by Ronda L. Birtha
When Margie Freel Carpenter said that she is the kind of person who looks for a bakery as she travels about, I knew exactly what she meant and why she meant it. A good hometown bakery is to a neighborhood what your favorite room is to your home: the place where you find comfort and a measure of peace.
Years ago, I remember asking friends where they went for a good donut, a good cup of coffee. Silence. It’s not that there was no place to go. There was just no place spoken of with the fondness that I remembered hometown bakeries being spoken of, or even defended like rival high school sports teams. If a bakery wasn’t spoken of with passion, it wasn’t worth going through its doors.
“You can’t get a carrot cake like you can at [insert your favorite bakery]; no place makes a Reuben as good as [insert your favorite deli].”
Until recently, there were two such places that I enjoyed in Murphy, NC: Antica Roma, which closed two weeks ago to the shock and dismay of many a faithful patron; and Downtown Bakery, where Margie was once a loyal customer, and is now a loyal employee.
Downtown Bakery, owned by Kate Simmons, sits towards the west end of Tennessee St. in Murphy, NC in a warehouse-sized venue. It is outfitted with wooden tables and chairs, bathed in warm light spilling in from massive paned windows. Distinct doughy scents of freshly baking breads and desserts permeate the whole space.
Before settling into this location, Margie explains the bakery was located across the street in a spot that was considerably smaller, suited for take-out only, barely accommodated a few small tables, and received endless complaints about parking. In the new location, that is no longer the case. Parking, décor, and seating aside, this “favorite room of the house,” so to speak, invites ones to sit for a spell, linger with good friends, conversation, and a local favorite – the gooey butter cake.
The recipe for the gooey butter cake comes from Kate’s father, as do the majority of the recipes for the baked goods sold at the bakery. Although Margie didn’t say it outright, I suspect I could get the recipe, but under penalty of death.
Described as “the sweetest thing I ever put in my mouth” Margie says customers are passionate about the “biggie size” dessert.
“If you just walk up and say you want a gooey butter cake and I reach my hand in and take just any piece … ‘oh no no no no no, I don’t want that one, I want this one.’ I had no idea people were so bound to their crust preference.”
Margie says this GBC is hands down the biggest seller.
Running neck and neck, if not a close second, would be the signature Reuben and Tampa-style Cuban sandwiches that Kate started making to satisfy her own desire for a taste of what was home for many years, namely, Tampa, Florida. Margie explains the difference between a Tampa-Cuban and a Miami-Cuban as having to do with whether the pork is sliced or pulled. But ultimately, what determines a real good Cuban is the bread, which Kate makes herself, and according to Margie “it’s as close to a Tampa Cuban as you can get.”
I’m a Reuben fan myself. As with the helping size of GBC, Kate does not scrimp.
The Downtown Bakery’s menu has also quietly snuck in signature pizzas, offered Wednesday through Friday.
“It’s taken two years for the pizzas to really catch on,” Margie admits, but she says those have not really been advertised other than by word of mouth.
And word of mouth has spread so that the pizzas are becoming as big as the desserts and sandwiches during the week. Harold and Cindy Malovany, Brasstown residents, just heard about the pizza a few weeks ago and stopped in to try it out. They ordered a pizza with green peppers, mushrooms and onions, which they described in staccato phrases: “Fresh, homemade, fresh ingredients, very good.”
Harold pointed to the refrigerator case beside the cash register. “She even sells homemade sauce … and fresh dough that she makes herself for a dollar.”
The spinach and feta cheese pizza is so extraordinarily tasty that I can’t even bring myself to consider the other pizza offerings on the menu. In fact that pizza and the Italian pizza have become so popular Margie says people think those are the only pizzas they make.
Word of mouth and a Facebook page that announces the daily fare have fueled the quiet success and popularity of the Downtown Bakery. And I suspect its success has been founded on a single principle: the customers’ desire and the owner’s need for consistency.
Aside from the Pie or Cupcake of the month, Kate hardly comes up with something new. Margie says its part of Kate’s personality.
“She is very fixed. Very standardized.”
Some may find that description limiting, but it is absolutely required for baking. While “cooking” may allow wide berths for creative flights of flavor fancy, baking is a science. Precision, accuracy and consistency spell success, and lack thereof, failure.
And customers want and expect what Kate insists on delivering: high quality with consistency, the hallmarks of any good bakery-deli and what clearly has made Downtown Bakery like “the favorite room in the house,” a place that can be fondly claimed as the favorite bakery in the neighborhood.
104 Tennessee St.
Murphy, NC 28906.
Ronda Birtha is a freelance writer, photographer, and videographer residing in far, far western North Carolina. She has been an instructor for the Community Folklife Documentation Institute/NC Folklife Institute; and as Project Consultant for the Mountain Work: A Social Commentary documentary, partially funded by a grant from the NC Humanities Council. Samples of her photography and videography can be seen at www.rondabirtha.com. In the five or ten minutes that she has for herself in the course of a day, she continues to work on her first novel – Solace.