Photos by Adam Detour
Warmth fills the 265 Main Street location of Alexandra’s Bread in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The giant, stacked, stone-lined oven contributes to that, as does the cheery decor in the light filled retail space of this bakery. Mostly, however, the warmth comes from the bakery’s owners, Alexandra Rhinelander and Jon Hardy. The pair run the bakery with the occasional help of their two sons, welcoming customers with cheerful greetings and infectious smiles. Walking into the bakery feels like stepping back into a simpler, more peaceful time. This reflects the couple’s personalities and baking methodology as well as the way they run their business.
Jon and Alexandra started their bakery nearly 20 years ago, in 1996. Alexandra was an English major and classics minor at Georgetown and worked for the MIT alumni magazine after college. Jon attended the University of Rochester, where he was a sculpture major with an art history minor. He was also a member of the punk rock band, The Bags. The two met in 1990 while bowling at what was then Central Lanes, in Cambridge (now The Middle East Downstairs).
In search of peace and quiet while figuring out their futures, the couple moved to Nova Scotia and married in 1992. Subsistence farming and day jobs filled their days, with plenty of time left over for contemplation and reading. Jon became interested in bread-making, learning as much as possible by reading and experimenting with recipes and techniques. He and Alexandra (a huge fan of chocolate and a longtime dessert maker) worked for a few bakeries in Nova Scotia before the couple returned to Massachusetts in 1993. Soon after, they both began jobs at Clear Flour Bread in Brookline, Alexandra in retail and Jon in production. In 1994, both were promoted to management positions at Clear Flour. Two years later, enticed by the area’s physical beauty and “cool melting pot vibe that keeps every season interesting,” they started a bakery of their own in Gloucester.
From the beginning, Jon and Alexandra knew that they wanted to bake items they enjoyed eating (primarily bread, breakfast items and cookies), use the highest quality, simplest ingredients, and to do it well. Their products are made with unprocessed ingredients from traditional sources, including King Arthur Flour’s Sir Galahad flour (an untreated hard red winter wheat) and Bay State Milling Company’s whole wheat flour. Simple, however, does not mean easy. As Jon notes, “If there’s an easy way and a hard way, we always pick the hard way.”
As the bread baker of the pair, Jon scoops ingredients by hand onto one side of a vintage (early 1900s) Jacobs Brothers dough scale balanced with counterweights. Alexandra weighs her scone, cookie, biscotti, and muffin ingredients on a similar scale set further back in the roughly 500-square-foot baking area of the kitchen. Ingredients are mixed in small commercial Hobart mixers, one from the 1960s that Alexandra jokingly refers to as “modern” by the pair’s standards. Bread baker and sweet maker share a wide, stacked Blodgett double pizza oven, lined with baking stones. Jon’s breads (eight varieties, including baguettes, cobbles, focaccia, whole wheat, and sourdough-caraway rye) bake in the top oven, rising with the help of a handmade iron steam trough he created down the center. Alexandra bakes in the bottom oven (cranberry scones and chocolate chip cookies with coconut and walnut are the most popular), producing nearly 1,000 items per week in the summer.
True to form, the bakery doesn’t have a website or Facebook page, and doesn’t use social media. The vast majority of their customers are longtime regulars, a large number who have standing orders and know what they want when they enter the store. Recent focus on gluten-free eating hasn’t changed the couple’s offerings, with one exception. Jon notes, “probably half of our current menu was in place soon after we opened in 1996. Over the years we've added a few new staples. The gluten-free trend had me bummed out to such an extent a few years ago that I just dove deep into a barrel of olives. I'm still in there! So now we have Olive Branches and Green Devils. The Green Devil is our gargoyle. Its job is to sit up there on the bread rack with a gruesome expression, tempting folks with its spicy, gluten-y goodness. Meanwhile, Alexandra has methodically found a way to expand her chocolate-obsessed offerings. Black Bottoms are a recent rediscovery.”
Over the years, Alexandra and Jon have added many locally made products to the retail space in the front of their store. Many of these are food items, including Tomten Beeworks honey, Ipswich Ale Mustard, and Boyajian Baking oils. They also sell pottery from local potter Helen Beal, etchings and prints from Alexandra’s sister Mary, glass from East Gloucester’s Retro Glassworks, and sailcloth bags from East Gloucester’s Again and Again, among other items.
Whether you visit the bakery after reading this or a few years from now, chances are it’ll look much the same as it did when it first opened. “As to the future,” Alexandra stresses, “we are very happy with the way that things are. We have no plans for expansion. We start out each day baking a new batch of our products and hopefully end the day with them all off in the homes of happy customers. There is a beauty in this simplicity, which we hope will continue for many years to come.”
265 Main Street, Gloucester
Deb Kaneb is a freelance writer and former lawyer who owned a local cookie company for 10 years. Her hero is Julia Child and she lives with her lively family of six north of Boston. She can be reached at email@example.com.
This story appeared in the Fall 2015 issue.