Normandy Farm does it by feel

Half Baked

| February 18, 2009
Primo mixes another big batch of dough - BEN WILLIAMS

Normandy Farm Artisan Bakery
32 Windermere Blvd. West Ashley (843) 769-6400

Interviewing Mike Ray and Ben Johnson of Normandy Farm Artisan Bakery is a lot like interviewing Bill and Ted, of the classic stoner flick Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure. It's hard to get a straight answer out of the owner and employee, respectively — they're constantly joking around, and they're distracted by the thought of going surfing on this freakishly warm December day.

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"Do you like wine?" Ray says as a greeting when I enter his office in the back of the sunny West Ashley bakery. After turning down a drink, I spend the next while touring the bakery with Ray and Johnson, trying my hand at benching some sourdough (not as easy as it looks), and attempting to interview the duo. But despite the laid-back surfer-dude attitude of the guys at Normandy Farm, the place runs like clockwork, and it's one of the most esteemed bakeries in the Holy City.

The storefront in the back of the hippie-happy Windermere Shopping Center is bright and welcoming, marked by a mural covering one wall. There they sell a huge range of products, including artisan breads, sandwiches, quiches, bagels, scones, pastries, and more. They also make wedding cakes to order. But their biggest moneymaker is in the wholesale market. This little bakery provides fresh, crusty bread to many of the finest restaurants in Charleston. And if the restaurants are willing to admit they didn't make it themselves, they usually brag about the fact that it's from Normandy Farm.

Normandy Farm's bread is crusty on the outside, moist on the inside - BEN WILLIAMS
  • Ben Williams
  • Normandy Farm's bread is crusty on the outside, moist on the inside

Standing in the sun behind the bakery, surrounded by spray-painted delivery vans, Ray gives me a disjointed account of how he established the bakery back in 1999.

"I fell ass backwards into it," he says. He started working at a bakery in his hometown of Nashville just to make some dough (ha!) and then decided to open his own bakery with friend Paul Cercone. Having vacationed in Charleston and fallen in love with the area, they decided it was as good a place as any for their venture. Their first location was on Society Street, but a growing clientele and sky-rocketing rent prices urged them to move to the current location in South Windermere. Cercone left the bakery amicably in 2007 to pursue a sculpting career, leaving Ray to man the business alone.

"Quality and consistency with bread is a fairly difficult thing to do, but we do it fairly well I think, and that's what keeps us in business," Ray says.

Chatting with Ray, as he periodically pauses to discuss the swell and the upcoming Christmas party, it's unclear how he keeps focused enough to run the place so smoothly.

"We're extremely strict on everything," Ray explains, and it's difficult to tell if he's still joking or not.

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"That's why we've had the same guy baking bread for seven years," Johnson adds, more seriously.

"We're the opposite [of laid back]," Ray says. "We're so hard it's unbelievable. I'm like a general. Like Patton." And the jokester returns.

Touring the surprisingly extensive bakery, however, it's clear that they're serious about what they do. Several huge ovens are filled with baking bread. Dough rests in giant tubs, waiting to be benched (weighed, shaped, and placed in a pan). Racks are filled with already-baked breads, crusty rolls, baguettes, and Bohicket biscuits filled with pimiento cheese.

"We do every thing every day," Johnson says. "This is the most repetitive place. Like that?" He points at an oven filled with bread. "This time tomorrow that'll be happening. You come back tomorrow, that bread will be right there."

Six employees keep the place running, including several bakers who have been with the company since the early days.

Johnson introduces me to Primo, who enjoys some seniority after being with Normandy Farm since 2003.

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"He knows what the bread's gotta look like every day," Johnson says. "A lot of the baking we do, like the artisan breads, is based on feel." And Primo's got that feel down pat.

A typical day at the bakery begins at 3:30 a.m. and continues until 12 a.m. At any given time there are at least three bakers on the clock, going through an endless cycle of mixing the dough, letting it rest, and baking it. Everything is done by hand using high-quality ingredients.

"You gotta let it rest," Johnson says. "You can't rush the dough. That's why everybody winds up drinking 'cause they're waiting on the dough."

After just a few minutes in the kitchen, the sweat starts to bead on my forehead.

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"You ought to be in here in the summer," Johnson says.

The routine is simple, but the products they churn out are anything but. Besides their popular sourdough, multigrain, and Tuscan breads, they offer more inventive goodies like lemon pecan and orange almond poppy seed breads; pain au chocolate; spinach, cream cheese, and tomato croissants; and blueberry coffee cake. Additional selections vary daily.

For a few minutes before I leave, Ray turns serious as he talks about challenges the economy has brought to his business. Citing the many local restaurants that have closed recently, he says that the bakery is directly affected because they rely so much on wholesale business.

"It's tight times," Ray says. "It's hard to make a living doing this stuff right now. It's slower, flour prices are expensive, gas is expensive for delivery. It takes a lot of imagination and motivation to make it all happen. And we have a lot of imagination."

Ray plans to work on building up retail sales within the West Ashley storefront, particularly focusing on new breakfast items. So next time you're hungry for something on your way to work, skip the drive-thru and stop by Normandy Farm for a Bohicket biscuit. You won't be disappointed.

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