The Cottage at Blue Ridge Micro-Baker Shares Love of ‘Old World,’ Naturally Leavened Bread-Making
Bakers are generous souls, notorious perfectionists, eternally devoted to that “perfect loaf.” Young Lynnwood micro-baker Conor O’Neill sure fits that bill. He turned his love of bread into a cottage industry, regularly selling out his treasure trove of hand-made, “Old World, European style” baked goods well before the 10 a.m. opening at his popular Saturday pop-up in Perrinville.
The Cottage at Blue Ridge, named after the Lynnwood neighborhood he grew up in, offers fan favorites like Country Sourdough, Bavarian Pretzels, Chocolate Chunk Rye and Shortbread Cookies, Challah, Croissants and Brioche, Garnet Yam Rolls, and Oat Porridge Honey Bread. They’re naturally leavened, baked using local, stone-milled flour, sustained by beefy grains…Yecora Rojo hard red spring wheat, rye, spelt, rolled oats, whole wheat — as farm-to-table as you’ll ever get.
His hearty, rustic bread table has earned The Cottage a growing battalion of fiercely devoted fans, people willing to wait in long lines snaking around the block an hour before the pop-up opens, rain or shine.
This past August, O’Neill dug into his love of bread, bread-making, and sharing that love with the community, exclusively for Welcome Magazine.
What made you first get into bread-making?
I first began baking bread in college when I moved from campus living to my own apartment. I started cooking a lot for myself, learning to develop recipes, and learn from some of my favorite chefs online. I came across a few no-knead yeasted dough recipes when I first got started. I typically would make a loaf of bread every week, and began trialing all of the important variables, like temperature, hydrations levels, and different types of flour. Nancy Silverton has always been such an inspiration in this regard.
What is it about bread-making that’s so interesting for you?
Bread-baking has always been an activity of solace for me, it can always bring me peace of mind. I love that it can be so challenging as well, especially as you start to make more than a few loaves of bread per week. Coming to understand the importance of freshly-milled flours, and their impact on the final product has allowed me to see bread in an entirely different light. Above all, I find it fascinating that such an old-world form of creative expression is still being used, even as we develop further the technological frameworks that we live amongst today.
How did your micro-bakery come about? What made you go with a micro-bakery first, rather than a brick ‘n mortar, or catering?
When I first began baking, I was seeking advice from many cottage bakers around the world. I began to realize how practical and attainable a cottage bakery really was, especially in terms of finances. The start-up costs compared to that of building out a retail bakery are marginal, which makes the cottage bakery much more appealing. It also allowed me to continue recipe-testing, and developing a menu that my community continues to enjoy to this day.
Cottage at Blue Ridge… How did you come up with this name? What were some other names you played with?
I live in a neighborhood in Lynnwood called Blue Ridge. I have lived here my entire life and it will always hold significant sentimental value. Originally, I had set my sights on calling the bakery Blue Ridge Baking Company, but soon realized that a bakery across the country would share the same name. I went with something much more literal, The Cottage at Blue Ridge. I really enjoy the name, and folks tend to abridge the name as The Cottage.
What made you think you could turn your love of bread-making into a viable business?
I have always admired folks that set out to spend their life doing things that they love. I love that bread finds a way to bring people together, as it is often a staple in many cultures around the world. My family and friends’ faces would light up every time I would prepare some fresh sourdough bread for that evening’s meal. I wanted to share that feeling with as many people as possible, so I set out to learn how to do that at scale.
By naturally leavened, you mean sourdough? What’s the hardest part of sourdough baking that people may not understand, and of running your own business as a micro-bakery?
One of the more challenging aspects of sourdough bread-baking, is understanding the influence that time has on your final product. There are certain variables that bakers must pay very close attention to, in order to achieve a desired level of consistency each time they bake. It can be challenging for bakers to understand or predict the behavior of their sourdough starter, because it is a collection of living bacteria that react to how they are fed and treated. Operating a business as a sourdough micro-bakery involves a complete designation of my time, to making sure I am getting better with every bake. Not only am I the only baker, but I am the only social media manager, I am in charge of community outreach, customer relations, wholesale partnerships and market coordinator. I love getting to wear all of the hats, but it can surely take a toll on me. I try to manage my time appropriately, and try to be as efficient as possible.
And conversely, what’s been the best parts?
One of the most rewarding parts of operating The Cottage has been seeing the line of people every Saturday, sometimes 200 people or more, waiting patiently to collect their weekly baked goods on the corner in Perrinville. It means so much to me that my community enjoys bread made from local grains, and continues to show up each week with such enthusiasm. Another one of my favorite parts is getting to work alongside my family at each pop-up. They’ve all been so supportive since I began this business a year ago, and I am so grateful for their willingness to help out when necessary.
How has your visit to Paris influenced/inspired you to pursue your own micro-bakery?
My trip to Paris was my first chance at experiencing a culture that has so much respect for the food they harvest and consume. The relationship with food in Europe is very different from the relationship I had growing up. There seems to be a more commonly held respect for every meal. I hadn’t quite fallen in love with the art of bread-baking until returning home from Paris. You don’t know what you had until it’s gone, huh? I have one specific memory that I will always remember. Myself, and my friends had sat down for lunch at a small family-operated bistro. Toward the end of our meal, we still had some cheese and fresh fruit left on a plate we were all sharing. The owner’s daughter asked us if we’d like more bread to finish our meal, to which we unanimously agreed. She walked across the street to the local boulangerie for a fresh baguette, brought it back to the bistro to cut and present to us, to accompany our leftovers from lunch. We still talk about this act of kindness to this day.
I hear European breads tend to be more rustic, chewier, with a darker crust — almost black, whereas Americans prefer their breads lighter, softer, the Wonder Bread effect. How have you adapted what you learned about the European “Old-World” bread-making processes to U.S. tastes, and to your own style?
It is understood that certain desirable flavors can be achieved when bread is baked a bit further, developing a darker crust. This is from a chemical reaction called the Maillard Reaction, which occurs when existing amino acids and reducing sugars are rearranged. A darker color often signifies a more complex and desirable flavor, often found in baked goods, cooked meats, and seafood. I tend to bake my bread a bit darker too, to showcase the incredible flavors that are made possible by our rich, local grain selection.
What is the “Old-World” process?
The “Old-World” process can mean many things to many different cultures. To oversimplify, the old-world process could be considered the creation of bread, utilizing sourdough starter, without the assistance of modern machines or electricity. It often involves a wood-burning oven, and in many cases, utilizes locally milled grains. It doesn’t include electric scales, commercialized yeasts, or any large mixing equipment. The process is slow (in a good way), rustic, and beautiful.
How did you develop your own style of bread-making, your signature?
I tend to make things that I’ll enjoy time and time again. I don’t intend to “reinvent the wheel” with any of my baked goods; rather, I am just trying my hand at making something beautiful, making the the best bread I possibly can. I am always learning and excavating new findings, and will always be on the journey of what could be considered “the perfect loaf.”
Your signature includes a heavy emphasis on rye. Your rye salted chocolate cookies are the best. What got you into rye, which is a tough cookie, in the first place, and how have you been able to incorporate this unique flour into your bread-making repertoire?
I really enjoy the malty flavor that rye flour brings. It provides a distinct earthiness, without overpowering any loaf of bread or chocolate chunk cookie. I also really enjoy the nutritional properties of rye flour, especially the Gazelle Rye from Cairnspring Mills. Rye is known to have a lower glycemic index to wheat flours, and often contains more fiber. Rye flour is also known to improve the function of your digestive system. I would love to learn more about Vollkornbrot, a bread made entirely from darker flours and other malty ingredients.
What are The Cottage’s most popular baked goods?
The most popular bread is the Country Sourdough, which is likely to sell out early on Saturday mornings. It includes T85 Trailblazer and Gazelle Rye from Cairnspring Mills. People often have good things to say about the Cardamom Buns, which are a combination of a cinnamon roll and a Swedish breakfast pastry called Kanelbullar.
Tell me about the first day you opened, what was that like?
The first day I opened up for business was just about a year ago, at the base of my folks’ driveway. I baked a couple dozen cookies and pretzels, and had a few dozen loaves of bread that I would offer to neighbors and family for donations in return. The weather was incredible and lots of neighbors noticed what was happening, and had to make a trip down the street to get a better look. It was a massive success, and many people inquired about more bread in the future. I soon took my set-up and a tent down to Perrinville, which is just a few streets away, and began hosting a pop-up every Saturday morning after that. Each pop-up is met with a gathering of people from all of the Pacific Northwest, happy to pick up their loaves of bread and other treats.
Covid-19 shut down many businesses, big and small, and scared a lot of customers away for good. How have you been able to maintain/keep your clientele?
I am so thankful to have been able to continue doing business through the pandemic. One of the things that has remained an important priority of my business is ensuring proper communication with my guests. In early March, when news broke about positive cases present in Washington State, I knew COVID-19 would have a significant impact if it continued to spread. I made it a point to clearly and quickly communicate how I would be honoring strict precautions in terms of social distancing and proper sanitation. We began pre-bagging all of the baked goods to expedite the shopping process, and we continued to offer hand sanitizer to guests as they made their way to the check-stand table. All of these actions made guests feel much more comfortable when visiting, especially with the pop-up being held outdoors in Perrinville.
What traits does a person need to have in order to successfully bake bread and then, if so inclined, make bread-baking a viable business?
Two traits that a person should have when operating any business is a passion for what they’re doing, as well as a strong sense of self-awareness. If you happen to love what you do for a living, you’ll have a much more enjoyable experience, and when things don’t turn out how you anticipated, your passion will drive you to find an answer to any existing problem. Self-awareness becomes very important as an entrepreneur in the bread business, because you need to have an idea what your strengths are, and build upon those. Understanding your weaknesses, and taking notes will help you continue to improve over time. Being a baker and an entrepreneur, it is essential to become acquainted with monotony and repetition. Your passion for the craft, and your care for others will make the repetition worth it.
Is it true you’re close to opening a brick ‘n mortar bakery? Details, please!
As it stands, I have signed the lease on a small space in Perrinville, Washington. I am currently looking for an architect to help with drawing up plans that will be suitable for the city’s codes and regulations. The buildout of this bakery could take between four-six months, but I am excited to break ground on the project that I’ve dreamed about for so long.
What else would you like to be doing in the near-future?
I am always eager to be learning something. I am always playing music and finding good coffee to drink. In the near-future, I’d like to learn more about woodworking, another trade that I admire from afar. I am also very interested in engines, and would love to dive deeper into the automotive world.
You make sure to support others, too, partnering with Kelnero (Wed. pop-up at their Edmonds cocktail lounge), promoting other small business artisans on your social media, even giving away a piece of your mother starter and extra flour to bakers in need. You could just as easily take care of your own business and to hell with everyone else. Why is reaching out important to you?
I want to live in a world where everyone is taking care of each other. I believe that it’s what we’re meant to do, in perpetuity. How else will we continue to learn, adapt, create, and explore the world and further, the universe? I feel good when others are lending a helping hand, so my hope is to offer my kindness to others when I can.
How do you feel about your customers who’ve been there for you through thick and thin?
I am so thankful for the customers who have continued to support this tiny bakery for the past year. These folks show up every Saturday, in rain and snow, year-round with such positivity and enthusiasm. It makes me so happy to continue to serve such an incredible community of people.