The Art of Perfection
What does it take to succeed—on your own terms—in the bakery business?
If, on a chilly winter morning, you pass by the boutique bakery on Main Street in Vergennes, Vermont, peeking inside may prove difficult. The moisture from freshly baked bread and pastries causes thick shades of condensation to form on the door and the adjoining bay windows. On warm days during other seasons, the door may be left wide open, and customers sit outside in elegant chairs, framed by the attractive storefront. A small sign completes the view. “Vergennes Laundry” is written in thin, black lettering above a brief account of what is to be enjoyed inside: Wood-fired Bakery. Espresso Bar. Cheese Shop.
Vergennes Laundry was indeed once a Laundromat, and owners Julianne Jones ’07 and Didier Murat report that people still occasionally come through the door with laundry bags over their shoulders. This is perhaps emblematic of a transformation within Vergennes: the small city with a strong blue-collar legacy has seen a high rate of growth over the past decade. Neighbored by the popular Black Sheep Bistro, Vergennes Laundry has helped make Main Street a burgeoning hotspot for those in pursuit of gourmet food.
Inside the bakery, a series of large tables lines one side of the space before a backdrop of white, wooden paneling. A large painting of the seashore hangs above the farthest table, but the wall seems to camouflage its soft pastels, and it often goes unnoticed. It is one of the bakery’s two decorations. The other—the stuffed head of a caribou, mounted on the opposite wall—would seem ironic, gaudy even, if it didn’t provide such an alluring contrast to the rest of the all-white interior. Didier smiles proudly when I ask about it, but is quick to reassure me that neither he nor Julianne killed it.
As he moves between the counter and the rows of neatly organized shelves on the back wall, Didier appears composed, almost solemn. He and Julianne began remodeling the old Laundromat in 2010 and nearly all of the woodwork is his. Julianne studied architecture at Middlebury and was responsible for the bakery’s design.
“I like designing an experience for the customer,” she tells me one evening after closing. “I think a lot of people don’t design that experience, they just fill a mold and that’s not at all interesting to me.” And it’s true; every detail seems to make the experience of Vergennes Laundry impressionably unique. The daily specials are written on a long roll of butcher paper that hangs behind the register.
The tarts, croissants, and other delicacies on display are labeled and priced on notecards in typewriter font.
Wyatt Orme talks to Julianne Jones about opening Vergennes Laundry
The bakery has gotten its fair share of good press, having been covered, among others, by the New York Times Style Magazine’s food blog, Edible Selby, which gave the bakery a glowing review. The food, like its aesthetic, is exhaustively perfected. All the tarts are made to order, using ingredients from nearby farms: cheeses from Twig Farm in West Cornwall, fresh vegetables and herbs from Bella Farm in Monkton. Croissants, canelés, pain aux raisins, and a host of other handmade pastries are available throughout the day, along with the bakery’s bread, a pure wild-yeast levain (French sourdough) made from grains freshly milled onsite. Coffee from Intelligentsia, the award-winning Chicago roaster, is brewed and Sixpoint beer (from Brooklyn) and kombucha are available on tap.
When she works, Julianne ties her wavy blonde hair in a loose bun that bounces lightly as she moves from the oven to her worktables and back. Her gaze is steady, and her arms are toned from what amount to inordinately long days of physical work. She proofs and bakes, pulling bread out of the oven with the oar-like wooden peels from 3:30 in the morning until 10:30 at night, six days a week. These hours seem ludicrous to most and even she admits them to be draining at first. The regimented schedule of quiet, physical work, however, is what she claims to feel most drawn to in baking.
“I love doing the same thing every day and doing it better and seeing results,” she says. “The bread starts right when I get here, and that’s the last thing before we leave.” Despite this control she has over her day-to-day routine, she won’t deny the drawbacks of regularly being at the bakery for over a hundred hours a week. “I’d like to go outside more,” she says and then offers, “I get the newspaper,” with a resigned smile.
Though she claims not to have been “too into food” while at Middlebury, Julianne showed glimpses of her potential throughout her undergraduate years. She cooked at Dolci, the student-run restaurant on campus, and served as the manager from her sophomore year on. It wasn’t until the summer after graduation, though, that she tried her hand at selling pastries and tarts at the Middlebury Farmer’s Market. It was something of a coincidence that she began baking bread in the first place. At one market, Julianne was asked to make desserts for a party in Westford, Vermont, hosted at the house of Gérard Rubaud, who is, as Julianne puts it, “sort of a legendary Vermont-French baker.” Rubaud built his illustrious Breads of Tradition Bakery right next to his picturesque mountain home, where he bakes a levain loaf that is sold, without advertisement, to frenzied buyers at select co-ops and grocery stores in the area.
When she saw Rubaud’s operation for the first time at the party, Julianne claims to have said to herself, “I want to move here.” So she did, and worked as an apprentice to Rubaud for several months. It was there that she baked her first loaf of bread, at the age of 22. Now, at 27, she thinks back on her training and remembers being most influenced by the simple artistry of Rubaud’s one kind of bread.
“I like making people happy with one thing,” Julianne says, returning to her chair after checking on the loaves in the oven. She left Westford with a new-found determination and returned to Didier in Vergennes to begin working on a business plan.
Wyatt Orme ’13 was a Middlebury fellow in narrative journalism in 2012.