Bake around the clock: A day in the life of Albemarle Baking Co.

Joshua Harvey checks a rack of bread loaves during the early morning hours at Albemarle Baking Company. Photo by Zack Wajsgras Joshua Harvey checks a rack of bread loaves during the early morning hours at Albemarle Baking Company. Photo by Zack Wajsgras

Portland, Oregon, 1969. Dawn hadn’t broken yet as Gerry Newman, then a grade-school kid, rode in the car with his mother on the way to summer camp. They passed a brightly lit storefront, a lone beacon in the neighborhood at that hour, and Newman asked why the lights were on. His mom told him that running a bakery required getting up really early, and Newman silently resolved that baking would never be his profession.

Newman’s first jobs, in his early 20s, were nowhere near a kitchen. He worked at a record company in Portland and then moved to Palm Springs, California, where he delivered furniture and was happy to escape the dreary rain of his hometown. He started having potlucks with friends in the area and always offered to make dessert, which everyone seemed to enjoy.

Around the same time, Newman began noticing people around town carrying boxes from a local bakery called McSorley’s, and the idea that he might become a baker began to take hold. “There was no one moment,” says Newman. “It was a repeated series of seeing something, realizing there was a demand for it, and wondering if I could do it. I went back to Portland thinking that’s what I’ll do—one day I’ll learn how to bake and open my own bakery.”

He was house sitting for his aunt when he answered an ad for an apprenticeship with a Swiss master baker in Seal Beach, on the California coast a hundred miles west of Palm Springs. “When they said they were going to bring me on, I had no idea what I was even going to learn,” says Newman. “I was just so excited that they said yes.”

For four years he studied the art and craft of baking, and then bounced around to jobs at four different bakeries on the West Coast. He landed a position as a pastry chef at The Homestead, in Hot Springs, Virginia, where he worked before transitioning to the same position at the Boar’s Head Resort. After his move to Charlottesville, the idea of running his own bakery—and abandoning his childhood vow—became a reality.

Newman and his wife Millie Carson opened Albemarle Baking Co. on the Downtown Mall in 1995 and moved the bakery to the Main Street Market six years later. Next year, they will celebrate the bakery’s 25th anniversary. Newman is quick to credit Carson for much of the success. “There would never have been ABC without her steady hand,” says Newman. “She’s the practical one and I’m the dreamer. We’ve balanced each other very well, not just in the bakery but also in our 30 years of marriage.”

The round-the-clock nature of the business hasn’t changed since Newman saw that bright light through the car window as a kid. A combination of 36 full-time and part-time employees—some of whom have been with the team for more than 20 years—keep things moving at ABC from 2am to 10pm, supplying loyal customers with cakes, pastries, and bread (including 400 baguettes!) on any given day. “We make something that starts our customer’s meal—the bread—and ends the meal—the dessert,” says Newman. “It’s a responsibility we take very seriously.”

Employees report to work as early as 2am, while most of Charlottesville is still snoozing. Photo: Zack Wajsgras

Here’s what a typical day looks like for Newman and his team:

2am: Most of Charlottesville is sleeping when the lights flicker on and work begins for what Newman calls the “bread and pastry side:” employees focused on the baguettes, batons, sourdough, and focaccia. They mix fresh dough and pull out loaves that had been shaped and refrigerated the night before. “Bread making has a lot of passive time,” says Newman. “It all depends on the day and the dough. The feel of the dough and the weather can dictate how long [a new batch] spends at room temperature before it enters cold fermentation.”

4am: The smell of baking bread greets more team members as they trickle in. With the focus shifting from day-of preparations to getting ready for the next two to three days, they shape dough for its final rise. “All of our breads work on a slow fermentation to bring out the fermented flavor of the grain,” says Newman. “Our goal is much the same as making cheese and wine.”

6am: The “cake side” arrives and begins checking the case, reviewing orders to make sure they’re ready for pickups that will start when the shop opens to the public at 7am. This is also the hour that front-of-house employees report to work and prepare coffee, fill the displays with goods, and generally prep for customers.

8am: Things are in a groove, with the front-of-house team executing their impromptu dance behind the counter, taking and filling orders, and answering questions like “What exactly is Princess Cake?” and “Do you have the Virginia Country Bread today?” Speaking of Princess Cake, two long-time ABC employees, Veronica and Maria, lead the team that makes the Swedish layer cake, one of two cakes the bakery has been offering since it first opened in 1995 (there are others, of course!). Newman’s recipe for the sponge cake and marzipan confection is his own take on a more traditional recipe used at a bakery in Tiburon, California, minus the jam (too sweet for his taste) and food coloring.

10am: The mid-morning hours are for pastry preparation, making creams, and assembling tarts. One current offering in the refrigerated case is The Shenandoah, a cake made with caramel mousse, poached pears, and champagne mousse. “Pastries might look intricate but in a lot of ways they are simple, just a lot of steps have to be followed skillfully,” says Newman. “Getting caramel to a place where it has good flavor but isn’t burning, and folding mousse just enough so everything is blended but still stays light: Those things will inform themselves on your tongue.”

Apricot tarts are readied for customers. Photo by Zack Wajsgras

Noon: A lunch rush is not a surprise at the bakery, with plenty of savory offerings to complement the sweet. Customers come in for quiche, ham-and-gruyère croissants, Roman pizza, and rosemary sea salt focaccia. Some also depart with sweet treats to take back to work for an afternoon pick-me-up.

2pm: The team assesses what Newman calls guest-driven changes throughout the day, responding to things like a big order to fill right away or the need to make more cookies after a customer comes in and purchases a few dozen. “After this long in business, we know pretty much during a week,  a month, and a year what we have to prepare,” says Newman. “But at the end of the day, it’s still guessing. A heinously hot day or a downpour can throw everything off.”

4pm: At this hour, work is focused on the next day: the final shaping of tomorrow’s bread and progress on the morning’s pastries. In the fridge, danishes and muffins rest overnight on racks and currant donut dough is placed in a large white dough bucket.

6pm: The bakery closes to the public at 6pm on weekdays, but much remains to be done. The front-of-house team works with its wholesale customers on last-minute changes, and in the kitchen, creams and fillings for the next day’s pastries are made and readied for use.

8pm: If focaccia has a moment, this is it. The team weighs and shapes the Italian flatbread in big trays, which are then placed in racks for cold fermentation. The next morning, the bread will be baked with various toppings. (Pro tip: You can special order half- and full-sheets of focaccia to take your sandwiches up a notch at home.)

10pm: Newman describes the feel of the bakery just before 10pm as similar to the moment before leaving home for a vacation: Team members wanting to make sure everything is set for the next wave. “The 2am shift is the only one with a hard deadline to it,” says Newman. “They have to be set up to succeed.” For now, though, the bakery closes its doors and says goodnight to Charlottesville, although in just four hours the cycle will begin anew., 293-6456

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