Raising up a new bakery beside the river in Huntington (Video)
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River and Rail is located at the corner of 11th Street and Veterans Memorial Boulevard in Huntington. Open 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday to Friday; 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Call 304-399-1247 or visit riverandrailbakery.com. NOTE: The bakery will be closed for vacation until Jan. 11. HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- It's the Friday before Christmas and Lisa Williamson stands at the counter and asks what freshly baked breads are available at River and Rail Bakery.
She certainly won that day's prize for the customer who traveled the farthest. Williamson drove more than an hour from her farm in Martin County, Ky., after hearing something about a recently opened Huntington bakery on a public radio station.
"I wasn't sure where it was, so I called them yesterday: 'Where are you?!' " she recalled asking a bakery employee.
She had her arms full as she headed home with a holiday haul of three baguettes, two Moroccan olives loaves and a loaf of moist but chewy bread made from "spent" grains used in making beer.
The search for good bread will do that to you.
Kim Baker, who opened the bakery and coffeeshop last March in Huntington's revitalized Heritage Village shops beside the Ohio River, could only smile as she made ready to deliver more loaves to the counter display.
Customers like Williamson are yet more affirmation she had made the right call when she took a left turn in her life. That was when she decided not just to be named 'Baker,' but to hang out her shingle as one.
"When I started the bakery, I was looking for something to do that would be a little more fulfilling than anything I had done before except for being a stay-at-home mom, which is definitely fulfilling," said Baker, who raised three children.
After her children were grown, she worked as a lobbyist and office manager for the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the West Virginia Citizens Action Group and managed Ken Hechler's 1999-2000 run for Congress.
"So, I've been dabbling in politics for a long time. Then I got burned out -- is probably the best way to describe it. Which is very easy to do in the political realm."
She worked at Amazon.com for a while, then "semi-retired," after which she un-retired to open River and Rail. The bakery and small coffee shop is in a historic train depot building, sharing the building with the Cabell Huntington Convention and Visitor's Bureau and the Red Caboose Regional Artisan Center.
A lifelong, self-taught baker, she was inspired to open the business after attending the weekly "Chat and Chew" sessions of the group Create Huntington, Baker said.
"Their goal is to get together and talk about what's good about Huntington and what we can make better. It was through meeting those people I got the idea to come down to Heritage Station and look at it as a possibility for a place for a business."
Back in the kitchen, Melissa Oliver and Shelly Keeney make the pastries, cookies and scones, while Baker produces a wide range of homemade rustic breads, cinnamon rolls and French macarons.
Breads range from the ones the woman from Kentucky purchased to a nine-grain loaf with sunflower seeds, a Siciliano featuring olive oil and sesame seeds, a Moroccan loaf with olives and Greek oregano, various pumpernickel, sourdough and rye breads and a Rosemary Pecan Pugliese (pool-YAY-zay).
The story behind that last loaf offers a glimpse into the kind of community-based bread culture Baker had in mind when she opened River and Rail.
"Pugliese is a rustic Italian bread from the region of Italy called Puglia. The rosemary pecan combination came from a question I asked my sister. She lives in Portland, Ore. I was getting ready to open the bakery, and I said 'What kind of bread do you like to buy in a local bakery in Portland?' She said she bought these little rolls that had rosemary and pecans.
"I thought, OK, I can do a rosemary pecan bread. I incorporated fresh rosemary and toasted pecans into the pugliese. It's a delicious bread -- it's got crunch, it's got earthy flavor. It's perfect for dipping, for sandwiches. For all sorts of things."
Her loaves range in price from $4.50 to $6 while the whole French baguettes cost $2 or $1 for a mini-baguette.
But River and Rail is not solely about the bread, pastries, cookies, coffees and teas on display, but also about the place itself, said Baker.
"The people who work here interact with our customers, we get to know our customers. It's a way of sort of bringing that personal touch to a business, something that you don't get very easily at a big box or a big chain store."
Every Saturday, there's a daytime open mic from noon to 4 p.m., plus the occasional poetry jam and book signing. And, of course, there is the simple yet substantial pleasure of just hanging out for awhile with a friend, a book, a laptop, a cappuccino and a slice of German shortbread or a cranberry-orange scone.
"People get together, they meet each other. It's just a variety of activities that are not just about selling bread, they're about building community."
Reach Douglas Imbrogno at email@example.com or 304-348-3017.