Local bakery adjusts its business model to the times
The past year of lockdowns has caused just about every small-business owner to pivot their approach to survive. One of the most apparent places to see those pivots play out has been in the world of restaurants and food service. Nearly all local food joints rapidly adapted, whether by stepping up their take-out game or offering online ordering. Some restaurants even functioned as pick-up grocery stores to help continue to support area farmers and vendors.
All of that adapting gave many chefs, restaurateurs, bakers, and bartenders the chance to reevaluate what their bars, restaurants, and cafes did, how they did it, and how they could make it better. And some shops, like Hendersonville favorite Underground Baking Co., saw the chance to both grow and make some much-needed changes. After a long spell of renovations, Underground Baking Co. reopened their expanded 7th Avenue location as a bakery and market.
“As owner/operators, we’re here all the time. I’ve been in business 11 years, and I haven’t missed a day,” says Matthew Hickman, who co-owns and operates Underground Baking Co with Lisa Hoffman. “We started the business, we grew the business, and we run the business. When owners are really invested in their business, it takes a toll, even in the good times, but especially for the last year, we’ve been through the ringer. Nothing like [those who work in the] medical profession, of course, but we’ve been beat up — all of us have.
“So the idea is that for these little independent businesses that you love and that are doing something spectacular, it comes at a cost, and a lot of time there’s burnout. So we looked at that [too] and said, ‘What is our real goal here?’”
For the last decade, they’ve functioned as a bakery and cafe, with tables and chairs for guests to sit and savor the flaky croissants and crusty breads that have earned the company their glowing reputation. The new space will feature a much larger bakery and production facility, a retail area selling their own products as well as offerings from other local makers, and Independent Roasters coffee — Hickman’s side project for the past four years— all connected through French doors and fleshing out the historic 1920s building on 7th Ave.
These changes allow the company to be flexible enough to bend with the ever-changing pandemic restrictions, to cope with the lingering labor shortage that was going on years before the pandemic even began, and to flow with the continuously evolving landscape of the 7th Avenue neighborhood.
“We came down here ten years ago, and there wasn’t much happening on 7th Avenue at that time,” says Hickman. Underground Baking Co. helped start the movement that has revitalized much of the neighborhood’s boom as of late. Most of the businesses along that block were shuttered when they moved in, but these days every building seems to be blossoming into a mom-and-pop shop, brewery, or a restaurant. “There were challenges, as you can imagine, trying to run a proper artisan bakery without foot traffic and without colleges or businesses around it to support it. But we had developed enough of a following from our brief time on Main Street that the majority of our customers followed us down here.”
Hickman acknowledges that the changes may be difficult for some customers to understand, especially those who were hoping to come back to a dine-in cafe. But he notes that the new business model was necessary for the survival of the bakery.
All the house favorites will still be available: European style breads, hearth-baked breads with 100% organic grains, and breads made with long cool fermentations. And also hand-dipped Bavarian pretzels (called “brezels”), hand-rolled croissants, scones, focaccia pizzas, sticky buns, cookies, and bialys — the Polish alternative to bagels.
“We pivoted big time last year, like everybody did,” Hickman says. “We realized, we don’t want to draw a crowd into this space anymore. That’s when we developed our online store for the first time, and used our bakery as a pickup point for those orders. That system worked really well for us, and worked for our customers, as well. We were able to keep our core staff working and healthy and safe.”
The Market at Underground Baking Co., 348 7th Ave. East, open Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday, 9am-2pm, and at the Hendersonville Farmers Market (650 Maple St.) on Saturdays from 8am-1pm. For more information, call 828-674-7494 or see undergroundbaking.com.