Chef turned LEGO enthusiast builds a reputation on Asheville Highway
Although in its current location on Asheville Highway, The Baker’s Box still looks new, Mara and George Nicholas have been running the Hendersonville bakery and sandwich shop in some form for 16 years now.
Originally from upstate New York and Mississippi, respectively, Mara and George met in culinary school at Johnson & Wales in Charleston, South Carolina, beginning a food-themed journey together that would take them to myriad kitchens around the South. Starting with stints at the Grove Park Inn in the ’90s, the couple relocated to the DC area for chef positions at the Lansdowne Conference & Resort.
“Then we got tired of being in a tiny area with a lot of angry people,” Mara remarks with a laugh. They moved back from DC to the mountains in 2001 and had their son in 2004. Mara worked at Biltmore, as pastry chef at Kenmure Country Club, then at Aramark at Asheville School until around 2012. Meanwhile, she founded The Baker’s Box in 2010, serving baked goods and to-go sandwiches, first from the family home, and then, for a few years, in a small space on Kanuga Road. During the same period, George cheffed at the kitchens at Connestee Falls, a gated community in Brevard, and at the Esmeralda Inn & Restaurant in Chimney Rock.
“We didn’t have seating for the Baker’s Box, it was all takeout,” says Mara. “We didn’t have as much of a kitchen, we didn’t have a hood or a fryer or anything like that.”
After realizing that they were outgrowing their old model and venue, they knew it was time for an upgrade. “We spent over a year looking for a new place,” says Mara. “We went from 1,000 square feet to 5,000 square feet. George just went with it. Hiring people was the hardest thing, and then the pandemic hit.”
The unfortunate timing of that move saw them opening their new location on Asheville Highway in November of 2019, just months before the COVID-19 lockdowns were put in place by the state and county. But fortunately for them, the Baker’s Box had already spent nearly 15 years as a to-go joint. “We were used to only having one employee, and our restaurant was takeout only, so it wasn’t a big deal to just go back to doing it all ourselves,” she explains.
But these days the dining room is back open and hopping. Pies, pastries, cupcakes, and quiches pack the glass baking case. Three-inch-thick paninis, wraps, and salads stack the menu, along with geek-themed sandwiches like the Klingon (an elk burger with blue cheese), the Hulk (an astounding triple-stack smash burger), and the Princess Leia (grilled chicken with mushrooms and goat cheese), all served on house-made buns and breads. There’s a staggering gyro with dinosaur-sized cuts of lamb, and dinner specials run daily, like grilled ribeye with mashed potatoes and a chef’s selection of vegetables.
But the family geek streak doesn’t end with the names of their sandwiches; it stretches through all of the decor of the restaurant. A massive poster of the Mandalorian and Grogu hangs in the entryway, Hogwarts house banners dangle from the walls, and LEGO constructions of a Star Destroyer, A-Wing interceptor, X-Wing, and Mandalorian fighters fly from fishing lines overhead. A giant train set chugs along the perimeter of the restaurant ceiling, hauling a big Boba Fett helmet. Everywhere you look there are LEGOs, LEGOs, and more LEGOs. In fact, there are currently 91 LEGO sets on display in their dining room.
You might think all of the LEGO creations on view were built by the youngest member of the Nicholas family, but you’d be wrong. “When our son was a little boy, he loved LEGOs,” says Mara. “But he never wanted any help with them, so I just started fixing them at night for him after he’d go to bed. Eventually I just started doing them myself.”
While he was working on the Star Wars sets, Mara started buying and building the LEGO houses. “I’ve done all of the other LEGOs [on display]. I just started ordering my own, and now I’m addicted to it. They were starting to take over the house, so I thought, ‘I should just bring them to the shop and display them.’ Why should they sit in the house where nobody sees them?”
She reveals, “I’ve actually had some people order wedding cakes from me because, as they put it, I’m not afraid to show my nerdy side.”
Other customers assume her skill at building complicated structures out of tiny bricks must translate well to her day job.
“I had one woman come in, and she was so awe-inspired by all of these LEGOs, she just looked at me and said, ‘Now this woman knows how to bake a cake.’”
The Baker’s Box, 1508 Asheville Hwy., Hendersonville. The restaurant is open Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday from 8am-4pm and Thursday, Friday, and Saturday from 8am-8pm, with takeout available. For more information, call 828-595-9983 or visit thebakersboxhendersonville.com.