Off Wolfe Street, next to Restless Moons Brewing, there’s a small brown building with a few parking spaces out front. What could easily be passed off as another nondescript building houses a local business that specializes in made-from-scratch pastries and decorated wedding cakes. This is the Bittersweet Bakery — a thriving business from the Harrisonburg Farmers Market that’s expanded into its own physical location.
Before the bakery, co-owners Erica Ray and Alicia Barger met in North Carolina while working as pastry chefs at the Biltmore Estate — a mansion-turned-tourist attraction owned by the Vanderbilt family, who is historically famous for its contributions to the railroad industry. When Ray moved to Harrisonburg to be closer to family, Barger decided to follow her to kick-start a bakery together.
They first started in April 2016 making pastries in their apartment and bringing them to the Harrisonburg Farmers Market every Tuesday and Saturday. For about two and a half years, they worked solely through the market, until Thanksgiving of last year when the building on Wolfe Street went up for sale.
After building their entire kitchen from scratch, they opened for business in October of last year. While the business runs from the shop now, Bittersweet Bakery still continues at the market on Saturdays.
“It was great for us to be able to get out there and have people see who we are, see our name and taste our food,” Barger said. “It’s probably the best way for us to have started.”
Their products range from typical bakery goods like croissants, tarts, cookies and cakes, to more savory items like cheese biscuits, quiche and pretzel nuggets. According to Christensen, their galettes — a flat, round cake that can be topped with fruit or more savory combinations like potatoes and meat — are a favorite. Wedding cakes are also a specialty and something they’re well-known for in the area.
“There are things that are really familiar to people, and then they create things that are more exotic and unique with ingredients that people might not have heard before,” Sarah Christensen, a regular customer and owner of The Lady Jane Shop, said.
Despite finally having a physical location, the bakery is only open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. This is because both Ray and Barger have jobs outside of the bakery. Ray co-owns the Shenandoah Valley Performance Clinic and CrossFit Callisto with her husband while Barger is the pastry chef at the Joshua Wilton House and its sister restaurant, the Local Chop & Grill House.
One of the main struggles they have is finding a balance between their other jobs and the bakery. For the moment, their plan is to have the bakery open on the days and hours they’re available, and close when they go to work at their other jobs. They eventually hope to change the hours of operation to something more permanent in the future and have the bakery open full time.
At the moment, the bakery is still under renovation. While there’s only one table in the shop right now, their plan is to have a sit-down area for people to come in and enjoy the pastries at the bakery. Expanding the business and adding aesthetic details to the place is on the agenda, but there’s no concrete plan on when this will take place. For now, the most important focus of the bakery is making everything from scratch every day and creating tasteful pastries that people will enjoy.
“We really enjoy what we do,” Ray said. “We try really hard to produce a high-quality product and put forth excellent customer service.”
Both Ray and Barger have expressed customer service to be the most important aspect to their business. The ability to remember the names of all of their customers is something they both find pride in and plan to continue.
Ray and Barger meet most of their customers at the market, so it’s easy for them to create bonds with the Harrisonburg community. They get to know their customers as friends and personally connect with them. One of the reasons they plan to continue at the market isn’t only because of the sales that come from it, but also for the loyal customers they have there.
“If it was delicious, beautiful pastries and baked goods, people would come, but I feel like people go back every week because Erica and Alicia became friends,” Christensen said. “[They] are incredible people and passionate about their food and customers, and I think that’s what makes it such a special place.”
Contact Brittany Bell at email@example.com. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.