Life in our Foothills August 2021 – Wildflour Bake Shop
“From hand to oven”
Wildflour Bake Shop
Story and photos by Erin Boggs
Across the globe, bread is a common bond that unites us all. While it is not easy to find a true artisanal bakery in the Foothills, tucked away in quiet Saluda NC you’ll find Wildflour Bake Shop.
The bakery has a forty-one-year history. All the bread, pastries and pizza crusts start with Wildflour’s own hand-ground flour from whole grains. The bakery also has a restaurant where you’ll find owner Debi Thomas and front man Kasey greeting and serving customers from all walks of life. The menu features many unique, creative combinations of flavors and ingredients for breakfasts and lunches. And, on Wednesdays and Fridays, customers also enjoy pizza nights. In fact, the much-loved Wildflour Pizza is the result of a family trip to Italy where they became determined to recreate authentic pizza back home in Saluda.
“I love our pizza. We make our crust by hand; we make the sauce ourselves. We use fresh produce for everything. Nothing is canned, nothing is frozen. My best friend and my daughter and I went to Italy and that inspired it. When we came back, I worked and worked on the crust. My daughter Molly worked on the sauces. Then after my son Abram came to work with me, he came up with some new combinations and new flavors. My other son Simon, he always does pizza nights. That’s his thing, putting pizzas together. They’re beautiful! I think the pizza is one of the things that just has so many memories and things and was just such a group effort.”
Born and raised in Indiana, Debi and her husband decided to move to Saluda after exploring different areas of the Country.
“I graduated from Indiana University and at that time, my husband and I decided we just wanted to pack up our things, sell our little house and travel, and see parts of the country to see if there was some place that just really felt like home. So, that’s how we ended up in North Carolina, and that was just the two of us at the time. After we got here and settled, we had five children, so this is definitely our home and I love it,” Debi says.
A self-taught bread maker, Debi got her start just making bread on her own by trial and error.
“I worked my way through college, I was always working. And when I got to my senior year where I was finishing my student teaching and starting on my Special Ed Masters, I couldn’t find a job to fit in. And I decided I would take orders for bread. And so, at night I would bake bread and take it in. And so, it was just self-taught. In high school, Home Ec was probably my least favorite class. I really did not enjoy it! But when I had my own place and was being on my own where you didn’t study it for hours before you ever started mixing something, then I enjoyed it,” Debi says.
Sometimes, change beckons life.
“I taught Special Education in Indiana before I left, and then came down here and ended up teaching when I was here, and I loved that job. But one summer a friend, Betsy Burdette, asked me if I would help her cater lunches out of Mother Earth News. This was forty years ago and there was no good whole wheat bread, you know? And so, thinking of the folks who would be out there at Mother Earth news, learning how to garden organically and compost and do all these things, we thought, ‘well, they’re not going to want white bread!’”
“So, we made our own bread, and then Ken and Ann Hough came through one of the sessions and ate the sandwiches and things that we made and looked us up and said, ‘Hey, we just bought the old railroad house. It’s going to be the Orchard Inn. Would you bake bread for us if we set you up with equipment down in the basement, and then you can do other things too?’ To this day we still make the bread for the Orchard Inn. There’s been a number of different innkeepers, but we’ve always continued to make their bread, which I’m really proud of,” Debi says.
This was in 1981, and very soon after starting up at the Inn, the business began to flourish.
“When they offered us the opportunity there at the Inn, we thought, well, let’s do that! So, I didn’t go back to teaching that year. We started the bakery and one of the first places that contracted with us was the Fresh Market. And so, we got off to a pretty busy start,” Debi says.
That was only the beginning. Soon, they were also contracted with Ingles, IGA, Earth Fare and Harris Teeter.
“We were doing between 1,500 and 2,000 loaves a week. This is completely by hand from stone, grinding our grain, to mixing it, weighing it out, shaping it, baking it, and bagging it. So eventually the cafe portion of our business began to get busier and busier and it was just hard to keep up with everything.” Debi says. First, they moved to a small building on Main Street near the bank and post office, and to handle the large-scale bread making operation, also rented a building on the property where the bakery now stands, which was then owned by J.C. Thompson. Her lights would be on at three or four in the morning because “I was already baking and he just really admired that. So, we got to talking one time and he said as he moved out of this building that I should I move in, because I was sort of building up my business about the time he was slowing down with his.”
So, the decision was made to not do the wholesale anymore and to simplify, “Which was a great decision because this cafe just continued to grow here. I liked this so much more. I enjoy it more than when you’re not stretched so tight. And you don’t really know the people or see the people. This is very rewarding, very complimentary. You get to know some of the folks that come in all the time.” After finding multiple private investors, Debi and her family were able to buy the entire group of buildings where the bakery stands, and where ten different shops now operate.
As you would expect, as a former special education teacher, Debi exudes a calm patience as well as a love for teaching her staff about bread making. She enjoys many aspects of her day.
“It’s active and you get new ideas. I mean, I’ve been doing it for forty some years and I always learn something new. And I feel like one thing we do well is this balance between creative and inventive food but still try to keep it affordable. As people come into work, they rarely have a background particularly in baking because there’s a lot of restaurants, but not very many bakeries. So, I’m constantly teaching someone how to make the pastries or how to help with the breads. So yes, that teaching aspect comes in.”
Indeed, many things carry over from her teaching career to her business now.
“You learn to look at things from a different angle because people learn so, so differently. I know in teaching a lot of times I had to get to know that child and what works with that child. Well, it’s the same here. You have to find different ways of teaching people and what works for one is not necessarily right for the other.”
“I’m teaching someone bread and you get to the part where you’re filling it out with the flour, well that can be different one day to the next, depending on how humid it is that day, what the moisture content of that flour happens to be. It’s a very tactile thing to do because, in the end, you’re mostly looking at how it feels. That’s when you know you’re finished.” It takes a lot of practice and persistence to become a good bread maker, as well as pass on the skills to her family and a new generation of bakers.
Debbie says, “I had always said to my kids, you know, when you grow up and you find something to do, do what you love, and love what you do. Don’t spend eight hours a day, five days a week, so that you can have your weekends, and work fifty weeks of the year just so you can have your two-week vacation. Find something that makes every day work for you. Of course, it’s never perfect. Everybody has their good days and their rough days, but basically there’s just no promises. Find something that you love to do. You’ll probably do a better job at it anyway. So, I fell in love with it. Somehow, I liked teaching, but then I stumbled into this and I found out it was something I really, really love doing.”