What makes a wetland biologist trade water and grass for butter and flour? For Stephanie Smith it was the desire to be more creative and find a career she could do anywhere in the world.
A Pacific Northwest native, she dove fingers first into a world of dough. And after completing the pastry program at Le Cordon Blue in Seattle, Stephanie ran the bakery for Microsoft’s catering service. But she longed to use her skills at a job where her hands got sticky, customers ordered in person, and her schedule allowed her to travel.
And such is the story of a pastry-loving city dweller who came to own and operate a quaint island bakery at the edge of America — Holly B’s — a place where the ethos of ‘Love and Butter’ is shared in sweet treat after sweet treat.
To get to know Stephanie better, we chatted about her path to baking in the San Juans. Here are some fun snippets from that conversation:
Mikaela: How are you keeping the essence of Holly B’s alive?
Stephanie: We want to make sure you have the same feeling today when you walk in the door that you had years ago. So we’ve really tried to take the bakery’s history into consideration.
Even as we’ve made physical changes in the bakery, we kept the layout the same. When we had new pastry cases made, they were made by someone on the island. Someone who knows the bakery and could help us make them look like a newer, updated version of the old ones.
But it’s not just the look. The smell is a really important part of that history too. I think that’s the number one thing I hear people say when they walk in the door. They say, ‘Oh my gosh. It smells so good in here.’
And of course, we kept many of the popular menu items, like the cinnamon rolls and the butter horns. Those have been two of Holly B’s staples. And we make them the same way Holly was making them for 40 years.
Mikaela: You use the off-season to travel. How does baking influence this experience?
Stephanie: Having a passion for something and exploring that in different places I think is one of the best ways to travel. That shared interest can really help connect you to different cultures.
For me, I’m really into baking. So I seek out bakeries and bakers wherever I go. It’s really interesting to see the differences. Even places that are so similar to us, like the UK, use such different brands. For instance, a lot of UK products use a ‘golden syrup.’ That isn’t something we really see here. But the flavor is a little like honey with a hint of molasses.
Or finding out how different something is, like where you get your flour. For instance, I was driving from Jordan to Israel a few years ago. We ended up behind this huge truck. The back doors were open and there were two guys sitting inside. Every so often the truck would stop and the guys would throw huge bags onto the stoop of a shop.
After a while, I realized they were delivering flour. I’d gotten stuck behind the country’s flour delivery service! Who would have thought that every baker in the country got the same flour? It never could have occurred to me to even ask about that. Those are the kind of things you learn when you travel and they’re just amazing.
Mikaela: Have any destinations influenced the items you’re making at Holly B’s?
Stephanie: A lot of our products here in the U.S. draw from France and European traditions. So while interesting, those already influenced a lot of what we do. But Israel and Tel Aviv. Those were two destinations that were amazing in the way that their products are different than what we have.
In terms of menu influence, it’s not so much the technique as it is the flavors. On the front end of my trip to Israel, I went to England and was able to visit the Ottolenghi bakeries and restaurants. They’re owned by two business partners. One is Israeli and one is Palestinian.
So the menus really open your eyes to flavors and encourage you to try things you might never have otherwise tried. For instance, we now have a cookie with Tahini in it. And that wasn’t something I would have really considered before.
Mikaela: Do you have a favorite menu item?
Stephanie: Croissants — especially the chocolate croissant. Croissants in general are a big labor of love. And I’m really proud of how far ours have come. I think now we make one of the best croissants around.
We’ve done a lot of work. On training to get the technique right. On finding the right butter for those layers. We’re just in a really good spot right now with Jessica, who handles the croissants. She’s meticulous and takes a lot of pride in her work. They are definitely our best seller.
Mikaela: Having moved to Lopez from Seattle, how have you connected with the local community?
Stephanie: As much as possible, we work with local farmers to get our produce and fruit. We’re really lucky to have an abundance of fruit here on Lopez. Any of the local stuff is pretty darn amazing. The best strawberries are being grown right here.
In addition to strawberries and blueberries and raspberries – we’ll get contacted by smaller producers who have some unique thing, like 10-pounds of mirabelle plums. Early on I might not have known what to do with mirabelle plums, but I was super excited to find out.
And there are all sorts of things like that. Gooseberries and currants. Stuff you just don’t normally get, especially fresh.
We get all our flour from Cairnspring Mills in Skagit Valley. It’s nice to have it coming so locally. And to know that buying from Cairnspring means we’re supporting local farmers.
And then there’s partnering with local restaurants. We’re able to provide goods to Blossom, a natural food store here on the island. We’ve been supplying sweet treats to Ursa Minor for their comfort meals during the takeout period. We’re done a lot of work with mobile food trucks, making specialty products, like torta rolls for the local taco truck, El Taco ‘bout it.
Really, the community here is just amazing.