By Ginna Parsons
When Troy DeRego was in college, he spent a semester at sea sailing on a research vessel. Surprisingly, this is where the Starkville businessman learned to bake bread.
“We all had to take turns in the ship’s galley and cook for the crew,” said DeRego, 48. “We had a really well-stocked galley, but we had to make bread fresh every day. I made dinner rolls, English muffins, crepes. You wanted to make something different when it was your turn to make the meal. None of us were trained cooks – we were just following recipes.”
When DeRego got back to shore, he told himself he was going to bake something every day. And he has lived up to that promise.
DeRego is owner/baker at DeRego’s on West Main Street in downtown Starkville. He started out making baguettes and sourdough breads but his bakery now specializes in craft-beer crackers. But that leap from bread to crackers has taken years of tinkering.
“I started baking for the Farmers’ Market here in 2013,” he said. “I was making baguettes and sourdough. I knew sourdough would be a big hit, even though I don’t like the term sourdough. I’d rather call it naturally levened bread.”
In 2015, DeRego took a leap of faith and opened his bakery. His wife, Becky Hagenston, who teaches creative writing at Mississippi State University, laid down two rules: First, he couldn’t lose money in the venture. And second, he had to have time off for trips.
“My wife and I like to travel,” he said. “Come spring break, we just get to drop and go. We’ve been to London and Paris and Dublin. When we get back home, we try to hold onto those memories. Baking bread was my way to do that. My time in France led me to European-style breads. Baguettes became my obsession.”
DeRego’s dream was just to bake bread every day and sell it at his shop. But he knew there wouldn’t be enough demand for him to make a living solely selling bread, so he decided to try different things.
“We tried breakfast; we tried pizza,” he said. “But no one thing ever stood out as the answer to which piece of the puzzle was going to carry the weight. We had fans for everything we did. But we were spread too thin. We had to see a path forward. So I looked ahead to see where I wanted to be in five years.”
He knew he needed to find a way to reach a larger audience. Fresh bread has a shelf life of only one day and he needed something to last longer. Ironically, the answer was right under his nose.
“When we make sourdough, it’s fed every day and there’s always a little bit that’s discarded,” he said. “If you throw it in the sink or the garbage, it keeps fermenting. I learned that if I put it in the oven and baked it off, in the mornings, I’d come in to this big delicious cracker. The only thing that kept it from being a true cracker was salt.”
Then DeRego began thinking about shelf life and his time sailing.
“All the sailing ships went out with crackers called hardtack – that’s what sailors would eat on voyages that would last for years,” he said. “I thought, if there’s a cracker that lasts for years, surely I can figure this out. I put the two ideas together – sourdough is a natural flavor enhancer. It took some experimenting, but I managed to come up with a plain sourdough cracker. I rolled them out and they were a big hit.”
But DeRego couldn’t be satisfied with just a plain cracker. He did more experimenting and now has about seven flavors for sale, including sesame sticks, sunflower-seed crackers and flaxseed rye crackers.
“But the ones we’re most excited about are the craft-beer crackers,” he said. “This is the next big piece of the puzzle.”
DeRego has several friends who are home brewers who, at the end of the beer-making process, are left with what are called spent grains.
“As a whole-grain baker, I’m always into trying out different grains in my crackers,” he said. “So I got some spent grains from friends and started drying them in the oven – mostly malted barley. I mixed them with the sourdough and let the dough ferment overnight and the crackers we baked the next day were exceptional.”
DeRego got more spent grains from other brewer friends, assuming they would all end up tasting the same. He was wrong.
“They came out tasting as different as the beers from those grains – Octoberfest, Pale Ale Rye, Hazy IPA, Stout, English Ale,” he said. “They’re called spent grains, but that’s not really a fair name. They have concentrated nutrients and concentrated protein so actually they’re better for you now than they were to begin with.”
DeRego’s dream now is to take his craft-beer crackers to a national audience. So far, Restaurant Tyler and Dave’s Dark House Tavern in Starkville and the Neon Pig in Tupelo have featured them, and a Kickstarter campaign was launched in February.
“The campaign was to raise money for a piece of equipment to make the crackers,” he said. “That’s when we really announced the crackers to the world. We now ship to states all across the country. There are only four or five states left that we don’t ship to.”
DeRego is quick to point out that crackers can be eaten at breakfast, as a snack, with soups or salads, crumbed up and used as breadcrumbs, or used as a base for little pizzas.
“Our mission is to convince people that they’re more than just crackers,” he said. “It’s a healthy product that’s also delicious. What inspired me to start my own business was a desire to lead a purposeful life. What better purpose is there than to nourish people with delicious food?”