The baron of baked goods: Luck, talent, and “some darn good pie” led Brian Noyes to foodie fame

Red Truck Bakery’s namesake, a 1954 Ford F100 pickup, idles outside the Warrenton shop, a renovated 1921 Esso service station. Photo: Brian Noyes Red Truck Bakery’s namesake, a 1954 Ford F100 pickup, idles outside the Warrenton shop, a renovated 1921 Esso service station. Photo: Brian Noyes

Serendipity has been a good friend to Brian Noyes, owner of the acclaimed Red Truck Bakery. With locations in Marshall and Warrenton, Virginia, 45 employees, and orders pouring in online, Noyes’ business is better than ever and his homespun image endures, in spite of his enormous success.

He tells the story of that success, and describes his impossible good luck, in the Red Truck Bakery Cookbook: Gold-Standard Recipes from America’s Favorite Rural Bakery, first published in October 2018 and already in its second printing. Noyes is so fortunate, and he drops so many names—including Tommy Hilfiger, who sold him the signature red truck, and John Wayne, who once made him a tuna sandwich—that you kind of want to hate the guy.

But save your hate for someone who deserves it, because Noyes is a sweetheart, a California boy who became a Virginia country gentleman with a taste for the local moonshine that he also uses in  some of his recipes. That part of his personality comes through in his storytelling, which is endearing and full of meaning. He frames his recipes with stories of the people, places, and flavors that influenced him, so the book is both autobiographical and instructional.

About that tuna sandwich: Noyes was 19 and working as the art director of a weekly newspaper in California when he stopped by Wayne’s house to return photos that the paper had borrowed for a story. The door opened, and there stood The Duke, who invited Noyes in for lunch. He watched as the actor methodically made the tuna salad—mayo, a pinch of salt, chopped pickles and celery, more mayo—and began building the sandwiches. “Before adding the top slice of toast,” Noyes writes, “he looked right at me, and smashed a fistful of potato chips into the tuna filling, commanding in his drawl, ‘This is why you’ll like this.’”

Noyes still makes tuna sandwiches the same way. More importantly, he writes, “John Wayne’s lesson sticks with me 40 years later: there are no rules.”

Serendipitous? Yes. But the lesson also underpins Noyes’ cooking philosophy: putting a twist on classics and making them his own. For example, instead of the tried-and-true Virginia ham biscuit, he creates ham scones, and his version of skillet cornbread is slathered with pimento cheese frosting.

Before Noyes launched Red Truck Bakery, in 2007, he worked for 30 years as an art director at various magazines, landing finally at The Washington Post. He used his vacation time to attend cooking schools, and to take food-focused road trips all over the South—with his architect husband Dwight McNeill by his side and a beat-up copy of Jan and Michael Stern’s Roadfood in the glovebox. On weekends at home, Noyes cooked and baked. One day in 1997, while he was preparing peach jam for his first-ever entry in the Arlington County Fair, a friend stopped by with some crystallized ginger. A spur-of-the-moment decision to chop some up and throw it into the pot—along with cinnamon, nutmeg, and sugar—resulted in a spicy-sweet jam that won Noyes four awards, including first prize, and the title of grand champion.

Brian Noyes. Photo: Dwight McNeill

Noyes went on to start a small-batch bakery out of the kitchen of his country home, in Orlean, Virginia. He delivered breads, pies, and granola to three small, rural stores in the now-famous red truck (which he bought online, later learning that Hilfiger was the seller), and launched a website to sell his goods.

Some of those goods—fruit pies, quiche, and granola—were served at a 2007 picnic in Rappahannock County attended by The New York Times food writer Marian Burros. Red Truck Bakery ended up leading Burros’ Christmas roundup of her 15 favorite national food purveyors. The day after the story appeared, Noyes’ website traffic skyrocketed from two dozen hits to 57,000 in a single day.

After tasting success, Noyes wanted to establish a bricks-and-mortar location, which he did after a long search with McNeill. The couple redesigned and renovated a 1921 former Esso service station, in Warrenton, opening the bakery on July 31, 2009.

With the nation in the throes of the Great Recession, the timing sucked. But Noyes and his husband and team persevered. After the economy picked up, Noyes sent a thank-you note to then-president Barack Obama in 2016. Obama dispatched a staffer to hand-deliver a note to Noyes, who handed Obama’s man a sweet-potato pecan pie—Noyes’ mash-up of two classics.

On Pi Day, March 14, 2016, Obama posted a lengthy shout-out on Facebook and the White House website, commending Noyes on both his perseverance and his pie. “I like pie. That’s not a state secret…I can confirm that the Red Truck Bakery makes some darn good pie,” Obama wrote.

So, you see, it’s not just about luck. It’s also about perseverance, relentlessly pursuing a dream, and baking goodness into everything you do.

Meet the author

As part of the Virginia Festival of the Book, Brian Noyes will appear at Williams Sonoma at The Shops at Stonefield, from 11am-12:30pm on March 21, for a baking demonstration, discussion, food samples, and a book signing.

Recipe

Strawberry rhubarb pie

From the Red Truck Bakery Cookbook, by Brian Noyes

First published in October 2018, Red Truck Bakery Cookbook is now in its second printing.

“My dad was a dessert purist who loved straight-up rhubarb pie, but it was always too one-note and tart for my liking,” Noyes writes. “To sweeten it and incorporate a lightly floral component, I added strawberries brightened with lemon zest, cinnamon, and ginger. They’re the perfect counterpoint. Dad would probably frown upon my version of the pie, but our customers like it this way. Everyone loves seeing it appear on our shelves, if only because each year it marks the first fresh-fruit (or fresh-vegetable, in the case of rhubarb) pie after a long winter.”

Makes one 10-inch pie

Ingredients

3 or 4 stalks fresh rhubarb, sliced on an angle into ¼-inch-wide pieces (2½ cups)

4 cups fresh strawberries (about 2 pints), hulled, halved if large

1¼ cups sugar

½ cup cornstarch

¼ tsp. ground cinnamon

¹⁄8 tsp. ground or freshly grated nutmeg

¹⁄8 tsp. ground ginger

1 tsp. lemon zest

2 tsp. fresh lemon juice

1 recipe Classic Piecrust dough, or

2 store-bought crusts

2 tbsp. unsalted butter, chilled and cubed

1 large egg, whisked with 1 tablespoon water

Vanilla ice cream, for serving (optional)

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Place a raised wire rack inside a rimmed baking sheet.

2. In a large bowl, combine the rhubarb and the strawberries.

3. In a medium bowl, mix together the sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and lemon zest. Add the sugar mixture to the rhubarb and strawberries and toss to combine. Stir in the lemon juice. Let sit for a few minutes to allow the fruit to release juices.

4. Roll out one disc of pie dough into a 13-inch round and fit it into a 10-inch pie pan, leaving the crust overhanging. Pour the strawberry-rhubarb mixture into the crust and dot the top of the fruit with butter.

5. Roll out the second disc of dough into a roughly 18-by-13-inch rectangle. Cut it crosswise into six 3-by-13-inch strips.

6. Create a lattice crust by laying three strips of dough across the pie horizontally, then laying three strips of dough perpendicularly across them. Weave the top strips of dough over and under those on the bottom. Trim the dough about 2 inches from the pan, and roll and crimp the edges, combining the lattice crust with the dough in the pan. Brush the dough with egg wash.

7. Carefully place the pie on the prepared baking sheet. Bake for 90 minutes, turning after each 30 minutes or until the center is bubbling. Let cool on a raised wire rack.

8. Serve with vanilla ice cream, if desired.