Kings of the North Shore

PHOTOS BY MICHAEL PIAZZA

A neighborhood bakery is a sacred thing. It is where people start their days. It is a place to find solitude with a cup of coffee and the newspaper. It is a place to take your kids on Sunday mornings to treat them (and you) to a baked treat you reserve for weekend indulgence. It is where you grab a loaf of bread on your way home because it will taste infinitely better than anything wrapped in plastic and housed on a grocery store shelf.

It is one of those special in-between spots: a place you choose to spend time when you are not at home or at work. A place of comfort where you are being taken care of, not doing the caring.

In Salem, that place is A&J King Artisan Bakers. With their bevy of butter-laden treats and artisanal breads begging to be torn into, owners Andy and Jackie King have been warming the hearts and stomachs of the North Shore since they opened their first outpost in 2006. This past summer the couple added a second location of their namesake bakery, also in Salem, complete with an expansive baking facility and a coffee bar.

Andy and Jackie met while attending New England Culinary Institute in Montpelier, Vermont. Andy, a native of Providence, Rhode Island, had already received a degree from Colby College; and Jackie, from Topsfield, spent two years at Boston University before following her passion and heading north to study cooking and the meticulous art of baking. A couple of classes and a shared passion for baking drew them together.

Completing their degrees at NECI, they then spent three-and-a-half years working at Standard Baking Company in Portland, Maine, lauded for its traditional breads and unfussy approach. During their stint there Andy and Jackie got married, had a daughter and ultimately decided to take all that they had learned and open a bakery of their own. Reflecting back, Andy remembers that they were of one mind about it.

 “It was very clear to us what we both wanted to do.” Jackie finishes his thought: “We had all these skills, and there was no bakery quite like this right in this area at the time.” So they moved in with Jackie’s family in Topsfield and put the wheels in motion.

Today, Salem is a bustling city with a cute downtown, but in 2006 when Andy and Jackie opened A&J King Artisan Bakers, it was still up-and-coming. Back then, the city was just beginning to attract young Boston defectors and developers were revving up commercial and residential real estate. Driving around the North Shore hunting for a home for their business, the Kings noticed that Salem was lacking a local bakery. So when they found a small—but cozy—location tucked onto a side street right downtown, they knew they were going to be able to fill Salem’s bakery void, and the city immediately embraced them.

To hear them speak about their early days now from behind matching desks tucked into their shared office in the back corner of their new location, it is clear their success was hard-earned, but they are perfectly nostalgic about it. “We have a picture from that time of our daughter putting me to bed at 7pm so I could get up at midnight to go to work,” Andy says. He worked the overnight shifts while Jackie covered the day shifts, powering through for several months on their own until they could hire more bakers.

Now, a decade-plus later, the Kings have two children, their own home (still in Topsfield, but now next door to Jackie’s parents), a strong wholesale business and a sister location across town from the first outpost.

It took them two-and-a-half years to secure the second location, and by then they were in desperate need of more space. Jackie explains: “The whole setup [of the first location] was not growth-oriented. We ended up spending so much time on non-baking-related things there.” It is evident that they truly value their staff; their team is a huge catalyst in their desire to continue growing the business. Their employees are loyal; some have been with them since the beginning, and they wanted to reward and sustain that.

“They were doing such a great job working in that environment,” Andy says, “but we wanted a space where people can just concentrate on baking.”

The new space on Boston Street is a divergence from the flagship on Central Street in both form and function. The first location is petite and cozy. The front of house is full to the brim with small tables and dark wood accents crammed in with the bread and pastry displays, and the back of the house was simply a confined dual baking and storage space. The newer location is sleek and modern in design with big windows, high ceilings and an airy feel. There is enough room for the coffee bar to be separate from the pastry counter, and tucked behind a swinging door is an expansive maze of baking, office and storage spaces that run deep into the building. This is the heart of what this location is for: room to breathe and bake.

Stepping through the doors in both locations, the air is filled with the ethereal scent that seeps into nooks and crannies of all good bakeries: a comingling of flour, yeast and butter at a high temperature. It envelopes you with a sense of innate comfort. Andy’s passion for breads, paired with Jackie’s proficiency for pastry, is the basis for this divine olfactory experience.

Andy’s approach to bread baking is traditional, focused on time-tested methods and shaping by hand. “I want to see pictures from 1810 that look like the bread I’m making now,” he says. Jackie is the pastry guru. Looking at the pastry case at A&J King it is clear to see that many of their products depend on her proficiency in laminated doughs (the process of folding butter into dough, creating layers that produce the open, airy structure found in croissants, for example), but that the breadth of her skill is wide.

“Two cornerstones when we opened were that we did a lot of laminated items and we had the traditional sourdough and baguettes ... that kind of defined what we are as a bakery,” Jackie says, and it’s clear they still take pride in this.

They have many traditional offerings, but they also highlight the seasons and New England flavors when they can. They do a lot of preserving and canning in the summer—when things are in season—to save for use throughout the year, and are dependent on the relationships they’ve built with local farms and producers.

“For so much of what we do, it’s the ingredient that inspires the product,” says Andy, and in the same breath he extols the value of the relationships they have built with their purveyors of those ingredients as essential to their successes. These partnerships have been the basis for new business opportunities as well as the basis of a community of “food-world” friends across the state.

But even more important than the relationships they’ve built with partners and their loyal staff is the relationship they’ve built with each other. Listening to the Kings finish one another’s sentences and complement one another’s point of view, it is easy to see their partnership is what has made them successful. And they aren’t stopping. Their new space has them planning all kinds of exciting things like potential collaborations with other local craft artisans and offering bread and pastry baking classes for the public.

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But some things won’t change. They are still producing amazing pastries and artisan breads. They are still supporting and being supported by the loyal North Shore community they love. And they are still providing that special place for people to unwind, relax and indulge—two places, in fact. So whether you find them in the old digs on Central Street or the new digs on Boston Street, you can expect to find a little slice of contentment, courtesy of the Kings.

BETHANY GRABER is a Boston-based food writer whose work can be seen in The Boston Globe, Edible Boston and on her blog winedinerepeat.com. A lover of coffee and a glutton for pastry, she and her insatiable appetite can be found eating their way through the city or at bethany.graber@gmail.com.