Have oven, will bake: Asheville’s indie bread and pastry artisans

FROM THE HEARTH: Tara Jenson, owner of Smoke Signals bakery in Marshall, describes her products as "extremely rustic." As a visual artist as well as a baker, Jenson says she is very intentional about her methods and ingredients. "There is a lot of thought that goes into each thing that I do," she says. Photo courtesy of Smoke Signals

Those who love to bake have probably at some point had a romantic vision of selling their wares — maybe at a sunny farmers market or from a quaint, bicycle-powered cart. If you pick up a loaf of bread at a co-op or order a pastry at a local coffee shop, you may be eating the product of a baker who has made that dream a reality. There is a strong community of local baking entrepreneurs in the Asheville area who have proved that you don’t need a storefront to have a successful business.

Sending smoke signals

Tara Jenson is one of those bakers. The woman behind Smoke Signals, Jenson has been living and working in her space in Marshall’s Walnut community since 2013, baking with a traditional, wood-fired outdoor oven designed by blacksmith and brick-oven builder Alan Scott. Jenson is the third baker in a noble lineage of local baking pioneers to have used that facility  — prior to Smoke Signals, Dave Bauer of Farm & Sparrow occupied the space, and Jennifer Lapidus of Natural Bridge Bakery founded it in 1998.

Riding those positive baking vibes, Jenson has diversified the business to include monthly pizza nights, biweekly workshops and mentorships for aspiring bakers and business owners. (Many of those mentorships have been fostered through her popular Instagram account.) She bakes breads and pies once a week and delivers her goods to her immediate community at Madison Natural Foods, Bluff Mountain Outfitters and the Laurel River Store.

Jenson, who admits she has “strong feelings about the word artisan,” describes her products as “extremely rustic.” Part of that provincial feel comes from the brick oven, but Jenson is also a visual artist, and her style comes across as deeply personal. “I also feel my particular aesthetic, in terms of approaching the pie crust in a decorative way or the ingredients that I choose to use in my bread, set it apart in a way that is intentional,” she says. “There is a lot of thought that goes into each thing that I do.”

Jenson never envisioned herself owning her own business, even though she has worked in bakeries around the country. “I realized at a certain point there was only so much I was going to learn by walking through the door at work and having everything figured out for me and just going through someone else’s program,” says Jenson. “To really absorb the information, I was going to have to make all the mistakes myself, have all the successes be my own and really own the process. That was how I was going to find out if this is what I really wanted to do with my life. I never thought that I would be a business owner … but it’s really the way I’ve found to make a meaningful living, or my attempt at a meaningful living.”

A taste of the old world

The story of Old World Levain (OWL) bakery owner Susannah Gebhart in some way mirrors Jenson’s. They both worked in bakeries in their 20s, both have an artist’s creative touch and neither saw themselves opening their own business. Gebhart also works independently, although she envisions hiring an employee and is hoping to open a storefront in the near future.

For now, she is using the ovens at Short Street Cakes to make her products. She takes special orders through her website and supplies High Five Coffee with gorgeous sweet and savory pastries and tartlets. Her breads are hand mixed in small batches, leavened with wild yeast and given a long, cold fermentation, which Gebhart says gives the breads a longer shelf life, complex flavor and more nutritional value.

“I definitely take a lot of inspiration from the European approach to making and presenting and partaking in food,” says Gebhart. “So when I make something, I want the person who will be eating it to feel like they’re getting a gift. There is a lot of intention that I put in my products.” Her online menu changes with the seasons, and she prides herself on incorporating local and unique ingredients such as honeysuckle-infused pastry cream, rose water, pomegranate molasses and sumac.

Despite an obvious talent for it, baking wasn’t always the plan. “I found bakery jobs through my 20s as jobs that paid the bills, and I was always trying to get away from that,” she says. “And then as soon as I allowed myself to love it as much as I really did in my heart, that’s when things started happening. Things in my life I had been feeling the need for started opening up, like writing.” Gebhart maintains a blog on her website and sends out regular newsletters.

Without the gluten

Rebekah Abrams of Eat More Bakery has found her niche in the gluten-free market. It’s possible you have tasted her gluten-free goods without knowing it, given her wide and eclectic distribution. She currently supplies 67 Biltmore, Sunny Point, Firestorm Café, Purple Onion, Maggie B’s Wine Store, Native Kitchen, Del Vecchios, The Hop, Dobra Tea, French Broad Food Co-op and more local businesses with her breads and treats. Her products can also be ordered online through her website.

Abrams has been in business for two and a half years — something she has wanted to do since college. “I have enjoyed baking as long as I  can remember,” she says. “I love the challenge of gluten-free and specialty diet baking. And I think everyone, regardless of diet, should be able to enjoy tasty baked goods.”

She recently moved into a commercial baking space in Woodfin. Although she currently has no plans for a retail store, she is constantly working to increase her client list of local restaurants and grocers.

Finding community

One might imagine that working alone might get, you know, lonely. But Jenson, Gebhart and Abrams all comment on how finding community is essential to what they do. Whether it’s making sure that all people can eat good bread regardless of sensitivities, partnering with local business owners that sell their wares or hosting community workshops, these women have found ways to connect. “I work alone. I’m at the bakery by myself, but the community events and the workshop are really where I find my joy,” says Jenson. “That’s where I feel like my purpose is being fulfilled, so even though I’m independently producing things, it’s really the community that enlivens the bakery and makes it what it is.”





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About Lea McLellan
Lea McLellan is a freelance writer who likes to write stories about music, art, food, wellness and interesting locals doing interesting things.

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