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Rural Missouri Magazine
Let us bake bread together
Friendship and faith are the recipe when two families form a baking business

by Bob McEowen

Baking bread involves a few simple ingredients: seeds ground into flour, yeast, water and perhaps a little honey or salt for flavor. For two northwest Missouri families, the recipe for a successful business is similar.

Bethany Crowther weighs dough before forming loaves while her sister, Amanda, rolls out pizza crusts at the Bread of Life Bakery, a family-owned whole natural foods bakery in Stewartsville. The walls of the bakery are decorated with murals of agricultural scenes that incorporate Bible scriptures and quotations from the Book of Mormon.

Bread of Life Bakery in Stewartsville began with a seed of an idea — an inspiration from God, according to its proprietors, Doug and Amy Middleton and Kathy and Glenn Crowther. To that, the two couples added faith to see the idea grow. Along the way, experience and good times shared with friends have produced a savory result.

The bakery, which first opened in a converted barn and is now located in an old storefront 20 miles east of St. Joseph, has tapped into a market hungry for natural products. Bread of Life Bakery makes breads, cookies and rolls from organically grown and freshly ground whole grains. Barely four years old, the business delivers baked goods to more than 40 health food stores.

The idea to open a bakery came to Glenn on a bus ride home from a religious retreat. After several days fasting and praying, Glenn was unwinding while a traveling companion slept several rows ahead.

A variety of sandwich breads, specialty breads, cookies and rolls are sold under the Bread of Life label at health food stores in the Kansas City and St. Joseph area.

“In the middle of the night, I heard this voice that said, ‘You need to have a bakery,’” recalls Glenn, a former Air Force nuclear weapons officer who earned his living managing a medical clinic. “I thought it was my good friend. Then I realized he was asleep. I thought, ‘What’s going on?’”

Like the Biblical child Samuel who repeatedly heard a call in the night, Glenn’s confusion continued when he heard the voice again. He checked the bus bathroom behind him to see if someone there was playing a trick, but the stall was empty.

When Glenn got home, he told the story to his wife who assumed her husband was delirious from fasting. Even so, he called the Middletons, friends from a Bible study group, and told them the two families were destined to open a bakery.

“We thought: terrible idea,” says Amy. “We were stay-home moms and baked, but neither of us were good at bread. Kathy made so-so bread and I made terrible bread.”

As the two families that operate Bread of Life Bakery prepare for a shift change, Kathy Crowther briefs Amy Middleton on the day’s business while Amy covers the hair of her daughter, Anna Grace. The two families met through a Bible study group and decided to open the business together.

The idea remained on the back burner for almost a year until Glenn and Kathy attended an auction at a bakery in Plattsburg. There, they confronted their future in the form of a room-sized baker’s oven.

Glenn recalls his conversation with Kathy when they realized no one was bidding on the oven. “She said, ‘What if God wants us to have it?’ I said, kind of flippantly, ‘Hopefully, he’ll deliver it.’”

The Crowthers bid $125 and won the oven. It took four days to disassemble the giant oven and move it to the Middleton’s farm near Amity.

The two couples had grown close through their participation in the Restoration Church, an offshoot of the Community of Christ denomination. The families shared an appreciation of natural foods, an adherence to a simple lifestyle and the common experience of educating their children at home.

The Middletons and Crowthers, both members of United Electric Cooperative, desired to own a business that would allow them to spend time with their children. It seemed only natural to join together to pursue these goals.

Kathy Crowther places loaves of the bakery’s multi-grain bread in a large commercial oven. The bakery produces about 1,000 loaves of bread each week.

“I think we were supposed to work together as families,” says Doug. “Society has gotten so splintered. People don’t come together any more.”

Doug and Glenn converted the Middleton’s old barn to a bakery while Kathy and Amy worked on bread recipes and tried to find customers for baked goods they hadn’t even made yet. A friend had tried unsuccessfully to secure a spot to sell baked goods at the City Market in Kansas City, but Amy made a pitch anyway.

“I called and said, ‘This is what we make,’” recalls Amy. “Well, we didn’t even make it yet. We were just going to make it. He said, ‘Great, we don’t have anything like you,’ and he gave us the very middle stall at the center at City Market.”

Making the bakery operational took longer than expected and two days before their first sale at City Market the bakery still didn’t have any bread.

“Kathy and I made lots of breads in an attempt to get ready. We’d do them in our home kitchens — and nothing,” Amy says, reliving frustration of their failed attempts. “It’s too flat. It’s not salty enough. It doesn’t taste right.

“We pulled out another bread book and opened a brand new recipe. ‘Let’s try this one.’ That’s our whole wheat bread.”

Amy Middleton removes warm rolls from a baking sheet. The bakery produces about 600 cinnamon rolls and honey-glazed pecan rolls each week.

In addition to the whole-wheat loaf, the bakers produce a variety of fresh breads, all made from organic grains, ground within a few hours of baking. Their multi-grain bread features seven types of grain and seeds. “Totally Nuts” is packed with walnuts. Flax bread is rich in omega 3 fatty acids. Another bread is made from spelt, a grain some wheat allergy sufferers find easier to digest. Amy and Kathy hope to soon market a completely gluten-free bread for wheat-intolerant customers.

The bakery also offers a number of flavored specialty breads, including asiago cheese and spinach, black olive, cranberry walnut and jalapeño loafs. Ezekiel bread, loosely based on instructions given to an Old Testament prophet, includes beans and lentils.

Biblical references abound at Bread of Life Bakery. From the scripture verses included in wall murals to the name of the business itself, the owners’ faith is ever present.

“The Lord says that he is the bread of life. He meant that he is the nourishment for our souls,” explains Amy. “We reflect that by making the most nourishing bread for your body that we can.”

Unlike most bakeries, Bread of Life grinds whole grains to make the flour it uses in its baked goods.

A bakery cannot thrive by bread alone, though. Bread of Life also makes cookies, pizza crusts and devilishly tasty cinnamon and pecan rolls, all made with natural ingredients.

But what most separates Bread of Life’s breads and rolls from other baked goods is that the grains are ground fresh. Much of wheat’s nutrition is in the germ, but few bakers use the whole grain because flour with the germ intact won’t keep. Also, the nutritional value of ground flour is lost rapidly through oxidation.

“Because we grind the grain fresh, it’s the absolutely freshest bread that you can get. It’s fresher than what you make at home in your bread machine,” Amy says. “It’s soft. It has a wonderful, nutty wheat flavor. It makes a wonderful sandwich. And our customers love it.”

Indeed, demand for Bread of Life Bakery’s offerings has grown rapidly. The products are sold mostly at health food stores in the St. Joseph and Kansas City area, though some is shipped to retailers in Springfield, Wichita, Columbia and elsewhere. They even ship rolls to a coffee shop in New York.

Because of their rapid success, the Crowthers and Middletons quickly outgrew their barn facility. In 2005 they bought a former hardware store in Stewartsville and converted it to a bakery. The original barn bakery will soon go back into service to produce gluten-free bread.

The children pitch in at the bakery, lending a hand with everything from forming loaves to slicing and bagging baked bread.

Meanwhile, the two families bake about 1,000 loaves of bread and 600 rolls each week in Stewartsville. The storefront bakery is a bustle of activity. Amy and Kathy, assisted by Crowther daughters Amanda and Bethany, prepare dough, form loaves by hand and bake. Noah Middleton and Luke Crowther help their fathers slice and package bread or prepare for deliveries. The younger children — Josiah and Gabriel Crowther and Elijah and Anna Grace Middleton — help with simple chores like labeling when not working on their home school lessons.

Twice a week, fresh bread is delivered to merchants as far away as Independence, where health-conscious consumers pay as much as $5 a loaf for whole grain breads. One such outlet is A-Z Fresh Air Fair, a natural foods store in St. Joseph.

“We feel it’s the healthiest baked bread out there,” says Jim Fly, the store’s owner. “The other thing is that it’s a local product. As a small independent local health food market, we want to support similar businesses.”

The appeal of a locally owned business is not lost on the bakery’s owners. Kathy says they enjoy meeting customers and, in turn, buyers gain confidence in the product by meeting the makers.

Gabriel Crowther, 5, watches as his mother stacks cookies for packaging.

“Our bakery has a face,” she says. “Does Wonder Bread have a face? I don’t know Wonder Bread’s face,” Kathy says. “Why wouldn’t you want a relationship with someone you’re trusting with the health of your family?”

Besides getting to know their customers, launching Bread of Life Bakery has allowed these two families to grow closer together.

“It’s so wonderful to work with your sweetest, best friends doing something that you love, that is good for other people,” Amy says.

Kathy, her partner in the kitchen, agrees. “Every step of the way it’s been a blessing. It just seems like we’ve been guided to do this.”

For more information, write to Bread of Life Bakery, 206 Main St., Stewartsville, MO 64490, call (816) 669-1344 or log onto www.BreadOfLifeBakery.net.

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