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


News & Issues November 2022


How dark Covid times nurtured bakers’ dreams



Dede Weber started her Bohemian Nouveaux Bakery at the height of the pandemic and soon built a following in the northern Berkshires. Now she’s preparing to open a new bakery cafe in North Adams. Susan Sabino photo


Contributing writer

Dede Weber imagines a winter day in North Adams, with snow falling outside the building where the Neville family made doughnuts for more than 50 years.

But she sees garlands and lights in the windows and local people coming in for coffee, baked French toast and honey wheat rolls swirled with cinnamon and chocolate.

On a similar morning in Williamstown, Tara Franklin, well known as an actor with Chester Theatre, WAM Theatre, Berkshire Theatre Group and many others, sees herself in the kitchen with her mother and husband and son, baking spritz cookies the way her mother used to, forming shapes with buttery almond-flavored dough, and wrapping them gently into care packages with homemade peanut butter cups.

Weber and Franklin are among the proprietors of a new wave of small-scale bakeries that have sprung up in and around the Berkshires over the past couple of years, from Shire Cottage Bakery in Adams and Stacie’s Cookie World in Cheshire to the Pixie Boulangerie and the Sweetish Baker in Great Barrington.

Each of these new enterprises has taken root or grown amid the economic upheaval of the Covid-19 pandemic, and often because of it.

For all of its deep challenges, Franklin said, the pandemic has offered some people opportunities.

“I wouldn’t want to go through it again,” she said.
But hard time can lead to self-discovery, and in the face of it people can learn new ways to sustain themselves and help others.

Franklin and her husband, the actor and theater artist James Barry, lately have felt the theater world stirring out of its pandemic dormancy. They have just become co-artistic directors of Chester Theatre. But Franklin has been growing another business, Sweet Sam Bakes, alongside her theatrical career.

In North Adams, Weber has become known in the community through her Bohemian Nouveaux Bakery. After two years of growing a following through her sales at the North Adams Farmers Market, she now plans to open her own BoHo Cafe on Eagle Street, tapping into deep local roots and what she calls small-batch reality.

Sometimes, in its isolation and shifting ground, Covid gave people time to think, she said, especially people in food and service, and in the healing and teaching fields.
“The pandemic instilled a level of, ‘Wait a second, we have value,’” she said.

She has known people who have changed their lives and created new structures, people who have left jobs with benefits to become self-employed and will work hard not to go back.
And she is one of them. Three years ago, Weber was living in a college town in Maine, working as a substitute teacher. She had begun to explore baking occasionally for church fairs, and at a blueberry festival where she brought homemade small blueberry pies.

When the pandemic closed the public schools, she moved to the Berkshires with the help of family. She applied for a place at the North Adams Farmers Market, thinking the competition would be steep, expecting to return to teaching, and instead she found her baking life percolating and taking off.

Her cookies and baked goods have grown a loyal and enthusiastic following, and the excitement of her customers moves her.

“When grandmas are saying my bread reminded them of their grandma’s,” she grinned, “I’m sold, done, thank you.”

The farmers market led her to a collaboration with Julia Daly, an alum of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and former owner of the Parlor Cafe, which ran until last fall in the former HiLo bar and performance space. Weber began supplying muffins, quiche and baked French toast to the cafe. Now Daly is joining her as she expands into her own place.
“We’re going to pick up where we left off,” Weber said.

She said she plans to continue her presence at the farmers market, and she will be at the first indoor market of the winter on Nov. 5 as she launches a Kickstarter campaign to open the BoHo Parlor Cafe in the former home of Neville’s Doughnuts, in a building the Neville family had cared for since 1880.


Tara Franklin’s cookie-making business, originally a sideline to her theater career, helped to sustain her through the pandemic. Courtesy photo


Joyful enterprise
In Williamstown, Franklin finds homemade sweetness a powerful gift.

She said she has always made cookies for family and friends. The move toward a business began gently 10 years ago. When her son was a year and a half, in 2012, she and her husband had given up their New York apartment while he was working out of town, and she was staying with her mother in Pittsfield for a time.
Etsy was becoming better known, she said, and that winter, in the quietest season for acting, she set up a shop online. She would bake around the fall and winter holidays.

“It’s meditative,” she said. “I love it.”
Franklin named the fledgling business for her son, Sam. As a toddler and small boy, he loved to measure and stir. And today, as she works, Franklin will listen to music and bring in her family to help. Her son and her husband and her mother all take a hand.

“When I’m doing something at the holidays, I want to feel my family is part of it,” she said. “That feels like what holidays are for.”

She makes spritz cookies because she remembers them from her own childhood. Her mother had a traditional tin cookie press, the kind that pipes the soft dough like frosting through metal disks inset with different shapes. She began with traditional fir trees, she said, and she has now found an artisan who will make new disks by hand -- pumpkins in the fall, and a Pride set she made with rainbow colors.

She turned to shortbread one day when she had promised cookies to someone and found she had run out of eggs, and from then on she made it a staple. Rich, buttery, lightly sweet, it lends itself to many flavors and colors -- orange and dark chocolate, coconut, mocha, pumpkin spice with white chocolate and cinnamon.

In that informal way, the business kept quietly growing, chiefly online, until the pandemic.
When Covid hit, Franklin said, the theater season, year-round teaching and travel all were put on hold. She began to offer college care packages and holiday samplers and gifts for people who simply wanted to give comfort across distance.
And her baking began steadily to expand.


Shoestring reality
Weber has been growing local support around her. As she walks through her new space, she gives a nod to the farmers from the farmers market who are working with her to source as many ingredients as she can locally: Red Shirt Farm and Square Roots Farm and Fullwell Farm for flowers and vegetables and meat and eggs, Senecal’s Sugarhouse for maple syrup.
She has found many elements in barter or reclaimed them from people who no longer need them. Daly has offered kitchen equipment, a fridge came to her through a Facebook swap, and lamps from Maryanne’s Antiques.

She even has wood and leather chairs that once furnished offices at Sprague Electric Co. She obtained them from a business on River Street that was closing. They had set out some furniture on the sidewalk, Weber recalled, and when she stopped to look, she got into conversation with the owner.

He told her his father had been friends with Mr. Neville, and the Neville family had given his father a mug that says “focus on the doughnut, not the hole.”

“My eyes welled up,” she said, “because my grandfather used to say that all the time, and he has a connection to my coming back here. … Since I showed up here, everything’s been saying yes. This is my dream.”

She has wanted her own place since she was 12 years old and playing cafe with friends -- since she was a theater major at Goddard College in Vermont, in the heart of farm-to-table country, writing a play about a cafe owner. And she felt an affirmation.

“This town keeps doing that,” she said, looking at the chairs and a wooden sewing table. “The day these came to me, I was overwhelmed, thinking can I do this, and I turned a corner and the fates and ancestors were right here. … All I have to do is show up to work, and you’re telling me I get to live my dream.”


More than shelf-stable
The new space will give her room to expand in more than one way, Weber said.
When she takes her baked goods to the farmers market, she explained, she can only offer shelf-stable items, nothing hot, and she has had limited kitchen space.

At the cafe, she looks forward to cakes and pies, soups and sandwiches, eggs, biscuits and gravy. She is planning vegan and plant-based elements on the menu as well, all comfort food — creamy potato soup, roasted squash bisque, with sweet potato and onion, barbecued shredded mushrooms. She will make her own bread, challah and sourdough.

“I’m tapping into my Jewish roots that I don’t know much about,” she said.
She walks through the space mapping out the kitchen, tables and bar with seats for 10 to 15 people. She and Daly hope to combine their audiences she said — college students out late, teens she has worked with through the community center, where she made gingerbread for gingerbread houses a year ago, local families coming to the farmers market with Market Match and SNAP.

She wants to create a homespun and rooted place, a place where locals can go, she said, because she has known how it feels to think of going out to breakfast as a rare or impossible expense.

Though she has felt warmth in North Adams, and open-mindedness and creativity, she has felt a distance here at times between people with resources and people living paycheck to paycheck, day to day. And she senses a willingness to help that someone coming from a place of understanding could shape.

She looks at her corner of Eagle Street and imagines community gardens and pizza parties with the community bread oven behind Mass MoCA. She looks along the walkway between her building and her neighbor and imagines people talking as they wait for brunch at an outdoor table, like the scene at good small restaurants in Boston, where she grew up.

And she steps onto the Appalachian Trail and imagines through hikers drinking coffee on her new back patio. She has loved hiking for years, she said, and not long after she moved here she gave some AT through hikers a ride and talked with them about what they would love to see, what would be helpful to them. They can be a resource for the city, she suggested, if the city offers resources for them — a map, a place to charge their cell phones and hang their packs while they rest.


Making connections organically
Franklin too has grown by building a sense community. She has lent her baking to causes, including a benefit in 2020 for Black Lives Matter organizations and last spring for Ukraine. These efforts spread by word of mouth, she said, among people who wanted to give.

And her gifts have opened new collaborations. Anne Kennedy at the Williams College Museum of Art invited her for the opening of the museum’s Sol LeWitt exhibit in March to make lemon shortbread decorated with his vivid geometric patterns.

Because she has built her business by mail, and people often give cookies as gifts, Franklin in the early days interacted with customers primarily online, putting together simple, graceful and ecologically friendly packages to send by mail.

But in the past few years, she said she has increasingly talked with people in person. This year she will participate in the Holiday Shindy, the annual crafts market in Pittsfield, and she welcomes the time to meet people.

On a mild fall day, at an outdoor table, Franklin looked back to a Covid time when she and her husband were seeing few people, even family, and live theater was almost completely on hold, or struggling to carry on via streaming video and outdoor shows. They both found ways to create and explore, she said. Barry has raised funds by recording songs by request, more than 200 of them.

She sees self-reflection in this time, she said, and now that the frame is shifting again, people are beginning to emerge, saying, “We got through, and now we’re tired.”

Locally, this is a time to build, she said. She and her husband are focusing on their new leadership at Chester Theatre, where they have performed for 20 years, as they are looking forward to curating their first theater season.

“In the last 20 years I’ve lived in 20 places,” Weber said, looking around her with warmth. “This area at every level has been like, ‘This is where you’re rooted.’”