“They are super proud of me. It makes me happy,” says Zackery Gates as he hands me a card his mother sent him recently.
On the front is a hand-drawn picture of Crust Bakehouse she made, with a supportive note inside.
“Every time I look at it, it chokes me up a bit,” Gates says, looking at the card. “They did not like it when I first started baking. I wanted to be a baker and own my own business. They said, ‘We feel like this is a bad idea, you should use your education.’ I told them I can’t give up. I can’t give this up. I can’t not do this. And they said, ‘OK.’ I think now they see I mean business.”
Gates officially took over as the new owner of Crust earlier in May. Mark and Angie Lowery first opened the Rosewood Drive neighborhood bread bakery in the fall of 2012. After a nearly seven-year run filled with thousands of bread loaves and savory scones, the couple decided it was time to pass the business to new hands.
Taking over Crust is no easy challenge, Gates admits. Days starting anywhere from 2 to 3 a.m. going well into the evening have become a norm as he works on finding his groove.
“It’s been fun and tiring,” Gates says. “There’s so many nooks and crannies to learn. It’s been an adventure. Every time I turn around there’s something else to do.”
Gates is originally from Beech Island, a small South Carolina community outside of Aiken. He came to Columbia for college and ended up working in multiple kitchens in the city, including two years at Terra where he developed his passion for pastry.
Baking wasn’t necessarily always the plan. A biology major in college, he was on the verge of going to medical school before realizing that his passion for pastry was too strong to ignore. This urge led to Buttered Noodle Bakery.
Beginning as a stand at Soda City, the business grew and developed a following thanks to Gates’ playful take on baked goods like the bagel bomb — a bagel dough ball filled with sweet or savory fillings — and bonuts, a bagel/donut hybrid. By the end of the run he had moved from market to wholesale, supplying coffee shops all around town from Curiosity Coffee to The Local Buzz.
Through his small business, Gates gained the confidence and experience needed to get to the next step.
“That’s probably the biggest thing that Buttered Noodle helped me, [providing] a foundation of managing a business that’s not too crazy. Crust is the next level of that. It’s just me and my team, and we’re getting our stuff done. Buttered Noodle was all wholesale. It was just producing, producing, producing and getting stuff as perfect as possible. Because they never see me, you know; at that point — they only see what I had to present. That was the only way to represent myself, whereas now they can walk through the door and say, ‘Hey, it’s the new guy.’”
The new guy has been hard at work since taking over Crust. A month prior to his grand reopening of the store, Gates was in the kitchen every day from sun-up to sundown with the Lowerys to learn the bread -making process and start getting familiar with the day-to-day operations.
“Before this I made bread, but I would never consider myself anywhere near a professional,” Gates says. “But after working with Mark for one month my confidence level was through the roof. It’s incredible. After touching so many loaves and having good direction. It was invaluable to work with Mark and Angie. Mark is good at what he does. He can make some bread.”
Gates is adamant that though he hopes to steadily incorporate aspects of the Buttered Noodle Bakery’s creativity into Crust, first and foremost he wants to make sure locals know that the Crust they know and love won’t be going anywhere. He believes that his enthusiasm for baking, desire to grow, and goal to maintain the bakery’s connection to the community are the big reasons why the original owners believed he was a good fit for the job.
“This is Rosewood’s bakery,” Gates states affirmingly. “My short-term goal is to keep what they’ve done intact. This place ain’t going anywhere. It’ll be on Rosewood Avenue until we are too big for this place, in which case we’ll find another place on the street. It’s the first time I was part of the community. People come in and introducd themselves to me and, like, ‘Hey, we’re glad to have you here.’ I hope I can stand up to that. Hope I can make it and make them just as pleased as Mark and Angie did for so long.”