Gianna Carson stood behind the bakery register helping two young women decide which of her treats they wanted to taste. On the wall overhead hang black and white photos of her children, niece and nephew posing with one of her cupcakes.
When Annie’s Naturally Bakery closed down last November, among those mourning the loss of the beloved coffee, bakery and gathering place in Sylva was Annie’s faithful Charles King.
Without a new owner, the fate of the long-time Main Street institution seemed uncertain.
“Annie’s closing left a void that needed to be filled,” King said. So eventually, fans of the bakery and café decided to take matters into their own hands.
King can now count himself among a group of local investors who helped reopen Annie’s under the new name of Mainstreet Bakery and Café. King, who retired from working in the banking industry, knew a good bet when he saw it.
He’s one of 10 people who live in Jackson, including a couple with seasonal homes here, who have invested money into getting Mainstreet Bakery and Café open. The bakery opened its doors two weeks ago.
“At the end of the day it’s about the people. And this is an investment in the community as well,” King said over a grilled cheese sandwich this week during a late lunch at the Mainstreet Bakery.
The bakery is now under the ownership and management of two former Annie’s employees, Heather and Chad Kindy. Heather was the retail manager of the store, and Chad did a local wholesale bakery delivery route.
“I’ve known Heather and Chad for six years,” King said. “And I know they are hard workers and that they are willing to put in what’s needed to succeed.”
Heather and Chad said there’s been a learning curve to going from employees to owners, however.
“We’ve definitely learned a lot real fast,” 30-year-old Chad said. “About the flow of the kitchen and what people really want.”
The bakery features pastries, bagels, simple breakfast sandwiches and lunches made up of homemade soups, salads and sandwiches.
Everyone who invested in Mainstreet Bakery and Café were loyal regulars — people the Kindys already knew and who loved the place, Chad said.
The decision to buy was made abruptly, with no prior discussion, the day before Annie’s closed.
“We sat down at the house and Chad and I looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do this,’” 29-year-old Heather said. “We didn’t even have to say what we were talking about — we knew.”
One of their first moves was to seek out Frank Lockwood, a professor of entrepreneurship at Western Carolina University, for advice. Lockwood had been one of Chad’s professors.
With Lockwood’s help, they crunched the numbers and put together a full-fledged business plan. They realized they didn’t have the money to get up and running on their own, however.
That’s when the idea for “locavesting” was hatched, the concept of pulling a group of local people together who have both the money and desire to invest in the community. There is something of a national movement in locavesting, with the bible of the movement being Amy Cortese’s book Locavesting: The Revolution in Local Investing and How to Profit From It.
Though other businesses in the region have certainly benefited from local investor dollars, Mainstreet Bakery and Café appears to be the first full-fledged attempt to put locavesting into action.
“We didn’t do a pubic announcement that we were looking for investors,” Heather said. “We had a group of advisors and we contacted people through that. Those people wanted to get us up and going.”
Being an investor doesn’t give those involved the right to have a say in the day-to-day operations of Main Street Bakery and Café.
“It’s not like they are buying a stake in the business and have that say in the daily business,” Heather said. “But Chad and I are very open to suggestions.”
Chad said the couple is already seeing areas to tweak at Mainstreet Bakery and Cafe. They want to do more vegan things, for instance, plus they’d like to add a line of diabetic-friendly items.
For now, the Sylva community is just glad to have its bakery back.
Linda Smalley ventured in with sons Cooper, who got a bagel, and Henry, who selected a cinnamon roll, on their way to Kung Fu practice.
“I love to have a bakery on Main Street,” Smalley said. “The (boys) love coming in to some place like this.”
With its obvious Cuban influences — the combination of guava and cream cheese, or even mango and cream cheese — Mindy’s Bakery in Sylva is clearly not your typical mountain bakery.
But that’s not all that sets this small bakery apart: the five family members directly involved have graduated from or are currently enrolled at Western Carolina University. This family, who lives in Waynesville, is literally working its way through school one pastry at a time.
Raul and Mindy Guillama are the patriarch and matriarch of this family. They have three sons, Raul, Andre and Sebastian, who jumpstarted the family’s WCU train.
Andre and Sebastian have both graduated from WCU with degrees in construction management and finance, respectively. Young Raul is getting a degree in marketing, his father is getting an accounting degree and his mother is getting one in psychology.
“The three of us were going, and they said ‘we have a lot of free time so we might as well go to school, too,’” young Raul said.
“And accounting is something you can use in any business,” his father added. “I can do my own accounting and taxes.”
Seventy-year-old Raul is an engineer by training.
“I’m doing my share of contributing to the social security working force,” Raul said, only partly in jest.
Mindy, 50, the mother, explained that both she and her husband were born in Cuba. She came to America on the first Freedom Flight from Cuba to Miami that brought exiles to this country. Her husband was already in America as a young student when Fidel Castro took over. His family joined him in the U.S. in flight from the ensuing oppression.
“He has a brother-in-law whose father was killed in his arms,” Mindy said. “We are a family that came to this country because we had to — it was either communism or freedom.”
That said, the family loves America and what it has given them in return, Mindy said. The Guillama family ended up in Western North Carolina about eight years ago following years of vacationing in this region.
These days, they live together, work together and go to school together.
Husband and wife are taking a psychology class together. Raul the older and Raul the younger are in calculus together. They both said that each is doing equally well, and they choose to sit side by side in the class.
Baking is in the family blood. Their daughter, Mindy, who lives in New York, is also a baker and worked with them in the past.
Mindy’s Bakery specializes in wedding and special occasion cakes, as well as tropical desserts such as flan, coconut cakes, and the Cuban “pastelito” pastries.
“I got the éclairs and took them to work one day and everybody just loved them,” said customer Diane Winstead who was at the bakery one morning this week picking up another order of éclairs for an office party. “It just all looks so fresh.”
A donut or cannoli will no longer be a hop, skip and a jump away for people in downtown Waynesville.
Whitman’s Bakery closed its doors this month, ending a 66-year run as a beloved hometown bakery. Whitman’s was a mainstay on Main Street for decades, churning out homemade bread, cookies, pies, cakes, pastries — and, of course, donuts. It had been passed down through three generations of the same family until five years ago, when it was sold to new owners from Arizona, Margie and Roger Eckert.
The Eckerts are walking away from the business this week after deciding not to renew their lease on the building.
“Many thanks for all those who supported us at Whitman’s,” Marge said. She would not talk about the bakery’s closing, or the reason why. But she did mention wanting to be active in the 2012 presidential campaign.
“Our country needs new strong leadership in Washington, D.C., to jumpstart this longtime failing economy,” she said.
When the Eckerts bought Whitman’s five years ago, the bakery business was brand new to them. Wanting to leave the bakery in good hands, Linda Howell — granddaughter of Whitman’s founder — agreed to stay on as a mentor, teaching the new owners the recipes and how-to’s of the business. Howell’s daughter and son-in-law stayed on through the transition as well.
The arrangement was short-lived, however. Less than two weeks after taking over Whitman’s, the new owners asked the old owners to stop coming in to work, that they were no longer needed.
Linda Howell, whose grandfather Dewitt Whitman started the business in 1945, has been saddened by the chain of events — not only to see the anchor institution close down but also to witness the decline of the business during the past five years.
Until Howell sold the bakery, it wasn’t uncommon to see lines out the door. It had 30 employees at its peak.
But, business has steadily trailed off since the new owners took over and began the first of many changes to the menu, both to the baked good side and the lunch counter.
Howell, as well as her father and grandfather before her, hung their aprons on their fresh, made-from-scratch baked goods. Customers apparently liked the bakery just as it was and didn’t respond well to the pre-made baked goods that started turning up in the cases.
Dale Howell, who along with his wife ran Whitman’s for 30 years, believes a new set of owners could rebuild the community’s desire for a Main Street bakery.
“I think once the word gets out that it has changed hands, and they are now offering fresh made breads and pastries as Whitman’s used to, and people come in and find it actually is a good bakery, there is no question Waynesville is big enough for a bakery,” Dale Howell said. “It is a very viable business.”
Linda Howell said Whitman’s decline has left a void in the downtown community.
“Waynesville has always had a bakery where you could get bread and a birthday cake and a cookie,” she said. “It was always a hub of activity. You could always meet someone there.”
The closure of Whitman’s was decried as “a shame” as the Main Street community learned the news this week.
“That sucks,” said Hayley Moralez, a Waynesville resident. “It’s the only bakery here.”
Although she is upset by the loss, Moralez and her husband, James, agreed that “the quality went down” when bakery changed ownership.
Its hours had become inconsistent as well. Nurse Amber Pitts said she has wanted go to the bakery since moving to the area about a year ago.
“Every time I come by, they were closed,” Pitts said.
Prior to selling the business about five years ago, Linda and Dale Howell lived and breathed the bakery business for 30 years after buying Whitman’s from her father and her uncle in 1976.
It was a grueling life. Dale Howell got to work at 2:45 a.m. six days a week. Linda Howell got to sleep in comparatively late but worked until late into the night.
“Dale or I one were always in there,” Linda Howell said.
Their own married life was intertwined with work, crossing paths at home only while sleeping. It was a family affair with three generations under one roof at one point — Linda Howell, her daughter, and her father who still came in to decorate cakes after he retired.
“We loved it and loved the people we worked with. The people who were there loved their work or they weren’t there long,” Linda Howell said.
However, when Dale Howell’s rheumatoid arthritis made it difficult and eventually impossible to roll out certain dough, the couple decided to retire. Their daughter and son-in-law had joined them in the bakery business by then, but they had small children and couldn’t take on the burden of ownership. So, it was put on the market.
And that’s where it will soon be once more. The Howells still own the building, and ownership of the business will likely revert to the Howells as well, who hope to find new owners willing to make a go of it.
“The town wants a bakery. It needs a bakery. The town can support a bakery. Someone who goes in there with baking experience can make it work,” Linda Howell said. “The town is hungry for it. It is waiting for the right person.”
Annie’s Naturally Bakery, the beloved coffee, bakery and gathering place in Sylva that helped launch a Main Street renaissance of sorts here when it opened more than a decade ago, will close Thursday.
The closure comes as a surprise to many in this Jackson County community, who said they simply can’t imagine visiting downtown Sylva without stopping at Annie’s.
“This gave the community a place to gather where we felt welcomed,” said Susan Anspacher, who was at Annie’s Naturally Bakery on Monday staving off the day’s autumn chill with a hot bowl of southwestern bean and chicken soup. “I think it takes an inner strength and beauty to be able to do that.”
Annie Ritota, who owns the namesake bakery with husband Joe, grew teary frequently while describing the painful process the couple worked through before deciding to close the retail portion of their business. The Ritotas last year moved the wholesale side of their bakery business to Asheville.
The two businesses previously “shared” costs — the wholesale side helped subsidize overhead at their Main Street store. Ingles grocery stores across Western North Carolina and North Georgia sell Annie’s bread, as do many restaurants in the region.
“We separated the numbers, and realized that it was going to be harder for the retail to make it on its own,” Ritota said.
Yes, the faltering economy played a part in making sourdough out of yeast bread, and triggered a slowdown in summer tourist traffic.
“But if we had the energy and time, we could turn this around,” Ritota said. “This is more so that Joe and I can have a life together again. Joe is in Asheville, driving an hour there everyday, and I’m here mostly.”
Kim Roberts-Fer, who lives in Waynesville and works in Sylva, is being hit with a double whammy — Whitman’s bakey on Main Street in Waynesville is coincidentally closing down as well as Annie’s in Sylva.
“We so love a good bakery,” Roberts-Fer said.
There will be a void in the towns now, she said.
“There is something so nostalgic about a bakery,” Roberts-Fer said.
When she married her husband, the couple went to Italy for a honeymoon, “and there were bakeries there to give you that certain feel of relaxation and comfort,” Roberts-Fer said.
The Ritotas moved the wholesale side of Annie’s business to Asheville because the 75 or so accounts they were handling at the time were mostly in that region, not in the state’s westernmost counties, and too much money was being lost in buying gasoline and through wear-and-tear on the delivery vehicles. Wholesale demand for their breads also had outgrown their kitchen space in downtown Sylva.
Subsequent rapid growth on the wholesale end since that shift to Asheville has taken energy from the retail portion of Annie’s, Ritota said.
The Ritotas started Annie’s Naturally Bakery in 1998 in their garage in Franklin. They rented space on Main Street in September 2001, and the retail side of Annie’s was born.
Annie Ritota grew up in Bristol, Va., and comes from a family of cooks. Later, she learned the restaurant business in her brother’s restaurant and studied vegetarian and healthy cooking while living in Colorado. She opened a vegetarian, health food restaurant in Greenville, S.C. in 1985, where she met Joe, a fourth-generation Italian baker.
Once together, Joe Ritota wanted to move to a small town, which brought the couple to Franklin and then Sylva.
When Annie’s Naturally Bakery opened, the community flocked through the doors, and never wavered over the years in their support of the bakery, Ritota said.
“The local clientele remained,” she said, adding that she hopes someone will buy the business and continue it as a bakery.
That’s Paige Roberson, the new executive director of the Downtown Sylva Association’s hope, too.
“The ideal thing would be to have the space providing the same services to the downtown and county,” Roberson said, who then stepped out of her official DSA costume and added her own personal lament for the loss of Annie’s. “I absolutely hate that it’s going out. It was such a neat place, and had such great baked goods and coffee.”
Catt Tyndall is hoping for the sudden appearance of a fairy godmother to take over the bakery and keep Annie’s Naturally Bakery running. She’s worked for two years this week at the downtown shop.
“Where are people going to get their cannoli? And their pumpkin cookies — they are like crack. To not have that anymore, I just hate it,” Tyndall said.
Up to nine employees will lose their jobs with the shutdown, Annie Ritota said, her eyes filling with tears once again. Most are college students, or have such strong ties to the community, that commuting to Asheville isn’t feasible, she said.
Tyndall plans to start school at Western Carolina University in January, explaining the job loss prompted her to go back to WCU and finish her education.
Asked if it’s as cool to work at Annie’s as it appears, Tyndall responded: “it’s probably even cooler — everyone who works here brings their own bit of character to it.”