The woman, literally, had her face pressed against the window. She raised hand-to-brow to cut the glare and get a better look at the blueberry scones and whole-wheat cinnamon rolls, the Chili Cheese and Cranberry Hazelnut loaves, on display.
Hard to see if she was salivating, but there was probably a good chance of it.
Behind the locked front door of Village Baker, where an outdoor pay station had been set up for social distancing purposes, Beth Heenan made preliminary steps to engage. But the woman then averted her eyes and wandered off toward Safeway. Heenan shrugged and smiled.
A potential sale lost, perhaps, but others would -- and did -- come for their daily bread, to partake in those glorious gluten creations Beth and her husband Rick have fashioned since 1996.
Marking its 25th anniversary of Flagstaff’s westside, Village Baker is doing its best to celebrate the occasion during the COVID-19 pandemic — reviving erstwhile specialty breads, such as the roasted garlic, red bell pepper and Monterey jack cheese loaf — but, unfortunately, the public has been deprived of the sensory delight of actually stepping into the store.
Customers, out in the cold, no doubt hanker for the rich, yeasty olfactory experience of sidling up to the counter and having the heady aroma of freshly baked bread envelope them in a warm embrace.
And, you know what: Beth Heenan misses it, too.
“Oh, yes, I miss people coming in and saying, ‘Oh, it smells so good in here,’" she said. "Usually, this is our counter and this is our pastry table as opposed to this and that. They can see everything going on, see the bread being sliced, see it being formed. I really miss that. We only foresee it happening a few more months, we hope. But we won’t rush it.”
Still, people come, unabated. They slouch on the sidewalk outside Village Baker awaiting their daily loaves, their breakfast scones, savoring that hit of doughy goodness. Bread is, after all, the staff of life — even (or maybe especially) during socially restricted pandemic life.
So, for the Heenans, business during COVID actually has been rising like, well, you know the appropriate simile.
“Our retail sales have doubled,” Beth said, “but we have taken a hit with restaurants and NAU, where we’re a preferred vendor. But we feel we’re doing the right thing, and it turns out business is up.”
So while Village Baker has lost some revenue because many NAU fetes have been canceled — hard to break bread at a “virtual” conference, after all — and several restaurants they supply remain shuttered or scaled back, grocery stores and walk-up sales have more than made up for the shortfall. Their ovens are firing longer and hotter than ever to meet demand.
“At the start, remember, there was this mad rush by everybody to get everything, including bread,” she said. “We sell to a lot of the grocery stores in town, and we’ve had trouble just keeping things on the shelves. (At) Whole Foods, we just bought two new free-standing racks for them and doubled the amount of food were sending.”
Hewing to its hyper-local, Mom-and-Pop ethos, Village Baker also has started delivery (with a $16 minimum order), warm loaves placed on people’s doorsteps both in Flagstaff and Sedona.
“People are loving that,” Beth said. “Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, they can call, make orders over the phone, do payment over the phone, and we’ll drop it on their door for them.”
Still, Heenan acknowledged there’s nothing like the experience of picking up a loaf in-store. During one recent lunch hour rush, four customers waited outside to pay at a credit card reader. Beth or one of her seven employees would unlock the door, take an order, lock the door once more. Meanwhile, inside Village Baker, work continued with The Band ploughing through “The Weight” on the radio and the slicer keeping time. Minutes later, loaves in brown paper bags would be handed over to waiting customers.
The tables where customers formerly sat and lingered over a cookie and espresso have been shoved to the corner, overturned chairs atop them. The glass display counter in front of the kitchen is devoid of goodies, but the bakery has put out a tray of sweets in the front window as enticements.
If any customers seemed put off by their temporary banishment from the Village Baker’s feat of the senses, they didn’t show it.
Patti and David Cunningham, longtime patrons, waited patiently to pick up three loaves on this day. The couple ordered sourdough and palmetto olive loaves, inserted a credit card into the device sitting on an end table and then waited. A minute later, though, an employee unlocked the door, empty-handed.
“So, unfortunately,” the employee said, “the palmetto olive is a little too warm to slice. Do you still want it today?”
“Yes!” David said.
“It’ll be a minute.”
“That’s a good problem, isn’t it?” Patti said to another customer waiting. “Too warm!”
Though it's a slight inconvenience for both customers and employees, the curbside service is necessary, said Beth, who observes strict social distancing and health and safety protocols.
“My mom’s a nurse,” she said by way of explanation, “and we have friends in the medical profession, and they told us it was coming. Right after spring break (in March), we just decided to do business this way. And we thought it was only going to be two weeks. But it wasn’t. We just decided to keep everybody distant even after (state orders were lifted). People seem to appreciate it.”
Rising for the community
The Cunninghams are regulars at Village Baker. Ask them why they frequent the place, and they seem taken aback, as if everyone knows the bread speaks for itself. But there’s another reason the business is known: its philanthropy.
“It fits, it just kind of fits in the community,” Beth said. “We support a lot of causes. When the government employees furloughed, we offered free products to them. During the Red for Ed protests, we offered products to striking teachers. We donate to the Sunshine Rescue Mission, the Family Food Center. Our accountant is like, ‘Man, nobody’s going to believe I can write off all of this.’ We also have a sliding scale, so if people can’t afford the bread, we set up a system where they can pay what they can.”
The Heenans have seen how hunger and poverty can affect the community. All they have to do, Beth said, is step out the back of their store.
“I pulled up one time with my kids (Laena, 15, and Asher, 12) and there was a father in the dumpster — inside it — looking for bread, with kids in his car waiting,” Beth said. “People know that if they need something, we’re here. We sort of have that underground reputation, and people know it. When everything started happening last spring and people couldn’t get flour, I had a woman on Facebook say, ‘I need flour, I can’t find it, can you help me feed my family?’ She came and we gave her a few pounds of flour.”