Local baker wakes at 2 a.m. to begin the bread making process.
Story and Photos by Holly Warfield
It’s 2 a.m. on a Saturday, and the rural roads of Broadway, are silent in the early morning darkness. Four windows light up in a small bakery along Harpine Highway, signaling the start of Abbey Whetzel’s day. By 4 a.m., the smells of cinnamon, chocolate and sourdough have found their way into each corner of the room. Twenty tier metal bakery racks are scattered around, holding sheets of warm bread, fresh out of the oven. Classic rock plays from a small speaker in the corner as Whetzel makes her way in and out of a room with 10 ovens, putting in and taking out different breads flavor by flavor. Eldon Bowman, Whetzel’s father, works quickly, putting the finishing touches on each roll of warm bread. For the Cioccolatini, it’s chocolate syrup; for the Mandorlatini, a layer of powdered sugar; and for the breadsticks, a dash of salt.
At 5 o’clock, the last of the bread is ready. Bowman loads everything on two long, skinny carts that he custom designed to roll straight into the white trailer that attaches to Whetzel’s car. In two painless trips, the trailer is loaded and ready for the Harrisonburg Farmers Market.
This has been Whetzel’s Saturday morning routine since she began selling her bread at the market nine years ago. “I like to have work that makes me really concentrate and move quickly,” Whetzel says. “Because I’ve done it for so many years now, it feels normal to wake up that early, but my body still feels it.” While Whetzel cleans up and gets ready for the local market, Bowman, whose truck is filled to the brim with bread and supplies, begins his hour-and-45-minute trek to another farmers market in Leesburg, Virginia. He usually watches the sunrise as he passes through Winchester. “One of the benefits of helping is that I get to smell the stuff before everyone else does,” Bowman says.
Whetzel started the Staff Of Life Bread Company in 2006 when she began selling her products at the Broadway Farmer’s Market. Her European-style breads are unique to the area, which has allowed her company to expand throughout the Valley. During a normal week, Whetzel works with her employee, Todd Van Patter, from about 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. On Fridays, Whetzel stays late to get the breads ready for her busy Saturday mornings. Whetzel is happy with the size of her business, but she believes it will continue to grow.
Abbey Whetzel (left) stands with her duaghter. Whetzel began selling her bread at various farmers markets in the area nine years ago.
“I don’t want it to become like a slave master over me,” Whetzel says. “You know, I worked the 90- and 100-hour weeks when I was first starting it up, and I’m not interested in doing that anymore. It’s good work, and I do work about 50 to 60 hours a week.”
After watching the struggles that her father dealt with as the owner of a car-rental company, Whetzel never envisioned herself becoming a business owner. “I saw how my dad had his business and how with a lot of employees some people don’t show up to work, they call in sick and you’re on the hook for it,” Whetzel says.
To prevent complications and overworking, she takes things slow when it comes to expanding her company. She describes herself as a cautious person. Van Patter, Whetzel’s main baker, is one of only three employees outside of the family. “She’s made very, very few mistakes,” Bowman says. “I got too big and I wasn’t ready to manage the whole thing and I realized that I did it too fast, but she doesn’t do that, she takes her time.”
Through the ten years that she has owned Staff Of Life, Whetzel says her skills have improved, allowing her to provide more variety to customers and to experiment with new flavors. However, taste buds aren’t the only decision makers when it comes to which recipes get the OK. How the bread gets from point A to point B plays a major role in the decision to produce a certain flavor.
“Some things we can stack, other things can’t be stacked,” Whetzel says. “Sometimes we work on things for a long time and then we decide that it doesn’t logistically make sense for us.”
To alleviate some transportation issues, Bowman custom made 21 wooden boxes for the freshly baked bread to travel in. The boxes each have slots to easily stack trays of bread. The slots allow enough room to keep the rolls of bread from squishing each other and becoming misshapen. After drilling a total of 3,808 holes, Bowman bound together each of the boxes using leather strings, which prevents the wood from bending and snapping. The leather binding also adds a unique aesthetic look that has become a trademark for the company. “People are always saying ‘Oh make me some boxes,’ but it would be way more than they would want to spend,” Bowman says. “It took forever.”
While Bowman and Van Patter deal with the logistics of transportation, expansion and business in general, Whetzel stays focused on what she knows best. “The best part about this to me is making the bread,” Whetzel says. “I’m good at thinking, ‘I think people would like this.’”
The regular customers Whetzel has gathered over the years proves her ability to please a crowd with her European breads and experimental flavors. “It’s the only bread that really feels like bread-maker bread,” says Heather Bassett, who has been buying Whetzel’s bread at the Harrisonburg Farmers Market for two years. “It’s the real thing. I feel like I’m in Italy or France.”
The Harrisonburg Farmers Market has always been a primary selling place for Whetzel. “I’ve been there for eight years and a lot of my customers have been coming to me that whole time, so I know them by name,” Whetzel says. “Harrisonburg has very much a community atmosphere.”
As for her favorite flavor of bread? Whetzel doesn’t hesitate.
“I will never tell.”