Nothing Half Baked About This Couple’s Success
BY KIRSTEN JONES NEFF PHOTOS BY STACY VENTURA
It is a known fact that the baked goods at Rustic Bakery are habit forming. Many of us in Marin County (yes, count this as a personal confession) need to stop by one of their cafés several times a week, if not every day, to get our fix.
As busy as our collective love affair with their wide array of offerings surely makes them, Rustic Bakery and Café cofounders Carol LeValley and Josh Harris make the business of creating and running the wildly successful bakery seem easy: First, you nurture a baking hobby, even as you manage a successful fashion design company. Then you identify a need for beautiful flatbread crackers to accompany the artisanal cheeses of West Marin. Next, jump out of the fashion business as you perfect recipes and establish relations with the finest local growers and producers. Open cafés and wholesale kitchens as you increase your employee base to 130. Sign contracts with companies such as Google and Virgin Airlines that want to feature your goods on their menus. Finally, hire a chef partner to expand your menus and possibly include dinner items.
LeValley and Harris, who are married, meet me at a table outside the bustling Rustic Bakery and Café at the Marin County Mart in Larkspur, tag-teaming as they tell the story of their partnership. Their regular presence at the café is evidenced by the number of people—customers and employees alike—who stop by our table to greet them like old friends.
When LeValley and Harris turn back to describing their recent past, characterized by a rise to both local and national baked goods preeminence, it is with a nonchalance that belies the relentless round-the-clock work they have put into their company. They even go so far as to refer to their meteoric success over the past eight years as “slow growth.” They both attribute their preparedness for the pace of Rustic’s growth to their previous vocational incarnations as buyers and designers in the fashion world.
“Most bakers don’t have a manufacturing background. We worked together in the apparel industry. We had done that for years so we knew how to manufacture. In fashion, everything was always changing, up and down. Someone wants 5,000 orders of leggings by next week. With food it is a whole different pace. The food business is more steady. Clients will put in an order and then buy those same crackers again and again.”
LeValley grew up baking with her grandmother, who taught her how to make pies, with special attention to the crust. Through the hectic times of pattern making and apparel manufacturing, she says she would bake for relaxation, experimenting with breads, setting the bar higher and higher for herself. When the couple moved to Novato it was hard to find fresh bread in town, so LeValley began making bread for their family. Soon, she undertook an effort to develop the perfect sourdough starter, joined a bakers’ guild and became expert enough to teach demonstration classes at Copia winery. She found her attention more and more consumed by this hobby-turned-passion.
“One day I was at Cowgirl Creamery and thought that I could make a perfect flatbread cracker to go with their cheeses,” says LeValley. “I got in contact with Sue Conley [of Cowgirl Creamery] and went up and made a presentation. I had an art and design background, so it was a beautiful presentation. They got back to me within seconds. They wanted 50 cases of crackers per week.”
“Carol called and said, ‘We’re in the cracker business,’” adds Harris, light-heartedly, as if the whole Rustic endeavor has been a wild adventure.
The next challenge was to find a bakery location. They found a space in Larkspur that was ideal because it had a kitchen, but also a café storefront, which was a key element for LeValley.
“I loved it,” she says. “I spent my days making bread and pastries and interacting with customers. We could have done wholesale only, but the café became an important part of our business. It gave Rustic a place . . . a heart and soul.”
In the coming years, Tomales Food Co. (home of Cowgirl Creamery in Pt. Reyes Station) stocked a variety of their crackers, and the number of Rustic groupies grew. The bakery in downtown Larkspur continued to thrive, so LeValley and Harris decided to jump to the next level, opening two new Rustic Bakery and Café locations—one in the Marin County Mart and another in downtown Novato. They built or remodeled large wholesale kitchens and stocked the shelves with Rustic granola and crackers, as well as Cowgirl Creamery cheeses and other items produced by purveyors they believe in, such as Silk Road teas and Poco Dolce artisan chocolates.
LeValley experimented with the lunch recipes at the cafés, adding soups, sandwiches and salads to the menu as the duo established relationships with highly respected local farmers like Dave Retsky at County Line Harvest in Petaluma and Henry Wallace at Indian Valley Organic Farm in Novato. The theme is seasonal and local . . . very local.
“The ideal is [to see] if we can go with no refrigeration for the lettuce,” says LeValley, as if this standard for freshness were par for the course. “You only have about two hours, but it is an unbelievable taste difference if the lettuce has never been refrigerated. Even a one-day lag can really kill lettuces.”
A BLAT (bacon, lettuce, avocado and tomato) sandwich is a menu favorite, thanks to the “Tomato Goddess” Tamara Scalera of Verdure Farms in Healdsburg. Once LeValley and Harris find a farm they believe in, they leave a lot of decisions about what to buy up to the grower, who they believe has the best sense of what is peaking in the fields on any given week.
“I give The Tomato Goddess free rein,” says LeValley. “I have never bought a bad tomato from her. We are very fortunate to be on her list.” They speak about all of their local producers with the same reverence, as if they are honored to include these offerings on the menus.
Once produce and dry goods have been delivered to the back doors, LeValley is very particular and hands-on. She has earned a reputation for being in three places at once as she moves between the Rustic sites, making sure that each pastry, soup or salad served meets the high bar she has set. Lately, she has become aware of her own limits.
“I want to keep our food program exciting and fresh,” she says. “I want to implement new ideas, but I can’t be at all three locales monitoring our new menu items.”
Enter Nick Abrams, her newly recruited culinary partner. Abrams comes from Mill Valley’s Buckeye Roadhouse and, most recently, Hilltop 1892 in Novato, where he earned accolades.
“Nick could do any kind of food,” says LeValley. “But he is interested in the Northern European food style we are interested in now. Farm-to-table with a minimalist approach, and with some of the decorative components in the new Nordic cuisine.” Last summer Harris and LeValley travelled extensively in Scandinavia. Upon return, LeValley experimented until she came up with a perfect rye bread, and the new menu will include Abrams’s take on smorrebrod, a Danish-style open sandwich on rye.
Another ingredient in the recipe for Rustic’s unwavering success has been the behind-the-scenes support of both of their extended families. This goes far beyond the requisite familial pride and cheerleading; all four of their parents, each nearing 80 years old, are on Rustic’s board of directors. LeValley’s mother, Marge LeValley, has a background in finance and serves as treasurer. Her father, Bill LeValley, a computer engineer, is secretary. Josh Harris’s mother is Jean Harris, who developed and ran her own well-known fashion line, so she brings both an artistic eye and business sense to the table. Her husband, Arturo Maimoni, is a businessman whose acumen they have also relied on.
“We are so glad we have not just been making decisions on our own,” says Harris. “To have all of their experience and their collective wisdom is invaluable.”
When asked to reflect back on the highlights of their Rustic Bakery adventure over the past years, both Harris and LeValley grow quiet for a moment to think.
“I have customers from Larkspur who I’ve known since they came in when they were pregnant,” says LeValley. “Now their kids are 6, 7, 8 years old, and going to school. I like to say I’ve nurtured those children from the inside out.”
Harris nods his head in agreement. He has a similar response.
“We had our fourth annual company party at Rolling Hills in Novato,” he says. “As I was barbecuing I looked out over the scene, at everyone in the pool, at 130 families enjoying themselves. There were grandmothers, and little kids playing with balls. This is a community that we have built, a ‘Rustic Family.’”
Kirsten Jones Neff is a journalist, poet and middle school gardening teacher at the Novato Charter School. She feels extraordinarily lucky to live with her family in a small rural corner of northern Marin County. Links to her work and organic gardening and food blog can be found at KirstenJonesNeff.com.