Interview: The Mount Bakery and the Importance of Supporting the Community
Farm-to-table is an increasingly important facet in local food economy that businesses are learning they can’t ignore. While some might consider it a strange movement that has no basis in cost-effectiveness, the Mount Bakery of Bellingham, Washington is a case that proves sourcing food locally not only builds their bottom line, but their bond with other people and businesses within their community.
We have talked about the significant role farm-to-table has on local food economy. From providing people fresh meats, dairy, and produce to supporting local businesses and food producers, farm-to-table restaurants are an integral part of keeping a town’s economy and its people healthy. The Mount Bakery Cafe in Bellingham, Washington is one such restaurant, bringing a community together through a mutual appreciation for food, the land used to produce it, and the people who make it so.
Though you might only think of food when it comes to farm-to-table, to be successful in this endeavor is less about selling products, but building a pro-people culture. When you sit down at the Mount Bakery and other places like it, you are eating food produced and made by someone within the community, supporting local businesses, and funding the dreams of your neighbors both directly and indirectly. In Bellingham, owning a small business and supporting one another comes as naturally to its people as breathing or walking. It is no surprise then that this kind of restauranteering thrives here.
However, you might be thinking how or why that is, especially if you are living in a part of the country where farm-to-table might seem like a bunch of gentrified hippie nonsense. Rest assured, in a world whose consumers are increasingly interested in the origin of their products, this kind of business brings us back to our roots, both economically (keeping money circulating locally) and literally (keeping American farmers in business as opposed to importing food from foreign countries).
From the Beginning
Vince Lalonde is the current owner of the Mount Bakery, overseeing its two locations in Bellingham. Before then, the bakery cafe began under Olivier Vrambout in 2000, a young Belgian-American chef whose recipes and passion were inspired by cooking alongside his Belgian grandmother growing up. With “an incredible finesse with food combined with the energy level of a Jack Russell Terrier on espresso,” Olivier helped set a new high bar for food quality with patrons and competing businesses taking notice.
Vince has worked at the Mount Bakery since 2001 as Olivier’s first non-family employee; in the beginning, it was only them, Olivier’s wife, mother, and father running the new bakery. As their customer traffic increased, so too did their ambitions, opening up a full breakfast and lunch cafe and hiring more staff to accommodate the new business model. In 2007, Olivier and his family moved out of the area, selling the restaurant and leaving it in Vince’s care. Having worked with Olivier initially as a dishwasher and filling in wherever he was needed, Vince’s emphasis on supporting grassroots endeavors is embodied in all he has done — something that remains evident in the business today.
In 2014, Vince purchased a second location, following in Olivier’s footsteps. First, it was only a bakery to help supplement production in their first cafe; by late 2016, they purchased an adjoining unit and expanded into a second cafe. While an initial concern was that the two locations would split their original customers into two groups, the Mount Bakery has been doing twice as much business now, appealing to two separate neighborhoods within Bellingham.
As a regular customer at their new location, I saw their business from an outside perspective. Luckily, I was able to talk with Devon Harris, the manager at the Mount Bakery’s second location to understand the bakery cafe’s success a bit better and how farm-to-table ideology plays a role in it.
Always Moving Forward
As I alluded to earlier, farm-to-table is less about cultivating food and more about cultivating a community around it. It is about supporting your neighbors and helping the local economy grow and thrive. “The entire management team values the core principle of farm-to-table entirely,” Devon began as we talked one late summer morning. “Our number one priority is providing the community with quality food sourced from the community.”
True to Olivier’s vision of building something homegrown, Vince remains adamant to keep that idea alive, not just for the good of the business, but for the good of Bellingham. Devon echoed this vision, stating that it is vital that the community’s money remains inside it — a sentiment that is, by and large, shared by many of Bellingham’s locals.
“There’s a certain pride that comes with being able to name food producers on a personal level while serving it to customers. I know the name of the boat the halibut came off of this morning. I know business owners well enough that if we run out of something, they’ll do their best to help us out and deliver that same day personally.” While these are small businesses supporting each other on the fly, this concept is being scaled to support much larger retailers and companies across various industries by way of vendor-managed inventory. Knowing that your suppliers can bail you out during a shortage is much more helpful than trying to make do or turn away customers, compromising product quality or sales.
Virtually all of the Mount Bakery’s food is sourced locally with a maximum reach within state lines. For instance, their coffee is provided by Hammerhead Coffee Roasters in Bellingham with their signature Mount Bakery Blend; Cascadia Mushrooms, a farm located outside of town in the surrounding countryside provides mushrooms; Terra Verde helps make connections between other fruit and vegetable farmers and restaurants; Spice Hut in Bellingham provides teas and drink concentrates; Peterson Cheese, a Washington state distributor, supplies high-quality cheeses; and the beers and ciders help showcase Bellingham’s many breweries, meaderies, and cideries.
The only national-level corporation the Mount Bakery does regular business with is the Food Service of America, though these are often non-edible items like paper to-go cups and packaging. If for whatever reason, they cannot find what they are looking for through local businesses, the Mount Bakery will use FSA. Naturally, they put a priority on finding other companies within the community before expanding their reach.
The Taste of Success
Aside from trying to retain cash flow in the local economy, choosing food producers nearby has its advantages. “The quality is very noticeable between produce that was picked a day or two ago down the road versus produce that ripened sitting on a trick traveling halfway across the country,” Devon explained. Despite appearance and taste being obvious bonuses, local logistics are much easier to manage than national ones — not to mention the sustainable benefits of reduced greenhouse emissions associated with transit.
Working with almost exclusively local companies comes with other benefits, chiefly being able to call yourself a part of the community and having faith in your products. “I can go to sleep at night knowing we are giving our customers the best possible food and service we can offer them, all while supporting [Bellingham].” However, these perks are not without their price.
Indeed, sometimes going the locally-sourced route comes at slightly higher costs; given supply and demand, a smaller volume of goods compared to sizeable national food producers means small businesses need to charge a little extra to keep the lights on. That is where Bellingham’s culture comes into play. “Bellingham’s population likes and values farm-to-table and supporting local businesses, and because of that, they are willing to pay a little more money for quality because it is locally sourced.”
Most of the time, the average consumer will choose price over quality when it comes to green or sustainable practices. Even if they have ethical reservations about a particular product or company, the price is often the deal breaker. Since the Mount Bakery can remain competitive price-wise with chains outside the farm-to-table scene on top of belonging to a community with a vested interest in supporting local businesses, restaurants like the Mount Bakery not only survive but do very well in this kind of environment.
Because of this cultural emphasis on supporting local and small businesses, the Mount Bakery boasts stellar margins — though this might be difficult to replicate in other places in the country where farm-to-table or supporting local ventures are not as big as values. Hailing from the Midwest, I was personally surprised how little interest there is back home in supporting smaller, local businesses in comparison to the Pacific Northwest.
Where farm-to-table is often branded as gentrification or an arrogant liberal food movement, it is apparently working when enough people buy into the idea and genuinely wish to support it. At least in this corner of the world, farm-to-table works to keep restaurants’ costs down and give local food producers much-needed sales. Though maybe it is just the luck of the draw for this region. As Devon explained, “Washington has enough bounty that, if cut off from everywhere else, we’d most likely survive. That’s probably why farm-to-table thrives here as well.”
Growing up in Wisconsin, a lot of the brands I knew as local were still owned by large conglomerates or were merely names bought out and turned into a subsidiary of some umbrella corporation. Given how Midwestern farmers pride themselves as the primary food producers of our country, I wish that we took as much pride in supporting each other as Bellingham and the Pacific Northwest as a region espouses. However, this sort of pride goes beyond just farm-to-table practices.
Investing in Your People
Devon originally moved to Bellingham from Wenatchee, Washington in 2008 in search of better schools for his kids. While he went to Western Washington University to major in History, his love for food and Bellingham’s sheer variety of cuisine drew him to its tight-knit food community. Bellingham has weekly Saturday farmers markets where local food producers network, sell, and even barter their goods. Mount Bakery is one such business that frequents these markets, sometimes exchanging their bakery treats for produce instead of just buying them with money.
As far as choosing the Mount Bakery as a place to work, Devon was enticed by Vince’s business model and ethics along with the restaurant’s treatment of its employees. Just as Vince was welcomed into Olivier’s family when he began, he continues to grow the restaurant’s kinship throughout its staff. “Vince knows the names of all 50+ of his employees, their significant others, and their children,” Devon said smiling. Vince’s own words in the employee handbook drive these feelings home:
“Whether you work for us for six months or six years, please know that you are part of a place with a proud tradition of great food and good service to a loyal and deserving public. Please take care of our reputation. Help us build, improve, and maintain our business and our respected place in the community. Help us make the Mount Bakery an ever-better place to be employed by setting your own example of diligent perseverance, generous cooperation, good humor, and mutual respect as we do the work at hand.”
In contrast to other states whose laws allow for sub-minimum wage for service industry jobs such as waiting tables, the Mount Bakery (along with other Washington state restaurants) pay their wait staff hourly wages in addition to tips. Moreover, it does what it can to provide flexibility for their staff to give them the hours they need, making sure both the employees and business are happy and doing their best.
Vince’s goodwill is not only apparent with his staff, but he seeks to connect the community wherever he can. In addition to being active participants in the weekly farmers markets both in Bellingham and its Fairhaven neighborhood, every year the restaurant hosts viewings of the Tour-de-France in the early morning, setting up a big screen television for patrons to watch as they enjoy their crepes, eggs benedicts, and freshly brewed coffee.
Regardless of whether or not you’re a farm-to-table business or in a community like Bellingham’s, every business owner could learn a bit from Vince’s playbook. If you’re a small business owner just starting out, focus not just on the product you’re selling, but the people you’re selling to — and more importantly, the community that supports you as it hopes you’ll support it in return. Even with the best equipment, the shiniest products, and the most picturesque location, the best investment you can make is in the people around you. Coupled with a passion to build something new, you’d be surprised the fire you can light within others that spurs them to be the best they can be as they offer that same help and faith in kind.