Welcome to Breaking Bread, the interview series that highlights key people in the sourdough scene! In today’s post, I talk with Tyler Cartner, owner of Wire Monkey Shop and founder of Bakers in Knead fund. Tyler has a varied background, from being a USMC helicopter mechanic in Japan and California, to environmental engineering, to tube audio design and retail, to production sound recording for film and TV, among other careers. He began making bread lames in 2018 and soon found great enough success to quit his job.
Now, he has four full-time employees and has a reputable business built on quality, trust and community. Here, we discuss the humble beginnings of Wire Monkey Shop, the creation of the UFO lame, his ethical business practices, and his very real battle with counterfeiters.
This post contains affiliate links. For more information, see my disclosures here.
Hi Tyler, thanks so much for joining me! So let’s start with something I’m dying to know: How did you come to invent the UFO lame in the very beginning?
So, my wife started baking in the summer of 2018 and this coincided with me coming off of two years of intensive self-study and learning about CNC, machining, and woodworking. I have a background in mechanics and I had just built my first machine, and I was itching to do something with it. One day I saw my wife using a coffee stirrer and razor blade to slash her dough. I thought to myself, “I can make a cool one of those.” And this is before I knew anything about baking whatsoever; I didn’t even know what a lame was. It was not in my vocabulary. Honestly, I didn’t even know that people slashed bread.
The first one I made was actually a stick type. It was called The Moby and it looked like an abstract sperm whale. It was all 3D and made on my CNC, but I didn’t know at the time that people used the thin double-edged razor blades. I made The Moby for a single edge blade. But I threw it on Etsy and I sold about 50 or so, but the labor was so intensive that I was selling them for $60 or $70 a piece. I was spending so much time making them and doing all the labor myself, it just was not a good business model.
Then I went on Instagram and started looking at bread bakers. I noticed that a lot of them were holding the razor blade in their fingers. And I thought, “why don’t I try to make something small?” So I set some criteria for myself: I wanted it to be as small as possible, as simple as possible, and something that you can actually store the blade inside of. I started sketching and very quickly came upon the idea for the circular lame, the UFO.
It was really a throwback to the 1950s sci-fi movies that I liked so much. I made a prototype within a couple of days, and I threw that on Etsy and I sold a few of those. The labor was still fairly intensive; I was just starting out. And then I got in touch with Anna Gabor (@breadjourney) on Instagram. She is an amazing scorer and at the time she was kind of the queen of ornate scoring on Instagram and one of the only people doing it.
So I reached out to her and said, “Hey, I make a lame. Do you want to try it out?” And she had just started doing a review of different lames. I sent her one of mine and she compared it with the others. She told me, “I used yours, and I just decided that I am never going to use any other lame. I love your lame so much!” And then she came up with the pattern on top of the Bread Journey lame, she started to help me promote it, and then things took off. That was cool, the moment you realize, oh, this is something. That, combined with me learning how to use Instagram and promote myself, turned the lame-making into a small business.
So it was fall of 2018 when I listed our first products. We were living in Brooklyn at the time in a little apartment, and my shop was a 7’ x 13’ room in the basement. It had all my little tools and machines in there and it was so jammed. I still cannot believe that none of the neighbors complained! I had a dust filtration system that was shooting out the basement window, and I was making so much noise with machines and routers and sanding machines going, and no one ever complained. The first 5000 or so lames were made in that little tiny basement.
How did you take your newfound passion and turn it into a business?
Well, the lames kept growing in popularity, and I began making different UFO’s. I partnered up with other artists like Jess Wagoner who does block printing and we made the maple UFO with the Grainiacs logo, and I started reaching out to various artists that were also bakers. I like collaborating; I am interested in working with people and trying to come up with ideas together.
I started hiring my daughter’s friends to work in the basement with me. My living room table became like the assembly area, it was crazy. Now I have four full-time employees!
Before this, I was a production sound mixer for film and television. I had been doing that for 15 years and I was ready for a change. Just before COVID hit, I decided that this business was doing well enough that I could give up my old job. Then, when COVID hit, everyone and their moms started baking – they’re trapped in the house, they’re isolated, and it became trendy. Right at that moment we had moved to Connecticut and I had outfitted my garage as a workshop, so I had a lot more space and it just blew up at that point. We were trying to keep up with orders and I was hiring people in the midst of a pandemic. So it was a crazy time in early 2020.
So, I have to ask: why Wire Monkey? Where did that name come from?
It’s funny, I’ve had that business name for a really long time. I have always been a bit of a nerd and an audiophile. So, I was making and selling tube preamplifiers and accessories for audio gear. The “wire” comes from electronics in general, and the “monkey” comes from my daughter whom I always called my little monkey.
That’s so cute. You mentioned your daughter a lot; she obviously helped with the business. Does she still?
Yes, she lives with us now in Connecticut and she is our full-time office manager. When the business blew up, I was doing everything and my head was about to explode. I was working 18-hour days manufacturing and making the lames and trying to market them, plus just all the little things involved in trying to build a business. I just could not keep up. My daughter was living in Brooklyn and I wanted to get her out of the city because COVID was getting bad, so she moved in with us and she has been here since. It has been good to have her here with the family.
That is so wonderful. Fortunately you are experiencing the opposite of what a lot of small businesses are experiencing through this pandemic. It’s so hard to see that happening, so I am truly glad for you.
Yeah, thank you. One of the things we did really early on was that we created the Bakers in Knead organization, which is now an official nonprofit 501(c)(3). We did that specifically to help bakers that are struggling through COVID. We had some really big donations and we were able to give away around $500 a week to bakers who would tell us their story, to help them get through this pandemic. We love the baking community, so we try to give back as much as we can.
That’s amazing, Tyler. You’re doing so much good. And speaking of the online baking community, who inspires you most within that community?
You know, I am inspired by the artists. I’m a little biased because I love the scoring part of it. And it is so fun for me to see. I still do all my own Instagramming and reposting, and I take at least two hours a day just looking through people who tag me in their posts, people do the hashtags #wiremonkeylame, #wiremonkeyshop, and so on.
But I am really inspired by the artists that are doing fun stuff with bread. There will be a lot of the same thing happening and then all of a sudden somebody starts chopping up the bread and making figures out of it, or the trick where they slice the bread and there’s a face inside. It is just fun to see, it is like, wow, bread has now become an art medium. It’s not just about flour, water and salt anymore. And I take a great sense of joy when my tool is in the hands of a baker who is doing all this really creative stuff. It is definitely a source of pride.
I see those same posts and it’s truly amazing what people come up with! That’s so fun. Speaking of which, what has been your favorite part of your journey so far?
Well, again, I like the community. I like the relationships. I have formed relationships with bakers mostly via Instagram, gotten to know them as we DM and we talk about their personal histories and sometimes I get to know them well enough that we video chat and if the pandemic were not on, we probably would have visited people around the world by now. So, I’ve really liked that part of the journey. I also like the design elements; I like to try to think outside the box, give myself restrictions and limitations. Like the Arc lame that came out: I am always about making things as simple as possible.
I have sketchbooks filled with probably 30 different ideas about how to make a small curved lame. And then I finally came up with the thing that I think is elegant, beautiful, simple and so that is fun for me. I like to create. And then I also like to streamline the manufacturing process. The nerdy engineer in me is all about how do we make the product faster while either maintaining the same quality or improving the quality.
We are never thinking about farming it out or how to make it more cheaply. Honestly, it has never been about the money. It is about trying to have a business that is doing things responsibly: paying fair wages, respecting the environment… We do not use plastics. In fact, we take it to the nth degree. The tape that I use in the boxes has vegetable gum glue! We research stuff ad nauseum. I do not want to be one more business on the planet that is contributing to pollution or cheap labor.
You mentioned you saw a boost when the pandemic hit in early 2020; any other insights from that crazy period of time last year?
I mean, it is still ongoing, right? Not only that, we did have an initial spike in sales from COVID and all that, but it has also been really volatile. There has been all the turmoil that was happening with politics, and the upheavals, the Black Lives Matter movement. And so, business goes up and down, but as a business owner, I had never thought that business and politics should mix. But, in my opinion, in the current state of affairs, it sort of has to. I know that I do my personal shopping based on the political affiliations of businesses. Like I would not support businesses that I think are doing harm to the world. So I think that it is important as a business owner to let people know where you stand. I do not ever want to be trying to preach to people what to believe, but I do think that my customers should know a little bit or enough about the business to be able to make those decisions.
Absolutely. And something else that affects business: counterfeits! I’ve seen you warn customers about copies and counterfeits; tell me more about that.
Yeah, unfortunately they have been coming up. There are two different types of people that copy. Some people copy the round design which, you know, there is nothing I can do about that. But then there are the counterfeits. There is a difference between copies and counterfeits. Counterfeits are stealing. For example, there is Anna’s graphic design that she created, and now there are counterfeits coming out of China with her design on them. They are selling them to bread supply distributors for $1.50 a piece, so they can’t possibly be paying fair wages. Their lames are laser etched, whereas mine are engraved. There are serious quality differences between these copies versus what we do. We hand finish everything, everything is done by human beings, and there is a lot of care and thought and love that goes into our products.
Unfortunately, or fortunately – I do not know how you want to say it – but my cousin bought one and sent it to me because he thought I should see what they are doing. I really didn’t want to see it, but I did. The poor quality is the first thing I noticed. The hardware is glued in and there is glue trailing off, the edges are not smooth, they’re laser etched… It is a mass production of an object, but it does not replicate the beauty of the original, and that is hard to deal with.
They are even copying the leather holsters, but they’re made from either plastic or new leather. My sister hand-makes the holsters from what we call upcycled leather. We buy the leather from furniture makers, car reupholstery places… This is stuff that would end up in the scrapyard. So, we aren’t contributing to the death of animals to harvest leather, but it’s not synthetic stuff either. It is real leather.
All I know is that I am thankful that the baking community is the type of community that cares about these things. They want to buy something that is real, and made by hand, and made with care, as opposed to buying a knockoff. But a lot of times people just don’t know. Sometimes I will see a post on Instagram where somebody tagged me, and I will look at it and it is a Chinese knockoff. So I will reach out to them in a DM and even though I’m mad, I cannot be mad at them. So I just say, “Hey, sorry, but you didn’t get a real Wire Monkey Shop lame. You bought a counterfeit and unfortunately it is not the same quality’’. Generally they are upset, they really thought they were buying a Wire Monkey Shop lame. These counterfeiters aren’t using the name Wire Monkey, but they are using UFO.
One just popped up in Thailand and they’re copying all of my models, almost exactly. The Nux, The Arc even, and they are using our photographs and my text! It’s frustrating because as a small business owner I just do not have the money to go hire a legal team in Thailand to go after them, you know, I am not a multimillion-dollar business. I did reach out to them and I said, you are using my copyrighted photographs. I mean, my wife’s hand is holding the product! It is so wrong on so many levels.
So the customer thinks they are getting the product that is in the photo, but they’re not going to get that product, and it is infuriating to me because I want them to have something that I believe is beautiful and made with the utmost of integrity and creativity and care. I think it’s important for people to know that we do not sell on Amazon. If you live in the U.S. and you want to buy one of our products, you have to go to wiremonkey.com. We do also sell on Etsy, but there are also so many copies and counterfeits on Etsy that your best bet is to go to wiremonkey.com. And if you live outside the U.S., we have a resellers section on the website that lists the official resellers are all around the world so people know they’re getting an authentic Wire Monkey lame.
All I can do is just keep my head down and continue to make the best products I can make, and build the business that way.