Goodwin Creek Farm and Bakery, the Afton-based mom-and-pop business, is set to move into a new building this winter, signaling the owners’ commitment to what was at one time an on-the-fly adjustment to the realities of life in Nelson County.
The bakery grew as a kind of fall-back position when the original plan fell through, say John and Nancy Hellerman, the owners. Plan A was to have a working farm, selling hay to farmers and eggs and vegetables at the Nelson County Farmer’s Market. “We did really well there,” he said. “People loved our produce, and we got to know them and it was fun.”
But then there was the day about ten years ago when they went out to gather vegetables for market day and the deer had done more than their usual damage. “They’d eaten almost everything,” Nancy remembers. Unwilling to disappoint their weekly clients, she baked muffins and bread. The baked goods were also well received.
“Those days were fun, too,” John said. “Whatever was left of the produce, we’d put it on a focaccia and bake it. I kind of miss it.” They made the change to predominantly baked goods, found they needed an inspected kitchen, and increased production to make it worthwhile.
In the early days, they took 16 or so loaves a week to market. Now, the couple pulls at least 250 loaves a day from the fragrant ovens, with the weekly output growing to more than 2500 loaves in the spring and fall. They currently have one full-time and one part-time helper.
They’re working in close quarters in what used to be a regular farmhouse kitchen, with the former living area devoted to cooling, packing and loading. In the kitchen, it’s a complicated dance to get from the sink to the counter, from the ovens to the cooling racks, especially when more than one person is involved.
“We just have the bedrooms to live in,” John said (The Hellermans have two young sons, Dave and Joe.) “Everything else is taken up by the bakery.” This will all change soon, as the bakery operation moves downhill into a separate building with a better-designed workflow and new equipment. One of the new pieces, a giant mixer, has already arrived but was pressed into service quickly when the old one conked out prematurely.
The new space and new ovens should be fully functional by early spring. John’s not sure they will be able to increase production, but it will allow them to adjust their work hours, now pretty crazy, with baking in progress from before dawn to late at night at times. They’ll have more time, more space, and a more efficient flow.
The Hellermans are fearless entrepreneurs, able to adjust to changes in fortune without drama or regret. John said he’s always been that way, dabbling in building and businesses from the time he began working. He took a long break from work to help out during his father’s final illness. During that time he met Nancy, a Chilean architect. Like him, she has a love of hard physical work and the idea of being her own boss. They bought the farm, commuting there from Crozet, and thinking it would be a hobby business.
Chickens were once a part of the plan, and at one time there were hundreds, producing 30 dozen eggs a day. Like the vegetables, they eventually disappeared into the hungry Afton ecosystem.
So now it’s just the bakery and the upkeep of the 50-acre farm and equipment. Marketing hasn’t been hard for Goodwin Creek, with the Afton and Crozet areas growing, and an increasing demand for good local products. The Hellermans use top-quality flour, usually organic flour directly from King Arthur, or the same product, shipped and milled in North Carolina. Greenwood Gourmet, Crozet Great Valu and Blue Mountain Brewery were all early customers, and still major ones. The explosion of wineries and breweries in the area––many with restaurants––means continuing and growing demand.
The bulk of their business is loaf breads. “We have what I call early American-style bread,” John said. “You can always make a sandwich out of it.” But they also roll out European-style batons, focaccia and rolls with great flair.
The Hellermans adjust to the needs of their clients. A brewery wants fresh soft pretzels to serve with an ale-infused mustard, so they bake them. Restaurants want a thick, country-style slice, so they invested in a second slicer. Local wine and beer makers check the weather and predict a huge influx of tourists, so change their orders accordingly, sometimes with short notice. They’re always trying new things, listening to suggestions, checking out new recipes, talking to bakers who’ve been around a long time.
Not everything has gone off without a hitch. The Hellermans recall squeezing around in the kitchen with infants slung from their backs or chests. “You have to learn to sleep when they do,” Hellerman learned. “Otherwise you just can’t continue. That was a big lesson.”
Once they baked a large order of rolls destined for St. Anne’s-Belfield, missing the salt. “They looked great,” John said, “but something just looked wrong.” (Salt moderates the activity of the yeast, slowing down the rising of the dough). They made another batch, loaded them, still hot, and delivered them just as the students were sitting down to lunch.
It’s not an easy way to make a living: anyone can see that. They have long hours, are on their feet constantly, worry about the repercussions of significant upturns in bulk prices and changes in ownership like the recent one at Great Valu. Things are constantly in flux as they react, adjust and grow. But the beauty of their land above Goodwin Creek and the constant interaction with pleased customers make it worthwhile. John’s brother and some of Nancy’s far-away family have moved to adjoining property, and John’s mother is usually on hand to be with the boys. “Everyone seems to understand it,” John said.
Find a full list of products as well as places to buy at goodwincreekfarm.com.
The Hellermans regret that they can’t accept visitors or customers at the bakery.