It’s 5 a.m. on a dark, rainy November in the Rockwell-worthy hamlet of Warrenton, Va. Buttery yellow light shines through the garage-door windows of what was once an Esso gas station, refracting off the downpour. Though the day hasn’t begun for most people, Red Truck Bakery is already humming.
The cozy kitchen is rich with the aroma of maple syrup and toasting pecans, which dot the pumpkin muffins almost ready to come out of the oven. Just-baked croissants, scones and muffins cool on racks, while a batch of dough for sunflower wheat bread rises in a plastic bin. A rustic mix of classic country and vintage rock, including Johnny Cash and Neil Young, pours out of small speakers.
At the center worktable, Brian Noyes, his apron dusted with flour, rolls out pie crusts and sets them into pans.
Red Truck’s owner and head baker, Noyes works with simple efficiency, even as he frequently breaks into a boyish smile. From picking up a square of dough to adding the finished shell to his mounting pile earmarked for Thanksgiving, the whole process takes less than two minutes. “The secret is to not stretch the dough, or it will just pull back in the oven,” he says as he uses his left thumb and index finger to crimp the crust. “That creates uneven edges.”
Noyes, 57, and his small staff are in the midst of their holiday rush. They’ve already made close to 900 pies for Thanksgiving — salted caramel apple, pecan, pumpkin — not to mention 400 sugar cookies shaped like turkeys, autumn leaves and squirrels, plus all the baked goods they normally offer. Now they’re baking another 700 pies, 400 rum-soaked fruitcakes, more cookies — shaped like angels, snowflakes and red pickup trucks carrying Christmas trees — and dozens of German stollen breads with almond-paste cores. “We brush them really well with hot clarified butter,” says Noyes of the last. “It soaks right through and seals every crevice, which adds that rich, buttery flavor and prolongs the longevity.”
Getting all the orders finished in time means everyone will be working long hours until Christmas. It’s a grueling schedule, and it’s about to get even more hectic. After plans for a second location in “Little” Washington, Va., fell apart, Noyes is aiming to open a larger Red Truck Bakery in nearby Marshall. “I toyed with the idea off and on for a long time,” he says. “I didn’t want to make a move just to get more space, though. It had to make sense, so I was very cautious.”
The newest bakery will take over a pair of conjoined historic buildings on Main Street that were once home to the Old Salem restaurant. The 4,000-square-foot space is being transformed into a cafe, commissary kitchen (to serve both locations) and shipping center, since Noyes estimates that 40 percent of the bakery’s sales are from online purchases. (During the Christmastime frenzy, Noyes has to wheel cartloads of baked goods over to an ancillary packing and shipping center down the street from the Warrenton location.)
The menu will expand beyond what’s offered in Warrenton. Noyes intends to serve breakfast sandwiches, pre-made meals he has dubbed RoadFood — such as wild mushroom lasagna and chicken potpie — a slew of house-made spreads and dips, and coffee and espresso from Counter Culture.
After he finishes outlining these plans, all the while rolling out pie crusts, he pauses for a moment. “I kinda wish I started my career as a baker a little earlier,” he admits wryly. “There’s so much ahead of us, moving on to a second location and whatever’s after that. I wish I was in my 30s doing that, instead of at the other end of the spectrum.”
Noyes grew up in Monterey, Calif., and later moved south to Corona del Mar in Newport Beach, Calif. His first forays into baking were in his 20s, when he engaged in a cross-country bakeoff with his Clearwater, Fla.-based uncle, Stan Noyes, as they worked to perfect a pair of bread recipes. Brian would send his uncle the latest bread and its recipe; his uncle would respond with comments on the recipe marked in red pencil and a new loaf. They ultimately nailed a sunflower wheat, plus a harvest wheat punctuated with golden raisins, dried cranberries and walnuts, both of which are mainstays at the bakery today.
For a long time, Noyes was simply a passionate home baker. His first career was as an art director for The Washington Post, Preservation magazine and Smithsonian magazine. (He keeps a foot in that field by doing all the design work for the bakery.) While continuing that profession, he took intensive courses on breadmaking and pastrymaking at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.; classes at L’Academie de Cuisine in Gaithersburg, Md.; and a course on Mexican cooking with Rick Bayless in Oaxaca, Mexico. “Through all that, I learned delicate French pastry making, but I like the clunkier, rustic stuff,” says Noyes. “It has more character, is a little more fun and it’s not so highfalutin. I try not to get too fussy.”
In 2006, after buying a farmhouse in nearby Orlean, Va., with his now-husband Dwight McNeill, Noyes began baking breads, pies and granola on Friday nights. The next morning, he would hop into a cherry red 1954 Ford pickup truck, which he’d bought from designer Tommy Hilfiger, and delivered his goods to local shops and markets in Fauquier County. The treats were a hit. “People would start showing up and waiting for the red truck long before the stores opened,” Noyes remembers. So he began gathering investors and looking for a space for a bricks-and-mortar venture. Nothing quite fit.
Serendipitously, Noyes experienced a king-making stroke of luck two years later. New York Times food writer Marian Burros sampled his wares at a picnic, fell in love and wrote him up. “Our Web site went from 24 hits one day to 57,000 the next,” Noyes says. “That’s when I realized we really needed to find a place.”
The arrival of Butch Zarr, who ambles into the bakery wearing a tan Hawaiian shirt and a Vietnam veteran Purple Heart baseball hat, gives Noyes pause. “You’ve got to meet this guy,” he tells me. “He was our very first customer, so he gets free coffee for life. It’s a great deal for us since he doesn’t live here anymore.”
The onetime regular now resides in Beaumont, Calif., where he laments he hasn’t found a replacement for Red Truck Bakery in his morning routine. “There’s just nothing like it,” says Zarr. “I can’t get pumpkin pie out there, either. Not of that caliber.” He points to one sitting in the bakery case, a small crust cutout of a pickup truck sitting at its orange center.
The constant stream of customers over the course of the morning speaks to the bakery’s fervent following and illustrates one reason why Noyes chose to open in Warrenton. “We needed the safety and embrace of a small town with a captive audience,” he says.
The recession forced his original investors to back out, but that didn’t deter the determined baker. He decided to cash out his life savings and retirement accounts to open Red Truck Bakery on his own. His conversation with McNeill about this alternative plan was “not a real happy one, but he bought into it,” says Noyes.
“It wasn’t a decision made out of good common sense; it was made out of passion,” says McNeill. “You don’t open a bakery if you want to retire early.”
In March 2008, Noyes took over the old Esso station to begin restoring and transforming the nearly 90-year-old building. To help out his partner, McNeill, a talented designer, offered to take on the project for free. In return, “I got all the granola I could eat and a bottomless cup of coffee,” he says.
Now a principal at McNeill Baker Design Associates in Arlington, McNeill is in charge of the newest bakery. He’ll be compensated this time around, and there are now investors backing Noyes up, softening the personal financial impact on the couple. McNeill’s vision for the new venture is “village modern” with dark hardwood floors, beadboard on the wall and vintage lighting fixtures. If all goes according to plan, doors will open to customers early this spring.
The new Red Truck might mark the beginnings of an epicurean hub in Marshall. Husband-and-wife team Neal and Star Wavra, who managed the Ashby Inn until May of this year, have bought the 18th-century house across the street. They are turning the onetime inn and tavern into a farm-to-table restaurant, which they hope to open this spring or early summer. Neal Wavra says he is excited to have Noyes as a neighbor. “I don’t see it as a competition,” he says. “I’m sure he’ll be at my place all the time, and I’ll always be sitting in his.”
Martell is co-author of “The Founding Farmers Cookbook” (Andrews McMeel, 2013) and blogs at nevinmartell.com. On Twitter: @nevinmartell. Noyes will join Wednesday’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.
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