Winding Road Stories: Sunflower Bakery (Appalachian Ohio)

Sunflower Bakery sits on a busy Nelsonville Public Square. There is a sense of vibrancy here: as I walk down the street, older and younger couples pass by, workers are cleaning up the square’s central fountain, and cars slowly drive past. I step into the bakery, and it is bright and warm. The smell of fresh bread hits me as soon as I open the door. I am greeted by two women, Rosemary behind the counter, and Liz Florentino, the owner.

I am here to collect stories for the Winding Road, a network of people and businesses and organizations all working to help each other build strong and sustainable economies in Appalachian Ohio. The newest business on the square, Sunflower Bakery offers all kinds of goods, from breads and cookies to a frozen line of veggie burgers, hand pies, and quiches. As we sit down together to talk, a steady flow of customers stop in, and every time they do so, Florentino seems delighted and a little astonished as they enthusiastically buy up pastries and soups and pies and even doggie treats.

We begin talking about the business, and I ask Florentino how she got the bakery started. “I knew that I needed to do something on my own. I was working in other people’s kitchens for so long, I just wasn’t satisfied,” she states. There is a sense of urgency and a humble ambition in her work, and this helps her face the ups and downs of opening a new business. She had very little start up money, and could not find traditional loans. And like so many others in rural places, she instead turned to the community around her for support. After running two crowdfunding campaigns, securing loans from friends, and enduring several delays and moving storefronts, she was able to open this past November. And perhaps the biggest surprise came when an anonymous donor paid the bakery’s rent for a couple of months when it first opened. These challenges for small rural businesses are common along the Winding Road, and require a lot of perseverance, patience, generosity, and creativity to solve.

I ask Florentino why she chose Nelsonville. For her, there are particular opportunities here that might not be available elsewhere. She loved the town and the people she met. The rents are lower than in bigger cities, and her bakery could fill a niche that no one else was doing. Just as importantly, Florentino notes, there is a lot of cooperation between the businesses on the square, such as Fullbrooks Cafe, the Nelsonville Emporium, Starbrick Gallery, and Stuart’s Opera House. Rocky Boots, for example, sent out a company-wide email promoting the bakery, encouraging employees to visit. Down the block, the owners of Nelsonville Quilt are big supporters of the bakery, too, and their shared tourism helps both businesses thrive. In a place like this, competition is less of an issue because there is a common goal: to help rebuild and revitalize the town together. These small businesses are all rooting for one another, and holding each other up.

The innovation, experimentation, and flexibility in Florentino’s business plan can also be seen in the products she makes. The menu changes frequently, and she is continually developing new recipes. Her “Fudgedoodle” cookies, for example, are a gluten-free mash up of a snickerdoodle and a chocolate crinkle, a novel combination already a hit with local customers. And after a customer gave Florentino a recipe for Oatmeal Pie, she developed it into a dessert bar, one that is both new and traditional.

It takes time to build trust, and food is a good way to do it. Forentino’s experimentation and openness have proven helpful in crossing cultural divides between herself and other local residents. This began even before she opened the storefront on the square. After moving to Nelsonville, she sold baked goods from her house. Regulars would stop by to pick up a pastry or loaf of bread, and the relationships she build there carried over to the new store. Now, Florentino continues to navigate the push and pull between challenging her customers to try new flavors, and adapting to their requests. Because she has built up trust, however, her customers are willing to try something new. Her “Persian” cookies, for example, have been an unexpected hit. Made with chickpea flour, they at first seemed unusual to her customers, but she quickly won them over. “I thought, ‘no one’s going to go for them,’ but now people are addicted to them!”

Even with these successes, it is hard to manage the pressures of running a small business in Appalachian Ohio. When I mention how I’ve met other people struggling with similar issues, such as a strong sense of isolation, Florentino recognizes this feeling. “I often feel alone when working here,” she says. “It’s nice to know there are other people trying to make a go of it, too. I enjoy talking about it with other businesses, and to share our different challenges. It’s nice to connect with other people who are working their butts off, like you are.” For Florentino, and for the Winding Road, it is crucial for these different people and businesses to connect with and recognize each other, and to see how they are all making their own way in the region. It is an important way for everyone to help each other and have a shared sense of purpose.

Just before I left, another customer stops by. He is a regular, and has helped Florentino over the past few months by putting shelves up, moving equipment, and even fixing a water leak. As he leaves, he says, “I’ll see you again tomorrow.” Florentino turns to me, amazed, and says, “Did he just say, ‘see you tomorrow’? Wonderful!”

“It’s very surreal around here,” she continues. “I feel like I’m in a dream.”

The Sunflower Bakery is located at 19 W. Columbus Street, Nelsonville, Ohio.