From scratch: Bowerbird Bakeshop opens despite tough times

Bowerbird Bakeshop’s Earl Vallery and Maria Niechwiadowicz feel fortunate that they’ve been able to move out of a rented kitchen and into their new space at the Tenth Street Warehouses. Photo by John Robinson Bowerbird Bakeshop’s Earl Vallery and Maria Niechwiadowicz feel fortunate that they’ve been able to move out of a rented kitchen and into their new space at the Tenth Street Warehouses. Photo by John Robinson

Bowerbird Bakeshop debuted at Charlottesville City Market’s annual holiday market in late 2017, at a shared table on a side row that got little foot traffic.

Pastry chef Earl Vallery had just moved to town after helping launch Whisk bakery in Richmond, and before that, teaching at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Austin, Texas. He had about $300 and the desire to have a bakery of his very own.

That cold Saturday morning, Vallery put up a homemade cardboard sign and covered his half of the booth with signature treats: matcha mint cookies, chocolate vortex cookies, and imaginatively flavored French macarons. He hoped that, eventually, Bowerbird might have enough of a following to warrant a bricks-and-mortar shop, complete with a kitchen, small eat-in area, and pastry cases packed with all sorts of delights.

It didn’t take long. After finding investors and raising money via a GoFundMe earlier this year, Bowerbird—now a team of three—is moving from its rented kitchen at Trinity Episcopal Church’s Bread & Roses space to the Tenth Street Warehouses.

It’s an odd time to open a bakery, acknowledges Vallery as he sits in the nearly finished space, light bouncing off of the metal appliances and the pristine glass pastry case. But the ball was already rolling when the pandemic hit: the lease was signed, the equipment ordered, and Vallery, who also received a small Paycheck Protection Program loan, couldn’t back out.

Instead, he adjusted. Bowerbird currently participates in the contactless Saturday market and delivers online orders direct to customers’ doors on Saturday mornings. With sales down and the bakery not opening to eat-in customers right away, Vallery couldn’t hire the staff he’d planned for, so he and his business partner and pastry assistant Maria Niechwiadowicz are tackling all the bakes and sales…in addition to finishing the bakery build-out.

“It’s tiring, figuring out all these ways to reinvent yourself,” says Vallery, who knows other small business owners share that fatigue. But he hesitates to complain, expressing his gratitude for his customers (and his understanding landlord). “I’m grateful we have something.”

Niechwiadowicz shares those feelings. But “sometimes it feels a little unfair that restaurants and long-standing businesses in Charlottesville are closing [and] we are opening,” she says. She is optimistic, though, about what Bowerbird can offer by maintaining ties with the Bread & Roses food ministry (Niechwiadowicz served as the program’s kitchen manager until recently), donating to other nonprofits like City of Promise, and partnering with local farms and food makers.

Even when the shop opens, Bowerbird will continue to participate in the City Market. “That’s our bread and butter,” says Vallery.

In addition to the macarons, cookies, galettes, and savory nest egg muffins that marketgoers have come to love, there will be cakes, custards, Danishes, and more. Vallery also promises breakfast items like smoked salmon on an everything croissant.

He may struggle sometimes to celebrate the occasion because “what we make, it could be considered a luxury,” but when Vallery talks about the feeling he gets from baking, his voice brightens, and he repeats, “I’m just so grateful.”

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