hill country observerThe independent newspaper of eastern New York, southwestern Vermont and the Berkshires


News & Issues November 2022


Pandemic dividend, fresh from the oven

Economic upheaval helps spur new micro-bakeries across region


Kean McIlvaine moved from Washington, D.C., to Washington County, N.Y., after the pandemic threw her culinary career into turmoil. Once here, she started Covered Bridge Bread, a home-based baking business. Joan K. Lentini photo


Kean McIlvaine moved from Washington, D.C., to Washington County, N.Y., after the pandemic threw her culinary career into turmoil. Once here, she started Covered Bridge Bread, a home-based baking business. Joan K. Lentini photo


Contributing writer


After the pandemic clobbered the restaurant business in the nation’s capital two years ago, Kean McIlvaine and her husband decided to leave Washington for a quieter lifestyle in upstate New York.

McIlvaine had been happily immersed in a culinary career at Rose’s Luxury, one of Washington’s top restaurants, which earned and retained a Michelin star during her five-year tenure. The creative demands of being executive sous chef provided a never-ending source of stimulation. But when Covid hit and the restaurant’s fleet of employees was reduced to a mere five, she soon found herself on the verge of burnout.

“The restaurant business is volatile in general, and Covid made it more so,” McIlvaine recalled. “It pushed me to consider what I could do differently. After 10 years in high-stress restaurants, I was ready to start my own business and thought, ‘Why not center it around what I’m most passionate about? Bread.’”

McIlvaine and her husband, Jordan Berger, found a house in the town of Jackson with a view of the Eagleville covered bridge along the Batten Kill. They and their two dogs moved north in November, and she spent the remainder of the year perfecting a sourdough bread recipe. By February, she was sufficiently pleased with the results that she decided to celebrate with her new neighbors.

“I went around my neighborhood and put loaves of bread in the mailboxes -- with my e-mail address if they’d like to order more,” she explained.

The orders for more ensued, and McIlvaine’s business, Covered Bridge Bread, was born. Her customer list started at seven and has since grown to more than 200.

It might seem like a fanciful business model, but McIlvaine isn’t the only one trying it. Across New York’s Rensselaer, Washington and Warren counties, at least a half-dozen new micro-bakeries have sprung up in the past couple of years, and a similar number have emerged in the Berkshires (see accompanying story).

Many are one-woman operations, producing bread and other baked goods from home-based kitchens. And most of these bakers say the disruptions of the pandemic spurred them to re-evaluate their lives and careers – and gave them opportunity, and in some cases the need, to strike out on their own.

The region already had a few one-person bakeries whose products were available within a narrow geographic area. In Vermont, for example, Jed Mayer has produced his Rupert Rising bread for nearly two decades and gained a devoted following. But lately there are a bunch more bakers trying this model.

In McIlvaine’s case, most of her customers pick up their bread at her home bakery, though she will make special arrangements to coordinate a halfway meeting point if necessary. She offers a variety of bread subscriptions, and her bread also is available at Kari Bernard’s Farm Store at 2275 Route 22 in Cambridge.

Despite the demands of managing her baking business with a newborn son, McIlvaine said this new chapter in her life has turned out better than she could have imagined.

“Covid gave me the push to move from a different part of the country and completely change the pace and priorities of my life and focus on my passions,” she explained. “Now I can give myself the time and attention that bread-baking by hand requires.”

She specializes in dense sourdough breads in a variety of flavors and styles, including kalamata, paesano, jalapeno-cheddar, aged cheddar and black pepper, and olive oil and sea salt focaccia. Loaves of sourdough start at $8, depending on size, and range to $14 for a large portion of sourdough focaccia with toppings.

Besides traditional sourdough, challah and biscuits are in the rotation, and McIlvaine also offers a roster of cookies and cakes, including a popular vegan dark chocolate and olive oil cake. But sourdough remains her driving passion.

“Sourdough is such a creative process, because it varies according to water, air in the kitchen and the bacteria on hands when kneading the dough,” she said. “Everyone’s starter is a unique signature.”

‘People will always want bread’
Eliza Hunter worked as a professional baker for seven years before the pandemic prompted her to strike out on her own.

She honed her craft mainly in New York City and the Hudson Valley but also completed a coveted six-month internship in Paris. Among the establishments where she baked bread and crafted pastries were the Maison Kayser bakery chain in Manhattan, Bonfiglio Bread in Athens and Tavola in New Paltz.

“The more you move around, the more you learn,” Hunter explained. “I’ve done whole dessert menus at restaurants, but my passion was always bread.”

Ultimately she returned to her hometown of Troy to work at The Placid Baker, and after the pandemic hit in 2020, she started Ovenbird Baking.

“People will always want bread,” she said. “It was scary branching out on my own, but at that point I had nothing to lose.”

When her customer list doubled after only a few weeks, Hunter knew she’d found her career sweet spot.

“It just kept growing from word of mouth,” she said.

Hunter makes artfully scored sourdough boules and loaves, all sourced from grains that are grown and milled in New York state. She’s also known for her croissant-like Kouign Amann pastries. Bread prices range from $8 to $10 per loaf, depending on size.

She uses a variety of traditional and ancient grains, mostly organic, sourced from Farmer Ground Flour in Trumansburg in the Finger Lakes region.

Most of her customers pick up at her home bakery, though there are delivery options for Troy residents and delivery to Albany for a fee. Her products are also available through the Edible Uprising CSA.

Favorites from her bread menu include sourdough loaves, pizza crust, and buttermilk biscuits made of spelt and einkorn flours -- “ancient grains that add really complex flavors,” she explained.

She also produces a hearty vegan breakfast cookie made with bananas, oatmeal, chocolate and coconut milk. But her fascination remains in the art and science of sourdough, with varieties such as country, herbs de Provence, polenta porridge, chocolate toasted pecan, and cinnamon raisin.
“I love the process of sourdough,” Hunter said. “It’s easier to digest because of its micro-organisms, and it tastes amazing.”


Rachael Lujbli started baking at home after her sales job was shut down by the Covid-19 pandemic. The pastime became her new business, Rachael’s Bread, with a retail location in Queensbury. Joan K. Lentini photo


Rachael Lujbli started baking at home after her sales job was shut down by the Covid-19 pandemic. The pastime became her new business, Rachael’s Bread, with a retail location in Queensbury. Joan K. Lentini photo


Have flour, will bake
Rachael Lujbli of Queensbury smiles at the irony that her baking business was born of a scarcity of flour.

“My husband bought a 50-pound bag of flour from Amazon during the pandemic, because we couldn’t find flour in the stores,” she recalled. “We thought it would last us a year.”

Instead, the mother of two started baking to relieve her stress during that difficult year when her job in direct sales was suspended. What began as stress relief translated into aromatic sourdough bread, and soon she was taking orders from friends and neighbors for bread subscriptions.

“They came to the house to pick it up, and word began spreading like wildfire,” she recalled.
Lujbli is adamant that her bread ingredients be organic, as simple as possible, and preferably local.

“I get my spices from a local company and maple syrup and honey from a place in Argyle,” she said.

Apart from instinct and meticulous recipe development, Lujbli relies on customer feedback for new forms of inventory.

“I started making Jewish rye bread because of a customer request, and that led to challah bread,” she said. “Our newest bread, Wagon Wheels, is filled with cheddar cheese, onion and garlic.”

Other favorite products are chocolate chip cookies and cinnamon swirl bread. Bread prices range from $5 to $10, depending on size and variety.

“It’s hard to pick a favorite thing I bake because they’re like your kids,” Lujbli said, smiling.
Her days begin at 3 a.m. Friday through Monday, and she bakes for 10 hours straight on Thursdays.

“My family has sacrificed a lot so I can do this,” she said. “We have no dining room now; it’s in our living room.”

Lujbli’s retail space on the corner of Route 149 and Bay Road in Queensbury is open Friday through Monday. Her products also are available at retail outlets such as Bean’s Country Store in Queensbury and at various farmers markets.

Lujbli said she’s delighted but not surprised by her bread’s growing popularity.
“Bread has been a staple in people’s diets for centuries,” she said. “There’s a reason it’s at the bottom of the food pyramid.”


Rachael Lujbli of Rachael’s Bread in Queensbury, N.Y., displays some of her freshly baked loaves. Joan K. Lentini photo


Rachael Lujbli of Rachael’s Bread in Queensbury, N.Y., displays some of her freshly baked loaves. Joan K. Lentini photo


Reconnecting with her roots
As a youngster, Isabel Burlingham made yearly treks to Norway with her family to visit relatives.
Their first stop there was at a bakery, where they’d pick up loaves of dense rye bread to be enjoyed with charcuterie at the family reunion.

“It was always our first meal,” she recalled.
Some 20 years later, Burlingham found herself feeling both disconnected from her heritage and peeved at the fact that picking up the nearest loaf of Scandinavian rye bread required a trip to Manhattan. So she began baking it herself.

A serendipitous conversation with the manager of the Troy farmers market guided her to an incubator program that allowed her to keep her job as a research chemist while easing into her own micro-baking business, Parchment Baking Co. When Covid-19 hit a year later, she was ready to make the leap to full-time bread baking.

Now Burlingham has gained a loyal following for her rugbrod — a Danish recipe that she explained is made simply with rye flour, rye flakes, sourdough starter born from a 48-hour fermentation process, salt, “and enough gluten to hold it together.”

Unlike Jewish rye, it has no caraway seeds, but Burlingham says it offers plenty of flavor.
“It’s dense and tangy, which comes from the natural rye as well as the fermentation,” she said.
Burlingham started selling her bread at one farmers market every other week and now sells at year-round at three weekly markets — in Saratoga Springs, Troy and Schenectady. Her bread is also available at the Honest Weight Food Co-op in Albany. Prices range from $5 to $12 for standard loaves.

From rugbrod she has expanded her offerings to include a variety of other Scandinavian breads and pastries, including the poppy seed-topped hvidt brod (white bread), a Norwegian Christmas bread known as julekake, the Swedish spice loaf called limpa, and nearly a dozen varieties of cookies.

“I’m mostly a one-woman show,” she said with a laugh. “But I love what I do.”


Strictly sourdough
When Jessa Willemsen and her husband, Mike, bought 18 acres of rural property in Rensselaer County in 2017, they set out to create a sustainable, small-scale farm.

The first growing summer yielded an abundance of produce, and Willemsen began selling it through farmers markets and a community-supported agriculture program, in which customers pay in advance for shares of a farm’s harvest.

One afternoon, on a whim, she baked a loaf of sourdough bread with the idea that she could add a loaf of home-baked bread each week to CSA orders.

“My husband told me it was the worst bread he’s ever had,” she recalled. “But that only made me determined to do it well.”

Six months later, Willemsen achieved her goal, and over the past four years she’s gained a following for her sourdough breads and pastries.
There’s intrigue, she says, with the element of sourdough.

“I have a relationship with my starter,” she laughed. “I treat it well and feed it well.”
That harmonious relationship has increased Willemsen’s range of sourdough offerings beyond traditional boules and plain and seeded loaves. She now produces cinnamon raisin bread, English muffins, maple oat sandwich bread, focaccia, bagels, even cinnamon sticky buns, all of them sourdough-based.

She credits Iron Coffee Co. in Hoosick Falls for being the first to sell her products and carry them on their menu. The list of retail stores and restaurants offering Willhy Farm breads and pastries has since grown to include Kickstart Coffee in Schuylerville, Hoosick Provisions in Hoosick Falls, the White Creek Country Store in White Creek, and Powers Market in North Bennington, Vt. Bread prices range from $7 to $8.50.

“Our biggest seller by far are English muffins,” Willemsen said. “Then it’s a toss-up between our regular loaf of bread and bagels.”

With sales having tripled in the past year, plans are in the works for an on-property farm store.
“We were going to do it this year but just didn’t have time,” she explained, noting that she bakes five days a week, handles deliveries to 14 wholesale clients, and tends to farm chores.
Willemsen described her work as exhausting but enormously satisfying.
“What’s most rewarding is thinking about how my baked goods connect m

e to a tiny moment in the lives of so many in the community,” she said. “There’s no better feeling.”


Visit www.coveredbridgebread.com for more information about Covered Bridge Bread in Shushan.
Visit www.instagram.com/ovenbird_baking for more information about Ovenbird Baking in Troy.
Visit www.rachaellujbli.com for more information about Rachael’s Bread in Queensbury.
Visit www.parchmentbaking.com for more information about Parchment Baking Co. of Troy.
Visit www.willhyfarms.com for more information about Willhy Farms in Eagle Bridge.