By Johnny Griffith
Bread is life. Don’t take my word for it, the smallest amount of research will reveal bread has been a staple of civilizations for thousands of years and entire economies have been built around the process which brings it from the fields to the market.
The art of baking bread was something that was celebrated in homes for millennia–not just a means to sustain life, but as an opportunity to grow closer together and commune with one another during the process.
Over the years that process has changed drastically with modernization and mechanization, circumventing much of the old processes which made bread more nutritional and accessible for all.
Luckily for Tyler and the surrounding area, Blaine and Karin Davis along with Tim & Lindsay and John Patrick and Tommy Long (Karin’s brothers) had a dream to rekindle this process and the community it engendered in order to bring the art of baking bread to this area. In the process they have created something special.
From humble beginnings in a backyard oven built in 2013 by the Davis-Long clan, they have managed to foster a sort of magic that manifests itself over and over again in each loaf of bread they bake.
With hours of work, art, skill, and a little luck going into each loaf produced, there is a true artisan culture being fostered in every loaf of Sola Bread. This meticulous craft has translated well into the community, to the point where last March Sola Bread Company opened their very first brick and mortar location alongside the new True Vine location in a partnership that seems as if it was made in Heaven.
I recently sat down with Blaine to get more of the story of Sola Bread Company and what’s been going on in the bakery:
Johnny: Describe the moment when the light bulb came on with the idea to build a brick oven in your backyard which was essentially the genesis of Sola Bread Company?
Blaine: Tim, Lindsay, Karin, and I were over at Tim and Lindsay’s house for dinner one night dreaming about how neat it would be to share the bread and food we loved with more people. Family is at the center of our lives and food is the vehicle by which we enjoy each other. I had been baking sourdough loaves in my dutch oven, one at a time, and I physically didn’t have enough hours to bake the number of loaves that friends and family wanted during the holidays and for events. I remember one Christmas Eve where I never went to bed so that I could finish baking the 12 loaves of bread that were needed for the following day. Something had to give.
So that evening we decided that we needed more good bread in the world. We thought, perhaps, that we could build the oven ourselves and cover the costs of building the oven by selling bread at the farmer’s market. It would be a great way to meet more people in the city we call home. My best friend in college had given me a book years before called The Bread Builders, which got me started on my bread journey. Half of the book is about the chemistry and biology of bread and the other half is about wood-fired bread ovens. The book is a tribute to the idea that every aspect of great bread is an architectural feat of careful building. There were basic instructions on how to build a bread oven, and so with lots of online research and phone calls to other bakers in the wood-fired industry, we began to build! Over the course of a year, Tim and I built the oven with the help of many friends. Since then, that oven has baked over 10,000 loaves of bread. The rest is history.
Johnny: Was there ever that Noah’s Ark type moment where perhaps some people might have thought the idea was a bit crazy?
Blaine: If anything, we still think we’re crazy, but I also know that if we hadn’t followed this path we would have missed out on so many friendships, relationships, and opportunities to fall in love with the city of Tyler. Business is risk, but so is relationship. If you risk nothing, you gain nothing. Personally, Wendell Berry has had a big influence on how I think about people, place, and economy. Berry preaches the virtues of commitment to place and love of people. Everything we make takes time, skill, and craft. But that also means that there is only so much we can accomplish, which is not a hindrance so much as freedom. If there is one thing that bread can teach you, its that good things take time and are worth waiting for. I think that analogy plays out well with how we think about our place in this city: This place and its people are worth the time, attention, and craft that are required of deep and meaningful relationships.
Johnny: What were those early days like in the backyard, firing up the oven early in the morning or late at night when you were spending your time honing the recipes and art of bread making?
Blaine: Bleary eyed, exhilarating, exhausting, maddening. For the past 4 years of my life, I have woken up at 2am every Sat. morning to bake the bread that y’all so graciously buy from us each week. I’ve learned to make friends with the stars. Orion keeps me company each night, and I love watching him march across the sky and into the dawn. I’ve seen countless sunrises, exulted in the crispness of fall mornings, cursed the rain at 3am, and dreaded the mugginess of Texas summers. But it’s also established a rhythm and rootedness to my life as I’ve learned to dance with my oven. Each bake is different. Heat saturation levels of my oven are never quite the same, my bread is never quite proofed the same, so the variables keep me on my toes. Every time I pull the door off the oven I’m wondering to myself “Is this going to be the perfect bake?!” But to be honest, the baking is only the tip of the iceberg. Karin, Linds, and the rest of the crew have mixed, shaped, and proofed thousands of loaves. Naturally leavened bread is a 30 hour process, and it takes a village to raise a loaf.
Johnny: Speaking of the art, Sola Bread Co uses an older technique that mitigates a lot of the issues some people have with consuming bread, specifically the gluten. What initially drew you to this style of baking and how much do you think it has contributed to your success?
Blaine: For starters, I want to clarify that we suffer from a poverty of language when the only word we know for the style of bread I make is “sourdough”. I make naturally leavened bread which is VERY different from San Francisco Sourdough. SFS, is well, sour…like vinegar. Our bread is lactic, tangy, and buttery. The interesting thing is that both are made from the exact same ingredients and process but are executed in a vastly different way. Personally, I love the simplicity and complexity of great bread. There is so much you can do to influence flavor with nothing more than flour, water, levain, salt, temperature and time.
What drew me to making bread was growing up in a great bread culture. I grew up in Sao Paulo, Brazil where every neighborhood had its own bakery, butcher shop, market, and pizzeria. When I moved to ETX, none of the things I loved to eat could be had, so I set out to learn how to make them all. I definitely think that the natural-levain process is essential to what we do at Sola. We live in a culture that thinks that bread is the devil—and maybe commercialized bread is an enemy. However, bread is the most ancient food we have and has been the staple for humanity in the West for thousands of years. Mesopotamians called it the “staff of life”. Western civilization built itself around a grain economy. So I think most of our issues, which only emerged about a hundred years ago, are directly related to process. Grain needs to be fermented to be properly digested by humans, and that is precisely what we do with our bread. When you eat Sola bread, it’s not vacuous calories you are ingesting, our bread is nutritious and good for you. How much has our style contributed to our success? I’m not sure, but I can confidently say that we have a niche market, and that people love the product. We are so grateful for the many folks that support our cause each week.
Johnny: So when you first fired up the oven back in 2013, were you able to envision a moment where this desire to make memories and grow community would lead to a brick-and-mortar location?
Blaine: Not at all! It’s bigger, better, and more amazing than anything we ever could have dreamed or chosen for ourselves. When we got started, we mostly thought that a brick and mortar would be part of our ten-year plan, vaguely out in the distance like a mirage. Our primary goal when we opened was to make the best bread possible and to establish a positive bread culture in Tyler. Then we expanded to our famous pizza nights in our backyard which allowed us to hone our craft with pizza, experiment with dough and topping combos and invite our newly acquired bread fans into our home to eat great food. Frankly, the response and growth of our pizza nights is what pushed our vision forward. We thought that, if anything, the next step in our journey would be a mobile pizza oven to do events, catering, and parties. The food truck laws in Tyler and lack of kitchen space in the city, however, made that move pretty difficult. Then through an act of sheer providence we acquired the oven that is in our restaurant today. It sat in our father’s garage for a year and a half before we knew what to do with it. The opportunity with True Vine manifested itself and we knew we had to take it!
Johnny: When did the partnership with True Vine begin and how did that lead to Sola Bread building at that location?
Blaine: About 2.5 years ago we approached Ryan and Tracy Dixon—who have been dear friends and supporters of team Sola from day 1—about setting up a pizza shack with the wood-fired pizza oven we had acquired over on their old Englewood property. They loved the idea but told us to hold on because they had some other plans in the works. As they acquired the Earl Campbell property and shared their vision with us, we all realized that this was the opportunity we had been waiting for. We were super blessed to partner with them and with Jim Lowden of Nedwol properties and the other investors of TrueVine to bring this concept to market. We share similar values about life, people, and community, and frankly are super honored that our pizza gets to be paired with their beer. I’m looking forward to growing together!
Johnny: Was there ever a time in those early years when you thought it would have been easier to do something else?
Blaine: I’m sure we’ve all had that thought at multiple times and will continue to do so over the months and years ahead. But “easy” isn’t the point of life. I believe in the “goodness” of our product and our work, and I think living a good life is much more important than striving for a comfortable one. Our mission isn’t just about food, its about people. It’s about getting folks to gather around great brew and wood-fired pizza, put down their phones, and connect in a real way with those around them. Relationships are hard work but they are the most valuable thing that we have. It’s a privilege to work hard for things that matter.
Johnny: What are you most proud of to this point in the business?
Blaine: I’m most proud of our family, the wealth of talent that each member of our family team brings to the table. I’m proud of the team of people that have joined our family and have committed to our vision and bought into the idea that by building great bread and pizza we are building community in Tyler. Oh, and I’m super proud of the tile work that Lindsay and Karin did on the hex tile and mosaic that surrounds our oven. It’s a work of art! Soli Deo Gloria!
Johnny: What is next on the radar for Sola Bread Co?
Blaine: We are just getting started! We’ve launched our restaurant with Pizza taking the forefront of what we do, but this next year it’s our vision to expand our bread, pastry and bakery operation. We are short on oven space, but a larger bread oven is a very costly investment. I’m excited, though, to grow our equipment in order to expand our bakery. We want to get more great bread and French Pastry into the Tyler community. Also, we haven’t given up on the mobile concept. Part of our expansion goals include a mobile brick oven so that we can bring the best woodfired pizza in Tyler to a variety of locations and events. We look forward to the day when we can bring our pizza nights to back yards across the city!
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