Chris and Nicole Wilkins are taking Root Baking Co. to Atlanta where they will open a retail bakery and café in a “prominent food hall,” according to Chris Wilkins, who was unable to say anything more specific since they are still finalizing details. “The good news is that Joe Shea is opening a bakery in our current space."
The Wilkins sold their assets to Shea, who plans to name his operation Tiller Baking Co. and continue doing what they’ve been doing already at Root, where he's worked alongside Wilkins for two and a half years after a stint at Butcher & Bee. “We want to continue serving all the customers that we currently have and grow slowly,” says Shea, whose biggest challenge will be finding bakers to work at Tiller since the other Root Baking employee is going to Atlanta with the Wilkins.
“Bread bakers are notoriously hard people to find,” says Shea. “The best course is to make them out of full cloth.” He says he has a friend with the right temperament to be a baker and plans to train him.
The Wilkins’ last day selling bread will be at the John’s Island farmers market on Saturday, Feb. 17, but Shea will maintain a presence at the market going forward. In the future, he hopes to take those seasonal market sales and create a direct-to-consumer retail operation, a subscription of sorts where customers can order online and pick up bread at drop spots around town.
In Atlanta, the Wilkins will be faced with creating a different business altogether, since the bakery will also sell pastries and other items directly to the public. To keep from stressing out about managing such a change, Wilkins looks at it as if he’s just building a bakery. “And there’s going to be a real cool cafe that pops up every day in the bakery,” he says.
Root’s pastries will utilize grain from farmers like Justin Cannon of M.C. Cannon Farms, Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills and Greg Johnsman of Geechie Boy Mill. “It’ll be all the flavors we espouse in the bakery: millet, sorghum. The same grains but with butter, sugar and fruit, lots of fruit.”
Wilkins says his move is positive for local farmers, who will continue to supply Root Baking. "Grain is not like tomatoes. When Justin Cannon grows wheat or rye or whatever, the more we buy the more it helps the infrastructure. It comes back to that idea of empowering local folks and local growers. We're not leaving our relationships behind here."
For Shea, who once worked at a wood-fired bakery where baking bread was a brutal and difficult task, the biggest difference among bakers is their approach. "Because you're working with such simple ingredients," he says, "It's the approach that matters. Having worked with Chris, I've liked learning his approach to ingredients."
Shea and Wilkins have already been experimenting with sorghum in a brioche sticky bun, and Shea says he'll continue working with sorghum along with rye, which makes dense sour breads that Shea just loves but finds palates around here might need to be trained to like it.
"He'll be doing his own thing, but it's a similar direction as we've been going," says Wilkins. "We have emotional connection to that space so it was important for Nicole and me to see it passed to someone who is a wonderful human and a great baker."
The Wilkins will head to Atlanta in March and hope to be open this summer, while Shea will remain in the same bakery, fulfilling customer orders and training his new bread baker.