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On the Rise 

Rhonda Wiedenbeck of Beck’s Bakery

click to enlarge beck_sbakery-magnum.jpg

In the buttery warm bakery air, plump loaves rest on cooling racks like hens in a coop. The back door is propped open to let the breeze in as three people work at a wooden slab table dusted in flour. With one eye on the clock, the bakers knead and form dough. "Deli rolls come out in five minutes!" someone shouts.

"You guys are rocking it!" Rhonda Wiedenbeck calls from her adjoining office, where calendars and charts hang from the wall and the chaos is organized. It's her fifth year as founding owner of Beck's Bakery and her business is beginning to hum in earnest. "It's like I had a baby five years ago," she explains breathlessly.

When Eureka's prominent Vellutini Baking Company recently closed up shop, it was a game changer for Beck's. Wiedenbeck took on several former Vellutini accounts and bought a few pieces of their equipment. Overnight, business at Beck's doubled. Wiedenbeck and her staff deftly developed and tested new recipes and went from baking three days a week to six.

Wiedenbeck slides big cooling racks around like tiles in a thumb puzzle, explaining that fitting the new equipment in to her kitchen at Arcata's Foodworks Culinary Center, a facility that provides space for local niche foods manufacturing, is a challenge. Wiedenbeck and her staff are learning how to be more efficient in what they do, and getting creative to make it work. "It's the way it's been in this business," she says. "I had to learn to say yes and figure out how to do it after the fact."

Figuring it out on the fly is a thread woven through Wiedenbeck's story. In 1992, newly divorced and stifled by her life in the midwest, Wiedenbeck set out to find a new home in the Pacific Northwest. On her search, she took a wrong turn and wound up in Arcata. Twice. She pulled over, had a burrito at Hey Juan's, was hit up for spare change for the first time in her life and said to herself, "This is it!"

Three months later, Wiedenbeck borrowed her dad's pick up truck and headed back to Humboldt with everything she owned in a pull-behind trailer. She got a job right away, and — the first in her family to go to college — started classes at Humboldt State, eventually earning a Biology degree.

It took her a few years to zero in on what she wanted to do next. "Every job I had I kept on trying to feed people," she laughs. She had a dinners-to-go catering service for a while, cooking out of her house for friends. During that endeavor, she would first decide what kind of bread to make and build the meal around it. "It was the writing on the wall," she reckons.

So she signed up for a small business development course, took a series of artisan baking classes at the San Francisco Baking Institute, worked at established local bakeries like Ramone's and Brio, and cooked her way through recipe books.

But Wiedenbeck's bakery vision really came into sharp focus when a friend dropped by her kitchen and left a bag of local grains to try. "I ate that bread and was blown away," she says. Wiedenbeck knew immediately local grains were what she wanted for her bakery. The bag had an address on it, so she wrote a letter to the farmer. A week later, John LaBoyteaux from Camp Grant Ranch in Southern Humboldt called. Over the phone, they hatched a plan for LaBoyteaux to grow the grain for her bakery.

These days, Beck's works closely with several small Northern California farmers. Wiedenbeck says she's walked their fields, knows their families and their dogs. Together they're committed to growing the local grain economy — producing great tasting grains that grow well in our climate and putting them to use — whether it be in stone milled, whole grain artisanal baked goods or the handcrafted spirits produced by her grain partners over at Alchemy Distillery.

In the storage room at Foodworks, Wiedenbeck wrenches open a 50-gallon drum of hard red wheat from Hollis Farms and runs her hands through the grain. She pulls out a palm full of the tight, hard berries and admits, "My secret mission in life is to turn everybody into whole grain eaters." All of Beck's products incorporate local whole grain wheat, stone ground in-house. It's what makes Beck's unique. Even the white stuff is comprised of at least 8 percent whole grain. Wiedenbeck says it makes a noticeable difference in the flavor of the final product. Plus, it's better for you.

Wiedenbeck's relationship with food and land goes deep. She grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, surrounded by soy, corn and tobacco farms. At 12 years old, she worked on a farm picking suckers off of tobacco plants and spent summers gardening with her dad. He taught her how to grow her own food and shared the satisfaction of getting dirt under her fingernails. He was also an avid forager. She says he would come at her with a handful of wild asparagus and say, "Here, I'll show you where it is." Even now, Weidenbeck heads out into local beaches, forests and fields to harvest seaweed, mushrooms and nettles.

If her dad instilled a love of nature and plants, Wiedenbeck says her mom was the culinary influence. "I was always in the kitchen with my mom. It was the early incarnation of this process for me." Weidenbeck says cooking and sharing food she's made or grown herself is wonderfully soul-fulfilling. "It's about building community on the micro level at your dinner table," she says.

You can find Beck's goodies at the Arcata, Fortuna and Willow Creek farmers markets. A listing of retailers and restaurants from Humboldt to Sausalito is at www.becksbakery.com. You'll also find the weekly baking schedule, recipes to try, information about the Beck's Bread Club and more about the people and philosophy behind the bakery. Beck's welcomes visitors to the kitchen, as well. "We'll say hi if we're not too busy," Wiedenbeck says. "Or you can just stick your head in and smell."

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