- Courtesy of Breadfolks
Some folks just seem to be good at everything they set their mind to. Norman Jean Roy is one of those people. One of the iconic portrait photographers of our generation, Roy got his start doing test shoots at the behest of his aspiring-model girlfriend with a Minolta X-370 when he was 21. As the New York Times’ Nick Marino writes, “Three years later, he moved to Paris with $400 in his pocket and a dream of becoming the next Richard Avedon."
After a long, illustrious career shooting everyone from Joni Mitchell to Serena Williams to Adam Driver for publications like Vogue and Vanity Fair, Roy hung up his camera bag and moved upstate to Columbia County with his wife Joanna Jean Roy in 2014.
“We spent a bit of time unpacking the last 20 to 30 years of our lives—both emotionally and physically,” Roy says. “We wanted to hit the pause button and ask ourselves, ‘Do we want to re-engage in the way we have been, or plant something else?’ Every time I tried to re-engage, I felt this longing to do something else.”
Exactly two years ago this month, the couple was sitting on the couch of their Tagkhanic home when Roy re-floated their longtime back-burner, retirement-pipe-dream idea of opening a bakery together. “I was 49 and still had plenty of gas left in my tank, so I said, ‘What about the bakery?’” he recalls. “We just couldn't come up with any cons except: what if it doesn't work?”
Not one for being deterred by the fear of failure, nor for wasting time, Roy began looking for real estate and researching programs to take his skills from hobby baker to pro. “It was decided literally in one evening,” he says. “I knew nothing about baking. That was a year of learning, training, building, and construction, and a lot of pain and ‘what-have-we-done?’ kind of thing, marching toward the cliff, but also making the cliff move with us.” Ultimately, he enrolled at the prestigious San Francisco Baking Institute, whose artisanal bread program is renowned worldwide.
“It broke me down to: here’s what I know and what I don’t know,” Roy says. “I was really interested in flour dynamics—in the science of it, in how it behaves, so that I can move it in the direction I want. Having that sort of professional proximity to information is so much of what makes someone really good baker—the tiny connectors of information that connect the big blocks of understanding.”
After ground-up professional training and a yearlong build-out, Breadfolks soft-launched on Warren Street in June, out of a kiosk that was originally meant to be a smaller to-go retail operation to their larger, sit-down cafe—an “afterthought,” Roy calls it. With the risk of COVID looming large, Roy doesn’t know if that larger location will ever open. “The whole bakery was built around this cafe, which is located in the park between Warren and Prison Alley,” he says. “To us, the cafe-bakery became a destination rather than just a place you dropped in and dropped out, it was very intimate. Now there are a lot of tables with chairs and no one to sit there, because we decided that even 50-percent capacity exposed us too much. We have an open bakery; it felt vulnerable. Now we may never open it. Who knows how long this will be?”
- Courtesy of Breadfolks
But don’t fret: Even the small Breadfolks kiosk has garnered meteoric praise in the few months it’s been open, and has a near-constant line around the block. According to Roy, every weekend they have bread tourists who come from as far as Boston, New York City, and the rest of the state for his artisanal, naturally fermented, organic breads and pastries.
After a five-week test run in June, the operation shut down temporarily to regroup with a bigger team and better systems before formally launching to the public on August 3. Since then, they are barely keeping up with demand. “It’s been overwhelming and humbling,” he says. “It’s just really really amazing to watch this thing unfold. We work really hard to work a world-class quality product that many people may not have access to. We’ve had people contact us from Texas, San Francisco, Europe asking if we’ll ship. We’ve had so many requests from restaurants in New York City, we’ve been approached by many investors.”
It’s not Roy’s household name, which he hasn’t actively leveraged for attention (though the recent New York Times headline “The Fashion Photographer Who Traded Film for Flour” certainly won’t hurt.) He’s a damn good baker and a savvy businessman too. In conversation, he talks about return on investment and economies of scale; he evaluates the coming round of lockdown with the grim practicality of a seasoned entrepreneur.
Proof of Concept
Even though the pandemic has meant that his flagship location has never been able to open, Roy is still positive overall. “For us, COVID has been a weird blessing in the sense that we’re what I call an ‘affordable luxury.’ A croissant is not a staple, but you still feel like you’re treating yourself,” he says. “People are seeking some semblance of normalcy. So we hit the right product at the right time.”
In addition to their country loaf, which is a traditional sourdough made with whole wheat and rye, Breadfolks bakes everything from baguettes and fougasse to Danish rugbrød, ciabatta, focaccia, rugala, turnovers, caneles, and croissants. “The model is to get bread out on shelves as close to straight out of the oven as possible,” Roy says. “Sometimes there’s a tiny bit of heat left in them.”
While the organic flour for the bread bases is sourced from Utah-based Central Milling, Roy is selectively using local ingredients in his inclusion breads (no this isn’t hippy for unity, it’s baker-ese for bread with added ingredients, like seeds and nuts. “New York State has a lot of really good flour, but for us at this point, it’s more important to establish a consistency, to find an organic grower that has a very non-volatile grain,” he says. The rye berries are sourced from Sparrowbush Farm and Bakery in Livingston, and Breadfolks will soon use local spelt as part of an inclusion.
“Every time we think, ‘Oh, it would be fun to try this,’ we come back to: No no no no. Let’s do this really well,” Roy says. “That’s the number one rule in business: Know what you do, do it well, and don’t do anything else.”
Not Your Average Joe
That yeasty, fresh-baked smell and the crackle of a warm loaf is an intoxicating sense experience. Add to it Breadfolks’ custom-roasted coffees, blended weekly in house, and you have a winning combination.
As if having a bakery people cross state lines to visit wasn’t enough, the Breadfolks staff are also pushing the envelope of modern coffee roasting techniques. While traditionally you blend coffee beans before you roast them, Roy’s team helping pioneer a shift toward roasting each single-origin bean individually and blending them afterward, i.e. post-roast blending.
“We were roasting all these things, blending them, and finding all these beautiful combos. Then when we sent them out to be batch-roasted in that combination, we got them back and they were just terrible,” Roy says. Every bean has a different extraction rate, so roasting them separately allows for maximum efficiency. The bakery has several base roasts, which they combine in different blends every week.
“We’re having a lot of fun developing that program, with the intention to eventually roast in-house,” Roy says of the forthcoming coffee program they will call Roastfolks. “None of us here are roastmasters, but we have very curated palates. There is only so much coffee you can drink in a week, so it’s a very slow, laborious process.”
People’s coffee-drinking habits at the bakery have proved a useful barometer for the seasonal menu shifts. “Once cold brews start fading and the lattes cuadruple, it’s time to start introducing heavier notes of flavor: custard, creams, caramel,” Roy says. “In summer, it’s a lot brighter, more citrusy, and acidic. We’ve dropped our lemon bars now; no one wants to eat that in the cold.”
Starting November 12, Breadfolks will be open Thursday through Sunday, serving up their seasonally appropriate selection of pastries, breads, and coffee. Get it while it’s hot.
322 Warren Street, Hudson
Thursday: 9am-3pm; Friday-Sunday: 9am-4pm