This wood-fired brick oven bakery in the foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains uses simplicity and a devotion to locally sourced, organic ingredients to appeal to a cosmopolitan and socially aware clientele.
Asheville, N.C., is a sort of crossroads. It is Appalachian to the core, but its temperate climate makes it attractive both to Northerners seeking shelter from the snow and Southerners seeking respite from the heat. And the city's status as a gateway to the Blue Ridge Mountains lures tourists and permanent transplants alike to the area. The resulting community is all-inclusive and a melting pot of food preferences.
Flat Rock Village Bakery in nearby Flat Rock takes the simple, real elements of a mountain town bakery and runs with them. It uses locally sourced, all-natural and organic ingredients that sophisticated, socially aware consumers demand to produce a range of simple but upscale baked products that appeal to the far-flung tastes of the blended community.
David Workman and Scott Unfried are co-owners of the bakery. They also share a restaurant, West First Wood-fired Pizza in Hendersonville, N.C. Unfried started Flat Rock Village Bakery in 2001, then partnered with Workman in 2006 to open the restaurant.
Unfried originally only sold bread out of 600 sq. ft. of production space attached to a popular gift shop and general store called The Wrinkled Egg. The bakery became popular with the store's patrons; primarily families going to and from the nearby summer camps. When Workman joined, the bakery commandeered an additional 600 sq. ft. of retail space from the gift shop that would serve as the café.
Workman runs the bakery, while Unfried handles the restaurant. Flat Rock produces all of the pizza dough and bread for West First, which has a brick oven of its own. Local artisan baker Jon Hartzler joined the team as head baker shortly after Workman became involved.
The wood-burning brick oven hearth is the defining characteristic of Flat Rock Village Bakery. The basic oven dovetails nicely with the bakery's rustic, earthy style.
“It's nice to take some of the extra technology out of the baking process every now and then,” Workman says. “I also love the brick oven bread; it bakes really fast, and it's a totally different kind of crust because it doesn't have the steam injection. It relies on the natural steam released from the breads during the baking process, so it's a thicker, chewier crust. It also lends itself more to sourdough breads, so that's what we focus on. Ciabatta is our only non-sourdough.”
But the brick oven also presents some challenges. The biggest issue is temperature variation — the oven cools as production wears on. This necessitates a precise baking schedule to get certain breads in and out in their ideal temperature zone. The oven also had a steep learning curve. In the beginning, if it was fired too hot or too late in the evening; morning bakers would arrive at 5 a.m. to find the oven unusable. They had to open all the doors, clean out the embers and wait until the oven cooled to a working temperature.
“This oven really holds heat well,” Workman says. “We have temperature probes in several places, so we now know what temperature we can expect at 5 a.m. based on a reading at 5 p.m. the night before.” They then make adjustments before going home in order to hit a narrow temperature target window that's 12 hours away.
At peak production, the oven needs to be exceptionally hot. Bakers start baking bread at 4 a.m., and the oven needs to stay hot enough to still be baking bread at 10 a.m. With so many batches, the doors are frequently opened and closed, so the temperature slope is steeper than it is during a normal production cycle. This affects the entire baking schedule, with different products occupying different spaces on a variable temperature slope. It's an equation the bakers have to work out every day, but Workman says the bread the oven produces makes it worthwhile. Loaves bake very quickly when the oven is at its ideal temperature; just 20 minutes to produce a thick crust with a good color and moist interior.
The bakery uses a lot of wood, sometimes more than a cord (a load of 4 ft. by 4 ft. by 8 ft. of chopped and stacked foot-long logs) per week. As with his baking ingredients, Workman uses locally sourced wood to fuel the oven. The area is heavily wooded, but the supply chain isn't without its hiccups.
“We go through a lot of suppliers. Eventually, the suppliers' stockpile dwindles, and they start bringing us green wood, and that's not good,” Workman says. “Green wood is difficult to light, it pops and doesn't burn very hot. So when we start to get green wood, we have to find a new supplier.”
A wood-fired brick oven requires extra labor and planning, but Workman believes the oven is an extension of the bakery's persona.
All the breads, Danish, croissants and bagels use preferments and are retarded overnight. This eases the production schedule and the slow, cool fermentation increases the products' flavor.
Scones are the best-selling bakery item at Flat Rock, and it sells between 40 and 150 per day, depending on the season. They are an inexpensive accompaniment to the bakery's coffee program, and customers buy them by the box — especially the cranberry apricot variety.
“They are definitely the best scones I've ever had, and they are easy to make. If we start to run out on a busy morning, we can quickly mix more, and they are out of the oven 18 minutes later. Sometimes customers come in looking for a certain flavor, and if we don't have it, we make it while they wait. We really try to go out of our way to keep the customers happy and to sell them the freshest bakery products possible,” Workman says.
Due in part to the population of New York transplants, bagels are also popular. The bakery sells five to seven dozen bagels on busy weekend days during the summer season. That might not sound like much, but for a bakery with 600 ft. of production space, that's a lot of hand-shaped, boiled and brick oven-baked bagels. Filled Danish and croissants combine for sales of as many as 10 dozen per day, again depending on the season. Sticky buns are only offered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but they are big sellers when available.
Though sweetgoods are popular, Flat Rock distinguishes itself from traditional southern bakeries by focusing on wholesome, organic and natural elements to go along with pure indulgence. All Danish and croissants are hand laminated, using organic flour, organic eggs and high-quality organic dried fruit.
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“We generally get a good response from anything whole grain, and it seems like more people are asking for it,” Workman says. “We position ourselves as a very organic, healthy bakery by making everything from scratch with organic ingredients — and when possible, with whole grains. I want customers to know that when they are indulging in our bakery items, they are getting the best ingredients possible so they can be guilt-free.”
Cookies and brownies are made with organic whole wheat pastry flour. The average sticky bun customer might not care that they are eating a honey, organic sugar, real butter, hand-laminated bun without any corn syrup, but Workman wouldn't make them any other way.
As evidenced by the popularity of the nine-grain bread, Flat Rock's customers are sensitive to health trends. Bread is a cornerstone of the bakery, but the focus is narrow, with only a few varieties of sourdough, specialty and ciabatta breads being produced daily. Sourdough, whole wheat sourdough, sunflower and nine-grain breads comprise the crusty breads. Specialty breads include cranberry, walnut, olive rosemary, wheat walnut and three-cheese garlic basil. Fougasse, a popular specialty choice available only on weekends, is a flatbread made from ciabatta dough stuffed with fresh basil pesto and asiago or fontina cheese.
Pizza and other lunch menu items account for 35 percent of sales. “Really, without lunch, we'd have a hard time making it,” Workman says. “We have a small crew, and to have a café, for a bakery like this, is key. It enables Flat Rock to remain 100 percent retail, so we don't have to go hunt down wholesale accounts. It also enables us to concentrate on the bakery products that excite us, such as specialty breads or pastries that might not have the mass appeal necessary for a wholesale market.”
Flat Rock is one of seven bakeries in the Asheville area to participate in a movement focused on increasing self-sufficiency in ingredients. In response to the commodities price roller coaster of 2008 and 2009, Asheville baker Jennifer Lapidus started the North Carolina Bread Flour Project. Her idea was to relieve area bakeries' dependence on global flour markets as much as possible by connecting bakers with North Carolina farmers who are willing to grow organic wheat for bread flour.
Lapidus acquired a mill in Asheville for the group, and the plan is to have North Carolina-grown flour for local bakeries to use as early as this summer. The mill won't replace all of the flour required for production, but bakers can offer and promote certain breads that use exclusively North Carolinian organic flour. Workman acknowledges that the project has a lot to work to do, but he is excited by the fact that it is getting such traction.
“This movement for North Carolina-grown flour is definitely influenced by the nationwide demand for local food, and this is especially strong in this area. We have a large number of tailgate and farmers markets, organic vegetable farms and organically raised meats,” he says. “As a bakery/restaurant owner I have always tried to support my local growers because it makes sense on every level. The food is fresher and better, and these farmers are my customers so it is a self-supporting cycle. My customers always respond enthusiastically to locally sourced food, even if it means they might pay a little more. We have a tailgate market in Flat Rock, and I try to load up on produce for the bakery each week.”
The greater Asheville area of western North Carolina seems to be ahead of other places in the Southeast with its progressive commitment to local food and artisan bakeries. A real foodie vibe permeates the area. Workman credits this mentality to the fact that people living in the Asheville area are there for the high quality of life and natural beauty of the mountainous region. “We want to work hard, play harder and eat really well,” he says.
The small scale of the operation allows Workman to maintain consistent quality. The bakery doesn't set out to sell hundreds of loaves of bread per day or produce 30 different pastry varieties. Instead, Workman focuses on a few products and spends extra time to make sure all are done well. A low staff attrition rate aids in consistency.
Hartzler has been making the breads five days a week for four years, and Bonnie Fox has been making the scones, cookie dough, brownies, Danish fillings and granola for two years. Workman depends on his employees, so he works to keep them happy and committed because changeover affects quality. Also, he is in the bakery every day, so he can keep an eye on things. Everyone makes mistakes, but with a small group that is together every day, someone is likely to notice mistakes before they get to the customers.
“We really care about giving the customers the best. Jon and I both love baking, especially the breads and laminated pastry doughs. He does a great job with all of it, nurturing the doughs like they were his kids,” Workman says. “I know that I'm expecting the customer to pay $5 to $6 for a loaf of bread, so we take the time to make sure they are worth it.”
Location: Flat Rock, N.C.
Management: David Workman, co-owner; Scott Unfried, co-owner; Jon Hartzler, head baker and bakery café manager
Number of employees: 11; 7 full-time, 4 part-time
Store size: 1,200 sq. ft. plus 1,000 sq. ft. of outdoor deck seating
Product line: Brick-oven breads, specialty breads, muffins, bagels, scones, filled Danish, croissants, sticky buns, cookies, biscotti, brownies, savory tarts, sweet tartlettes and pizza dough
Production methods: 100% scratch using local organic eggs, organic flour, organic sugar, organic dried fruits
Sales breakdown: Foodservice, 35%; pastry, 35%; beverages, 20%; bread, 10%
Average check per customer: $12
Major equipment: 6-ft. by 8-ft. brick oven, spiral mixer, 6-ft. by 8-ft. walk-in cooler, convection oven, 30-qt. mixer, espresso machine, sandwich prep cooler, panini press, conveyor toaster
Bakery supply distributors: Sysco, Lindley Mills and United Natural Foods
Plans: Expand walk-in cooler and back kitchen to accommodate more production and prep
|Granola, per lb.||$4.75|
|• cream cheese||$2.25|
|• lox, red onion, capers||$6.75|
|Pizza, 13 ins.|
|• sun-dried tomato||$10.95|
|• chicken salad||$7.00|
|• bacon turkey avocado||$8.75|