Christopher Gee bakes sourdough two days each week for satisfied customers who pre-order the bread. (Courtesy William Gee)

Christopher Gee bakes sourdough two days each week for satisfied customers who pre-order the bread. (Courtesy William Gee)

SF teens start successful pandemic-era businesses

Richmond kids sell homemade sourdough, wash cars

Some teens in the Richmond district aren’t simply coping during the pandemic as they face the challenges of living with coronavirus and remote schooling. Rather, they’re thriving, operating their own new businesses with enthusiasm.

Christopher Gee, 14, a Lowell High School freshman, makes and sells more than a dozen sourdough breads each week in the family kitchen, charging $7 apiece.

Ethan Sargent, 16, a sophomore at Sacred Heart Cathedral Preparatory, washes cars in front of the family’s 18th Avenue home, charging $10 to $15 depending on size. He stays busy dealing with a flood of demands online — even hitting a record of cleaning 40 cars in one day — before doing his homework and getting some sleep.

Ethan Sargent has been doing brisk business washing cars in his neighborhood in the Richmond.<ins> (Courtesy Al Sargent)</ins>

Ethan Sargent has been doing brisk business washing cars in his neighborhood in the Richmond. (Courtesy Al Sargent)

Christopher — who says his interests and passions include dragon boat paddling, piano, the stock market and cooking — started exploring the mysteries of sourdough at age 10, when his Canadian cousin was in town. She brought her starter with her on the visit, and showed Christopher and his dad basics of making sourdough.

“I was totally amazed by the product you could produce with such simple ingredients, and the moment sparked my interest and my desire to perfect the art of making sourdough,” said Christopher.

It’s taken years for 14-year-old baker Christopher Gee to perfect his sourdough loaves, using a recipe that requires many steps.. <ins>(Courtesy William Gee)</ins>

It’s taken years for 14-year-old baker Christopher Gee to perfect his sourdough loaves, using a recipe that requires many steps.. (Courtesy William Gee)

As with many people — regardless of age, especially at the start of the lockdown, when people were obsessed with home-baking — Christopher’s first attempt, a loaf that had a burned top and a soggy bottom, was a disaster. He turned to YouTube videos, Google research, and FaceTiming with his cousin, he says, to, “get to where I am today.”

During the experimenting stage, Christopher distributed the imperfect bread to friends, family and relatives, all for feedback. “Four years have gone by now, and when the pandemic hit, all my free time was spent cooking or baking,” he said.

Christopher Gee’s sourdough-baking sessions in his Richmond kitchen take 10 hours. (Courtesy William Gee)

Christopher Gee’s sourdough-baking sessions in his Richmond kitchen take 10 hours. (Courtesy William Gee)

That’s when the realization struck that business requires much more than producing a product, however crispy and tasty. “There was definitely a learning curve and I made many mistakes down the road; sometimes I would have miscounted the number of orders I had or have even forgotten to write down an order. A few times, I wouldn’t even have any customers for that day or week,” said Christopher.

The current problem is the opposite. He has too many orders as he continues to bake “only” about 16 loaves a week, making them available only on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

For Christopher, a big thing to learn was how to deal with customers in a professional manner. “Figuring out how to respond to them and finding out what is the best method of communication was a bigger challenge than I had expected,” he said.

Christopher Gee first got interested in making sourdough after a cousin introduced him to the painstaking process. (Courtesy William Gee)

Christopher Gee first got interested in making sourdough after a cousin introduced him to the painstaking process. (Courtesy William Gee)

And while the bread he bakes is no doubt of high quality, Christopher’s communication is what impresses patrons the most. He responds promptly to inquiries by phone or email, and has a simple form for information and request:

“Please answer the following 4 questions to confirm your order: 1.Would you like to place an order for Wednesday 2/10 or Saturday 2/13? 2. How many loaves would you like to order? 3. Please let me know what method of payment you will be using; 4. Will you be choosing pickup or delivery?”

From first contact to delivery or pickup, everything goes smoothly.

He is sympathetic, too, when he fields online complaints from legions of new home bakers seeking help: “There are many factors that could cause you to fail. It could be your mixing, ingredient ratios, kneading, proofing temperature, over proofing, under proofing, baking temperature, or even scoring.

“I think the most common mistake is messing up the proofing temperature. Proofing is a crucial step in baking sourdough so messing that up could ruin your entire loaf. Making sourdough can be a tough challenge but just like everything else, practice makes perfect,” he said.

[Proofing is process when the yeast ferments to develop flavor, and when the dough rises.]

Christopher Gee’s home-baked sourdough rivals that of professional bakeries. (Courtesy William Gee)

Christopher Gee’s home-baked sourdough rivals that of professional bakeries. (Courtesy William Gee)

Although business is booming now, maintaining hefty sales is not Christopher’s main motivation. He said, “I don’t make a lot of money from it, but I continue to sell bread because I love the experience: to put a smile on someone’s face, even if it’s only for one meal, is what I aim to do.”

For Ethan, the moment of inspiration for his business came with the soot-filled days of California wildfires in 2020, when vehicles were ash-covered and car washes were closed. He began with a few cars in front of his home, but soon found himself overwhelmed, with autos waiting in a long line, going around the corner and farther.

His father helped organize the enterprise, and Ethan also engaged the help of a friend. Together they managed to wash dozens of cars, getting plaudits from customers.

Ethan has high praise and appreciation for “laid-back, supportive neighbors” whose driveways were temporarily blocked, who did not complain too much as he worked on the street in 10-hour days.

Ethan Sargent got the idea for his business when he noticed dirty vehicles on the streets during the fire season and car washes were closed due to pandemic restrictions. <ins>(Courtesy Al Sargent)</ins>

Ethan Sargent got the idea for his business when he noticed dirty vehicles on the streets during the fire season and car washes were closed due to pandemic restrictions. (Courtesy Al Sargent)

Ethan’s father Al Sargent, a marketing communication executive, assisted by spreading the word on Nextdoor and organizing the schedule:

“When Ethan got the idea as we were driving on California Street and he said he will start the business, we already had a pressure washer, and we bought some soap, wax and towels at O’Reilly Auto Parts on Geary, with the agreement that Ethan would pay us back for his earnings,” said Sargent, adding, “The first day was very successful, perhaps a bit too successful. We had a line of cars going down the block, and our neighbors understandably didn’t appreciate cars blocking their garages. So, we set up a reservation system, which is better for everyone. Less time waiting for a wash, no driveways blocked, and better for the environment with fewer cars idling.”

Today, continuing to take pride in the business, Ethan is maintaining the heavy work schedule as he’s going to school, two days in-person and three on Zoom.

In the future, he’d like to own a Ford F-150 truck, which he’d use in another business: selling shave ice, the Hawaiian treat requiring an exacting “shave”-ing of proper ice, topped with flavored syrup.

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