By Paul Roupe
It’s about 10 a.m., and Bonnie Ohara is crooning along with her favorite Motown oldies, massaging some focaccia in the dining room of her home bakery in Modesto. Her dough-stained apron, flecked with eight hours of laborious preparation, symbolizes her determination to get done in time for the first customer.
Now, she is finishing up the last of the focaccia, which she does at the end because they don’t take too much time to bake.
She shapes the blob, stretches it, puts a hunk of it on a scale. Then she eyes the weight and plops it on a tray.
Just a few feet in front of her, on a separate table just below the wide dining room window, nearly two dozen finished sourdough loaves await bagging. Patrons can see them when they stand in line, which goes from the front porch, down the walkway, and out her swinging wooden gate to the sidewalk.
Ohara’s workstation is much like an artist’s studio, and instead of the floors speckled with paint, a thin flour dust is faintly visible on the hardwood floor.
In the corner sits hundreds of pounds of yecora rojo, a rare wheat that she gets from a local farm and which adds to the homemade taste of her goods. She crushes the wheat herself on a stone-ground mill, and because this region isn’t known for grain, Ohara says “just to have grains grown in California is a huge deal.”
Grinding up the grain to a coarse texture allows the nutrients to stay in the bread, making for a higher quality product that is noticeably different from what you would find at some stores.
“The difference between this bread and the grocery store’s (bread) is the difference between a great cappuccino and a cup of Folgers,” she says.
A loud ding comes from the kitchen, and she goes in and returns with a tray of the perfectly browned rosemary focaccia, sizzling and cracking.
The table she is working on is getting crowded, and her eyes scan around for a spot to put it down. She finds one near the edge, nudging another tray to make room.
Ohara’s oldest son Gabe, one of three young children milling around the house, sidles up and looks up at her.
“Can I have a baguette?” he asks, peeking into a basket stuffed with the long, thin sticks of bread.
“Do you want me pick one?” she asks.
“No, I’ll pick it,” he says, smiling. He glances at them with a studied eye, as if he really can determine which ones are the best. “You look good,” he says. He lifts it out and runs off.
For the past three years, Ohara has been putting her sweat and her soul into baking. At first it started out innocuously enough. She would cook some bread and get compliments and requests.
“People soon started asking to get some and it just started mushrooming,” she says.
It never was her intention to become a grain guru, and in the beginning her operation was primitive but direct.
She wrote customer’s names on a piece of paper then delivered the bread around town herself on a cargo bike. But soon there were too many names. When she saw that she had created a monster that couldn’t be contained, she decided to focus on giving the people what they want.
She started a website, printed out business cards, “and here we are,” she says.
There is no marketing necessary, for word of mouth is the driving force behind her success. She’s even caught the attention of a publisher and is currently writing a cookbook.
Occasionally, it can get a bit rough running a bakery from your home: time, space, and temperature (especially in the summer when the oven is running non-stop) can be taxing, but for Ohara it’s all worth it. She prides herself on making the freshest wheat loaf, baguettes, rosemary focaccia, or wildflower seed bread (among other things) anywhere around.
She’s aware that in a world where chemically-enhanced foods are more common than not, her old-fashioned style resonates with those looking for something that seems lost.
“People today want more accountability and traceability for their goods,” she explains. “They want to know what’s in their food and where it came from. Which is one reason why I think Alchemy Bread is so successful…there’s something comforting about getting your bread from someone’s house.”
It’s nearing half-past 11 a.m. now, and the people are already starting to line up. There are the regulars, of course, and Bonnie seems to know mostly everybody by their first names. There’s Mary, who gets served first because she can’t stand for extended periods. There’s Tony, who says he’s “thankful for every loaf.” There are a smattering of hugs, greetings and goodbyes as the crowd thickens.
Ohara’s three children, Sophie, Leo, and Gabe, are part of the attraction as well. They keep the customer’s kids occupied, drawing or coloring on a poster-board booklet or playing with some toys that are strewn out in her yard.
Gradually her stock gets depleted, and those in back are in danger of leaving empty-handed. Plain wheat? Sorry, we’re all out. Rosemary fougasse? Better luck next week. There’s still some seeded bread, but soon that will be gone as well.
Finally, 20 minutes past noon, it happens. There’s nothing left for the last five customers. Two stragglers who stayed behind to chat are treated with a croissant, which will be a part of the menu soon.
Nearby, Bonnie’s three-year-old boy Leo sits on a wooden bench in the front yard with a marker gripped in his fist. He’s drawing what looks like a long cylinder.
“It’s a woahhwing pin!” he blurts excitedly.
Bonnie packs up her workstation and thinks about the day ahead. She’s got to get started making pizza for some friends coming over later.
She disappears inside, and soon the clanging of kitchenware drifts outside, lingers a moment, then falls.
To find out how to purchase Alchemy bread, visit alchemybread.com.