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Village Baker's storefront is just the crust

It may look like a charming little bakery from the outside, but The Village Baker is a major production center of breads, sending three big trucks out at 5 in the morning daily to deliver their yeasty loads to restaurants and markets from one end of the valley to the other.

The bread you eat at Morning Glory, the Brickroom or Pangea? Or buy at Safeway, the Co-op and Fred Meyer? If it bears the labels of The Village Baker or Apple Cellar, which owners Jill Collins and Baul Bruzenak bought in 2007, it's made here. 

The humble, time-worn niche you see at 372 East Main in Ashland is the retail counter, guaranteed to make any pastry or bread lover drool — at “the lowest prices anywhere” — but that counter accounts for only 10 percent of sales, Collins says.

The secret of Village Baker’s enduring appeal is, of course, the baking skill of her longtime staff (three shifts a day), but just as important, the sourdough starter in The Village Baker label breads, she says.

“The starter is 250 years old and comes from Germany. It has more of a bite, more savory but not very strong. It’s been handed down through the generations and is in most of The Village Baker breads,” she says. 

Breads with The Village Baker label are more “artisan breads” with a spectrum of things added — honey, fruits, nuts, cheeses, artichokes, cranberries, feta, bleu cheese, olives and such. Breads with the Apple Cellar label are “sliced sandwich breads” and use the starter that came from that bakery, she adds.

Adding to its unique vibe and taste is the fact that, except for dough-stirring and slicing, it’s all made by hand. 

“It’s a very physically demanding job. You deal with thousands of pounds of dough, all hand-crafted, artisan-style,” says baker Brian Stallings. “To do this work, you have to have a passion to produce baked foods for customers who are coming back time after time.” 

Baking may look fairly straightforward, but “it’s a chemical science,” she says, working with temperature, humidity and understand how the rising of dough is affected by climate.”

Ordering some fresh pepperoni pizza, made daily from surplus bread dough in three by four foot pies, Steve Encell says, “I’ve been coming here 15 years. I love all the different varieties and the prices are really good.” 

Another longtime customer, Jeff Gerschler, trots out a giant $2 chocolate chip cookie and notes, “Walking to and from work, going past here in the summer, you smell the most heavenly odor you can ever imagine. Love that sourdough.”

Not a baker herself, Collins says she and her partner made the investment because of its earning power, although the Great Recession gave them a whack, sending flour from $10.50 to $18 a bag. They absorbed the hit and didn’t raise prices, she says, and success came from closing down the Apple Cellar Restaurant, dropping its pies and cakes and merging its bread operation with The Village Baker. 

With such small retail sales, it doesn’t need to be located on Ashland’s main drag, but, she notes, “it helps get the name out and the location draws tourists and the retail end is a good thing.” 

Her personal bread fave? Mustard saurkraut rye and artichoke parmesan chai, neither available in markets. An important thing to realize about The Village Baker, she notes, is that they bake a huge variety of exotic and tasty gourmet breads but a lot of them aren’t in stores, as they would fill the whole retail section. 

The most popular breads for stores, she says, are the cranberry-apricot, the apricot-walnut and the jalepeno-cheddar. At the bakery itself, the variety of breads and pastries are deliciously overwhelming, with loaves starting at $2.50. The pastries seem more than a buck cheaper than in coffee houses, with most around $2.50. On the day-old rack, bread is $5 for two or $3 each. Coffee (just plain old joe) is $2.

Reach Ashland freelance writer John Darling at jdarling@jeffnet.org.