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Trucking along: A couple's life migrates between city and country

Baker Brian Noyes and partner Dwight McNeill migrate between city house and country house, each with their own style.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 6, 2011

Brian Noyes wakes up at 3 a.m. each weekday to the sound of the marimba ringtone on his iPhone. In the darkness of the Virginia countryside, he crunches across frosty gravel to his car for the 18-minute drive to work in Warrenton. It won't be long before the scent of double-chocolate moonshine cake wafts through the Red Truck Bakery, the business he opened two years ago in a vintage gas station.

A few hours later at a 1938 rowhouse in Arlington, Noyes's partner, Dwight McNeill, will get ready for his own short commute. McNeill, a residential architect, walks to his office at Morris-Day Designers and Builders, a firm known for gentle upgrading of decades-old bungalows and Cape Cods.

The two residences are part of a grand mid-career change. Noyes, 53, and McNeill, 58, have remixed their lives so they can focus on what they love doing. They traded in their large foursquare for two smaller houses and repurposed the rented gas station. As they downsized, they regrouped and redeployed their collections of folk art, pottery, flea market finds and mid-century classics.

The plan was two decades in the making. Noyes had spent his career as an art director for magazines, including this one, House & Garden, Preservation and Smithsonian. But he was really a foodie, and for years, he and McNeill had joked that they wanted to open a coffee and pie place. They spent a lot of weekends scouting real estate, and Noyes designed bakery logos between his publishing gigs. Eventually, he took steps to seriously lay the groundwork for a new life.

In 2004, Noyes started taking courses at L'Academie de Cuisine and the Culinary Institute of America. Drawn to Virginia's horse country, an hour's drive from Washington, he dreamed of using local farms to supply the fruits, vegetables, dairy products, even moonshine, that he would need for his business. "He wanted a community gathering spot as much as a place to sell food," McNeill says.

Noyes came across a red 1954 Ford F-100 farm truck - once owned by Tommy Hilfiger - for sale online and made an impulse buy. "I knew someday it could be the icon for my business," he says.

A year later, Noyes and McNeill, then living in a 1919 home with a large yard in the Cherrydale neighborhood of Arlington, bought a weekend getaway. It was a tiny farmhouse in Orlean, a village between Warrenton and Washington, Va.

By 2006, Noyes had started selling baked goods out of his red truck. He'd drive out to the farmhouse on Fridays and bake artisan breads and peanut butter cookies into the night. Then he'd send out an e-mail blast to customers, who would be waiting for him the next morning as he pulled up to the Village Green, a shop in Orlean.

Noyes sold more than $19,000 worth of goodies in 2007 at a 42 percent profit, he says. The next year, Red Truck's mail-order products won a mention from New York Times food writer Marian Burros, who lives locally. "One of my favorite discoveries is Brian Noyes ... who has a deft hand with pastries and an unerring sense of flavor balance," she wrote.

Noyes and McNeill started looking for a storefront and in spring 2009 leased a former Esso station in Warrenton built in 1921. McNeill transformed it into a homespun shop and bakery. Noyes quit his job at Smithsonian magazine and began creating a menu.

When they received an unsolicited offer on their Cherrydale home, they said yes.

"It was getting to be crunch time, with Brian making the career change, the mortgage, lots of yardwork and cleaning," McNeill says. They bought the '38 rowhouse nearby, and McNeill staged a 12-day makeover.


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