Orchard Hill Breadworks

  | Food For Thought, Producer of the Month

As humans we crave connection, to build relationships that nourish us and those around us. At Orchard Hill Breadworks, Noah started baking bread in 1997 with this as a source of inspiration. Since then he has built a business that strives to be integrated into the community, fulfilling the needs of those around him in a way that calls back to the days of villages inhabited by people who, with a variety of skills and trades, were able to sustain themselves and each other through cooperation. During our visit Noah returned to this theme of connection and relationship as he reflected on the many decisions he makes every day, whether about hiring, his community pizza night, sourcing of ingredients, the stores that sell his baked goods—even purchasing fuel. Enriching a community through a bread business is a lofty goal, but one that Noah and his team take very seriously.

The land on which Orchard Hill Breadworks sits has been in Noah’s family since 1972, when his grandparents purchased it. In 1997, Noah, along with family and friends, built an oven made of stone and clay there as a fun addition to the farm. At the time he had no idea how to bake or that baking would be his career. After about a year of experimenting with outdoor baking in the brick oven, he found a sweet spot and began having great success with producing bread. By 1998, Noah was selling at Harlow’s Farmstand and other small stores. He began to hire staff and apprentices and increase the volume of his business. He continued to bake outside till the year 2000. By then, with greater demand, it was time to cover his outdoor oven to make the baking process a bit easier. With success building, he eventually decided to upgrade, and built an Allen Scott oven in 2002 (Scott is legendary in the world of wood-fired bread ovens). In 2004 his family moved into a more comfortable space just above the bakery to allow for a more integrated life with bread baking. Just a few years later a new outdoor brick oven and gathering space was built to support their community pizza night on Tuesdays throughout the summer, which we will share more about later. In 2008 an indoor Spanish wood-fired oven was purchased that is still being used today to bake all of their breads. It is a fantastic piece of equipment that is used for baking sourdoughs across the world. Over the years, since the Spanish oven was purchased, they’ve invested in small upgrades to their commercial kitchen, but nothing major. They are quite content with where they stand with production, baking close to ten different varieties and 500 to 1,000 loaves daily, depending on the season. Their breads are available across our region at many co-ops, farmers’ markets and other small independent stores.

Orchard Hill Breadworks is a team of twelve, with shifts that cover just about every hour of any given day. Some shifts are solo, while others are done with as many as eight people working side by side. Doughs are mixed between 4 and 11 a.m. and then fermented, divided and shaped through the early afternoon before spending several hours under refrigeration to complete the rising process. Sourdough breads are unique in that they utilize fermented cultures as the leavening agent, the quality of which are integral to the character of the bread in every way. Maintaining an excellent sourdough culture delivers the balanced and consistent flavor and texture Orchard Hill is known for. On the days they are not baking, the early Orchard Hill crew spends countless hours working the sourdough organisms to a place that will allow for optimal fermentation, rising, and baking. The next crew works on the farmhouse breads—the buns, rolls and focaccia—which use conventional yeast and take less time to mix, shape, rise, and bake. These are baked in late morning and are ready for sale by early afternoon. Both the sourdough crew and the farm stand crew leave work by 2 pm or so each day, and the last crew arrives around 6 pm to bake the sourdough breads. All the bread is baked in the wood-fired oven, although the farm stand and sourdough breads bake at different temperatures and times. In fact, one of the bakers said Noah instructs them to watch the bread’s color and temperature instead of just going on a standard bake time. Whether it be an olive and rosemary sourdough or a simple farmhouse roll, it is truly an artisanal approach from start to finish.

With all his sourcing Noah strives for local or organic whenever possible. Furthermore, with locally sourced ingredients he pays a fair price and maintains great relationships with the suppliers. The eggs are local, and any vegetables he uses are local or organic. The flour, grains and seeds are organic. While his breads are not certified organic, he believes deeply in organic as a key aspect of offering the cleanest possible ingredients. Nourishing people in his community with top quality food stands high on the list of ways he can contribute. He even utilizes locally harvested cord wood for his ovens. With such a priority on quality, organic, and local, costs can be quite high to produce his bread, however Noah chooses not to charge a cost that is out of people’s price ranges. All of those who work at Orchard Hill Breadworks feel it is incredibly important to feed those in the community in a way that is healthy and accessible.

Over the years Noah has created an apprenticeship program that attracts people from across the United States and beyond to learn the craft of baking. This year’s crew hails from Costa Rica, California, Colorado, and New Hampshire. Apprentices spend a year at Orchard Hill, learning new phases of the bread making process every three months. From early mornings working with sourdough cultures all the way through the wood-firing, by the end of their time they have a thorough understanding of how to create delicious breads. Some of the folks even stay on to work and continue developing their skills. Noah takes deep pride in this program, and in having many staff members who have worked with him for many years. You may see Kurt delivering bread to our Co-op each week—he has been working at Orchard Hill Breadworks for over ten years now!

The best way to stress the importance Orchard Hill places on community is by sharing a bit about their weekly community Pizza Nights in the summer. These have grown quite extensively since their inception in 2007, from just a small group of friends and family to a large gathering of a couple hundred people each week. For a reasonable price, Orchard Hill provides the crust, sauce, and cheese, and attendees bring their own toppings or harvest fresh veggies from the pizza night picking garden. It is a legendary event that I have heard many Co-op shoppers mention as a must-attend happening during the summer. All of the profits from each Tuesday gathering are donated to a local non-profit, deepening the impact of Orchard Hill Breadworks while having some fun and building community. We welcome you to check it out on Tuesdays this coming summer.

Noah is a real skeptic about long-term exponential growth. While it has been important to increase production and take on new accounts when possible, he is not seeking to take on debt. He believes his baking facility and staff are right where they need to be for many more years of success. Instead of a growth forward approach, he strives for an evolution of his business that continues to build the knowledge of his team, create exceptional bread, and delivers great community events. He even strives to do less work in the winter, as it allows for more time to breathe, reflect, and plan for the hectic summer months. Of course, he wants to evolve the business in ways that allow him to pay great wages to great people, but passing along knowledge to his staff and apprentices is just as important to him. He believes that through teaching the art of bread baking and running a business, things will unfold in new and exciting ways. Nurturing his employees’ skills will allow for responsibility to be shared with different staff other than Noah, so that they can take on new roles. This in turn will deepen relationships, bring more connection to community, and encourage staff to grow in deep and enriching ways.

We welcome you to visit the Co-op on Thursday, March 14 from 4-6pm to meet the Orchard Hill Breadworks team and enjoy a taste of their offerings.

By Jon Megas-Russell