Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Secret Ingredient is Family

Molina Family Bakery

I first met Gary Molina, of Molina Family Bakery, at the Athens Farmer’s Market during the summer of 2011. A pile of garlic bulbs with their stems braided together caught my husband’s eye, and he eagerly pulled me in their direction. I listened as he explained to the man behind the table that he hadn’t seen braided garlic since he was a child, recalling how his Italian grandfather regularly made and hung similar strands in his garage. After introductions and a few more minutes of conversation, we discovered that the seller, Gary, was also Italian and that he and I had more in common than we first realized. Coincidentally, we were both born in Cleveland, and our ancestors raised their families only a few streets away from one another in an area just south of what is now known as Ohio City. We learned that my great grandfather and his grandfather had volunteered their time to help build St. Rocco’s Church (where both of our parents and numerous other family members were married) and reminisced about the annual Italian festival held on the main street that traversed the neighborhood. After only a few minutes of meeting Gary, I knew that our parallel upbringing meant two things were very important to him - food and family.

A few years having passed since we first had the opportunity to walk down memory lane, I recently visited Gary to learn more about his food-centered business, Molina Family Bakery. I tracked him down on a damp Saturday morning at the Athens Farmer’s Market and we picked up right where we had left off. Gary, sporting his signature red baseball cap, began by telling me how he and his wife moved to Athens 15 years ago when they were in search of more property. At the time, he had a small business that didn’t end up surviving the recession, and Gary knew he was going to have to get creative to make a living in the quaint college town. The community’s tremendous support for locally grown and produced foods had not gone unnoticed by Gary, and although he wasn't a farmer, he decided to start a new business based off family recipes, tobacco starter plants, some Italian veggies, and a craft item called a grass head (think Chia Pet). He quickly learned that the market would not permit him to sell the craft, so he transitioned to “Plan B”…solely baked goods. Gary offered his first loaf of bread in July of 2011, and by September his business had officially transitioned from the crops he was growing to the goods he was baking. Although he was not a baker by trade, Gary credits his experience to “being Italian” and aims to give his customers an experience, rather than just a loaf of bread. As I stood behind his booth listening to his story and observing the morning’s transactions, I couldn’t help but notice that many of his customers knew him by name and, in turn, he knew many of their standing orders as they approached. People stopped by his booth to chat, sometimes not even purchasing anything, and that’s acceptable with Gary because to him it is more important to build relationships and make his customers feel like a part of the family.

Typically, Gary bakes all of his perfectly imperfect selections the Friday before market, staying up into the wee hours of the morning to ensure he has an abundance of offerings for his loyal customers. At each market, he presents an assortment of European style breads and baked goods, from a traditional Italian to Jewish Challah. Gary connects with his customers through food, and he wants to offer something that reminds them of their own family. He explained that one year during Lent he decided to make English tea buns (aka hot cross buns). A customer from across the pond asked why he didn’t sell them all year long since that is the case in the UK. That’s all it took for Gary to start offering the sweet roll as a staple in his regular lineup (sans the iced crosses when it is not Lent). He is willing to entertain all types of special requests, all while rotating between 5-8 varieties of bread each market and on the day I was visiting, he had Siciliano (a 50% semolina blend), Campagnolo (an Italian-style made with olive oil and wheat bran), Italian Grissini bread sticks (regular and black pepper), a classic German 100% rye made with wild yeast, sweet date bars, and more. Depending on the week, and if you get to his booth early, you may be lucky enough to score a cinnamon roll or Bialy; a bread reminiscent of a traditional bagel but in place of the hole has an indentation that is filled with onion and poppy seed.

You can find Molina Family Bakery breads and sweets year round at Athens Farmer’s Market, and the wine store Bella Vino, off Stimson Avenue in Athens. When I asked Gary if he has any plans on opening a brick and mortar space of his own, he replied that he has his eyes open. He would love to have a retail shop where customers sip on espresso, enjoy a freshly baked biscotti, and, of course, are treated like family.


The Molina Family Bakery bread (pictured left) traveled 75 miles to Columbus, while the La Brea Bakery bread found at various local grocery stores (pictured right) traveled over 2,451 miles.


Athens Farmers Market

Vanilla Porter French Toast

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