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Rising from the Ranks: An Army Veteran's Path To Baking, Business And Beyond

Chris Wysong, Army Veteran & Owner of Bucket of Bread

Tell us about you and your military background:

My name is Chris Wysong. I live in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I’m originally from a small town in Iowa. After my high school graduation, I joined the Army. The year was 1990.

I started out with a 4 year contract to be a cook; however, my recruiter came back before that started and told me we were going to rip up that contract and do a 2 year contract as a Petroleum Supply Specialist. I agreed and got him to throw in a clause to get my first duty station to be in Germany.

After my basic and my Advanced Individual Training, I was given my first duty orders. I was told to just find someone from the personnel offices once I landed and they’d help me find a unit in which to be assigned. It wasn’t much to go on for a Private, but with papers in hand, I arrived in Saudi Arabia towards the latter half of Desert Shield.

I ended up finding someone who helped assign me to a unit. For the rest of the Gulf War, I was attached to a Petroleum Supply Quartermaster Company from the Mississippi National Guard. We followed the 1st Infantry Division into Iraq and set up a fuel farm in the southern portion of the desert.

Afterwards, I eventually got my assignment to a unit in Germany. It was a Patriot Missile Battery in Kaiserslautern, Germany. I ended up back in Saudi Arabia for another deployment, Operation Determined Resolve.

After returning my initial contract soon ended. I left the military and was able to secure a space available from the outprocessing area in the US back to Frankfurt, Germany. I explored Europe and played while I held a couple civilian jobs to fund the adventures.

When I returned in 1996 I immediately joined up with the Army Reserves. I got an assignment to a Mobile Public Affairs Detachment. It was a unit near home and I became their administrative specialist. Within the year I transitioned into a Broadcast Journalist position. I was also invited to apply as a civilian Military Technician. I became the Unit Administrator during the week and on the Drilling weekends, dawned the uniform.

I eventually moved to the higher headquarters as I accepted a promoting position into a Logistics Management Specialist as a civilian. By 2002, I had achieved the rank of Staff Sergeant.

Since I had also been attending college classes at night, I was looking towards career progression as I was close to getting that degree. I had put the paperwork in for the Non-Commissioned Officer schooling but thought to also put in an application for Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia. My intent was to see what came back first.

It turned out I was accepted into the OCS program and I received a commission as an Ordnance Officer in 2003. I was also accepted as an Active Guard Reservist working full time for the same Iowa unit.

I immediately deployed upon completion of the Officer’s Basic Training in 2004 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. I lived on an Iraqi base called Q-West or the Qayyarah Airfield West.

After this deployment, I married, had a son, and deployed again in 2010. I returned in 2011 and left for Captain’s Career Course with a follow on assignment at Fort McCoy, Wisconsin as a Logistician. I stayed there, got divorced and finally retired out as a Captain in 2018.

Afterwards, I stayed in the area near Fort McCoy. I tried out a couple of jobs after the Military but eventually had an Idea and is where I find myself today.

Tell us about your business:

I am now the Career Army Veteran owner and founder of what I named Bucket of Bread LLC with the world headquarters located at a business incubator in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I like to say it is the next best thing since sliced bread.

Bucket of Bread offers high-quality baking mixes made from certified organic ingredients with a focus on clean and healthy. The innovative packaging allows for easy preparation. You simply add lukewarm water right into the fully recyclable bucket, which doubles as the storage container for the dough that can last up to 2 weeks in the fridge. Optionally, you could just use a stand mixer. Either way, the dough is completely free from preservatives, fats, oils, dairy, and eggs, making it a healthy option for vegans. With these mixes, you can easily make a variety of baked goods like garlic knots, pizza dough, cinnamon buns, breadsticks, pretzels, bagels, naan, or doughnuts. The website offers a growing number of recipes beyond just bread.

As a socially conscious business, Bucket of Bread shares a portion of its profits with charities combating hunger and food insecurity in America. Please sign up for the twice-monthly newsletter and learn more at BucketofBread.com.

Describe how you got the business started:

Probably like many of those who are reading this, I’ve always been an avid cook and baker for my own home kitchen. I’m going to have to give my mom special thanks here for teaching me how to cook, bake, and also for believing in Bucket of Bread. She started me out with some of my first memories making things with her in the kitchen as a young boy.

Like many others as well, I really just want to do some good in the world. So what better way, I said to myself, than to share this amazing method of creating wonderfully delicious items while also using my newly created products as a platform to help others.

For years, I’ve been making delicious at home baked products combined with my own homemade meals. Whenever there was a charity or event for fundraising, I would bake something special to add to the event. I found my breads and other baked goods were especially something to appreciate from an outpouring of constant feedback. Some folks even referred affectionately to me as, “The Bread Guy”.

These experiences and a genuine love for being in the kitchen, must have worked their way up from the back of his mind. One night a dream in a 3 a.m. dream vividly portrayed putting all those experiences and delicious creations into a bucket to help people. This concept then made its way to a sticky note and was pushed to the top of a to-do list.

This original idea quickly led to communication with the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse. There, a business plan was drafted, location secured, renovations made to pass state health code regulatory inspections, ingredients and buckets ordered, obtained a license, insured it all, and began producing buckets for farmers markets and online orders. This took all from August of 2020 when I formed the LLC to the last weekend of May in 2021 when I attended my first in-person farmers market.

Tell us why you wanted to become an entrepreneur:

The driving force is still helping those who are less fortunate. Bucket of Bread has brought tax deductible donations of buckets given by customers directly to the Hunger Task Force of La Crosse.

These buckets of Bucket of Bread brand dough mixes are placed directly into the food pantry distribution network. The continued support for this immediate endeavor is greatly appreciated and anyone can donate these buckets directly from the website at: https://bucketofbread.com/shop-entrance/donations/

In addition to bringing donations of buckets, Bucket of Bread continues to share profits with charities combating hunger and fighting food insecurity in America. That means every purchase helps because there is a good deed in every bucket!

Because I’ve had a whole career plus of working with the government and held jobs at civilian companies both in the United States and abroad, I feel it time to put something together that is bigger than myself and worthy of the time and investment of my personal savings to begin to build it.

Describe how your military background prepared you for entrepreneurship:

An important applicable concept is a simple mission analysis. I remembered using the identifications of capabilities, requirements, and shortfalls during my Army career. For me, these are the points which transition very well and also let you really know when and for what to ask for help. To me, this is a great tool that helps you focus and direct your overall plan to achieve the success you want.

Basically, it is your identified particular action that you want to accomplish listed out. You can have multiple items on this list if you wish. But, for each item you need to plan out what you are capable of doing to cross it off as done. You need to list out what you need to cross it off. Then the difference between the 2 are the shortfalls. The shortfalls are the gaps you need to obtain additional resources or ask for support in order to get that item off your to-do list.

Another nice skillset a career in the Military provided, was keeping a growth and mission oriented mindset. I learned that whatever you’re creating or doing, you have to keep it simple at the core and that starts with building a team.

Basically, it boils down to who’s in your squad, your platoon, and ultimately your company? Will you grow beyond that? What are you doing inside of your world to maintain cohesion and get the missions done? Even if you are a solopreneur, your family and friends are just the start of that team as you grow as an entity beyond the company level.

Overall though, what I found helpful in a lot of trials and tribulations is resiliency. Keeping this one in balance is difficult for me and constantly requires work on my part. There are a lot of emotional ups and downs on the entrepreneurial journey. You’re going to want to focus your balance in your personal and business life.

Basically, This means to attend to your basic human needs so you perform at your best: physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and family. All of these will affect your business if they are not in balance. Keeping these areas in your life in check will help you when you need to believe in yourself, cope with stressors, and adapt during times of difficult circumstances.

Tell us about some of your obstacles and challenges, and how you overcame them:

Choosing to become an entrepreneur really does have an obstacle (challenge) at every turn. Basically, I just need to maintain an understanding that mistakes happen along this journey. I do try to be smart about trying to learn from each one.

The key is trying not to let this defeat you. To do this, I’ve found that every tiny win needs to be celebrated. I do this because I really need to keep myself motivated as these tiny wins add up. I try to keep in my mind and my work that the next move is the action that launches Bucket of Bread into the next level of success and beyond.

Having a mission for my business beyond just creating a product and selling it is also a huge motivator. This keeps me knowing that the bigger I build it, the more good in the world this endeavor will have. It’s about trying to make a worthy impact.

Otherwise, some of the more challenging tasks I’ve had to face were just starting. The first obstacle was making sure the renovations needed at the location from which I rent were in line with the regulatory guidelines to pass the proper inspections. Of course this didn’t go according to budget and I began to worry about the potential of the available funds I had set aside.

Luckily, I’d been trying to get my brand noticed and discovered that sticking my neck out for every opportunity I could find was very helpful. I entered a pitch competition and was awarded a $20,000 prize that helped with lots of the initial costs. 

Describe how you’re doing today and what the future looks like:

Today, Bucket of Bread is working to grow with the top goal being to expand the product line. The number one complaint is that the current product allows for too much dough to be made. So, while it has taken some time to find, there will be half sized buckets available very soon. With that, there will be some looking at upgrades to the design of the labeling with the help of a graphic artist.

In addition to expanding the product line, there is some work to take place with some other organizations. The current discussions will include monthly purchases, promotions, and distribution. I’d say more but there’s still a lot in the works.

I’ve successfully partnered with some folks in the past, and I’d like to communicate with even more folks again in the coming months for both corporate gifting options and also fundraising events such as for schools.

Bucket of Bread has again been offered a position on the Bunker Labs Holiday Shopping Guide for 2023. For those who don’t know, Bunker Labs is a great non-profit organization which provides community, programs, and courses to help military veterans and military spouses start and grow successful businesses and startups. I was fortunate enough to participate in 2 back-to-back virtual cohort sessions.

As far as the ultimate vision I have for Bucket of Bread goes, I want to see Bucket of Bread become a household name. I’d like it in as many pantries as possible. I’ve begun the very first steps in working with a mentor. I’m not at liberty to discuss the arrangement and efforts yet; however, I’m very excited to learn from someone who has become a leader in the food and beverage space. I anticipate this newly formed relationship to open several doors I’m ready to eagerly walk through.

Share some advice with your fellow veteran entrepreneurs:

Work with your local SBDC. Sign up for Bunker Labs. Communicate with SCORE mentors for your area. Connect with your local chamber of commerce. Create a vision board and become the face of your company to make your plan into a reality.

Put yourself out there; do it everywhere. Talk about your business, your ideas, your goals, and ask for help along the way. Remember, if you don’t ask, the answer is always, “NO.” Apply to pitch contests. Look into 1-Million Cups.

Whatever the case, at some point, should you want to start that business, you have to just roll up your sleeves and do it. Here’s the thing, go start that business and figure a lot of it out along the way. And, if you do start a business, if it doesn’t make it on as a huge success, you have learned to do it again at another time but just better. Take the calculated chance on something you believe in and keep learning.

 Where can we go to learn more: