Us too. I think we are all pretty excited about warmer days and outdoor events with our loved ones.
Together, Forward, Bold we go….