A Walk Along Salida with Little Red Hen Bakery

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To get inside a baker’s head, sometimes it takes a walk away from the hustle of owning and operating a bakery. Steve Miller, owner of Little Red Hen Bakery, is a tough guy to catch. Running an artisan bakery 7 days a week, while raising 4 kids, leaves little time to spare. Still, he was kind enough to carve some time out to walk with me through historic downtown Salida and tell about his livelihood.

A Walk into the Story of Little Red Hen Bakery

After the symbolic gesture of taking off his baking apron, Steve left the bakery with me. Located on the corner of Third and G Streets in Salida, we walked down toward the river and past such novelties as a coffee shop and a skate park. While we walked, drinking in the fresh mountain air, Steve told me the story of Little Red Hen. The bakery originally started as Salida Bread Company 8 years ago, operated out of the back of a former local foods market called Ploughboy. Steve and his wife, La Sal, purchased Salida Bread Company four years ago and continued operating out of Ploughboy.

Meandering onto a boat ramp and down to the Arkansas River past families and kayakers playing in the river park, we paused to watch for a moment. The water rippled below us as Steve told me that 2 years after purchasing Salida Bread Company, they changed the name from Salida Bread Company to Little Red Hen Bakery. Last fall, they purchased and remodeled an old auto body shop, installed a wood-fired brick oven, and turned it into the current home of their business.

It was evident, as our stroll continued alongside the riverside and under the F Street Bridge, that Steve views Salida as the ideal location for his family. Steve owned and operated a bakery once before in Colorado Springs years earlier. He sold that business 13 years ago and moved to Salida. He and his wife were seeking a smaller, quieter town in which to raise their children. Between moving to Salida and purchasing Salida Bread Company, Steve was a brewer at Amica’s Pizza. He also owned and operated the Tomichi Lodge—a mountain retreat opposite the Continental Divide from Chaffee County—which he has since sold, keeping 5 acres and 1 cabin.

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Our conversational walk led straight into Riverside Park and an outdoor church gathering, so we walked through the park and around the amphitheater. “We have 4 main business principles that we follow,” Steve said, music in the background. “Delicious, organic, generous, and community.”

Delicious obviously refers to the quality of the product. Ninety percent of Little Red Hen’s ingredients are organic in order to offer as healthy a product as possible. Little Red Hen Bakery’s bread is made from high gluten organic white flour. High gluten is preferred because it’s higher in protein—although Little Red Hen does offer select gluten-free items as well.

The sound of the water became the only background noise we heard as we made our way riverside again, reminding me of what I was really hoping to ask Steve about: where his ingredients are sourced. “The wheat comes from Bay State Milling,” he said. “From an East Coast company who recently bought Rocky Mountain Milling.” The wheat can even sometimes comes from Colorado, Wyoming, or Montana.

All of Little Red Hen’s breads are made from scratch, and the dough is processed and prepared by hand. Steve explained that within a few days of cracking the wheat berry, the grain is activated with water and yeast. Shortly after that, it’s baked in their traditional-style, wood-fired brick oven. Sourdoughs take a little longer to prepare, requiring an 18–20 hour retardation time. Steve envisions one day having a mill to process their grains. For now, that’s beyond their scope.

The river trail led us up away from the river to the parking lot of the city’s administrative buildings. Almost back to reality. We returned to the topic we had veered from: Little Red Hen’s 4 business principles: “Delicious, organic, generous, and community.” The Millers offer every customer a slice of free bread when they visit the store. They strive to make their business for the community, not distributing outside of town except for a few rare exceptions. As much as possible, Little Red Hen sources non-wheat ingredients locally. Their cheese comes from Jumpin’ Goat Dairy in Buena Vista, and their produce comes from Central Colorado Foodshed Alliance (CCFA) producers. They also sell their bread at CCFA’s Salida Farmers Market on Saturday mornings in Alpine Park.

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A Walk through Little Red Hen Bakery

After our invigorating walk, we were both eager to get back to the bakery—Steve so he could check the status of an incoming shipment of grain, and I, because I wanted to see the actual bakery. As Steve donned his apron once more, signifying his sworn duties as a baker, he introduced me to another employed baker at Little Red Hen, Mark Minor, to hear more about the breads the bakery offers and the baking process.

Mark told me he makes 5 different types of bread: ciabatta, sour dough rye, miche, baguette, and batard. Ciabatta is by far the most popular, but the sour dough rye has “the biggest following,” Mark joked. Mark explained that the sour dough rye is traditional to Eastern Europe and rare to find in Southern Colorado, so when people discover it here they keep coming back for it. The miche is sour dough whole wheat that Mark described as a “peasant loaf,” weighing 4 pounds.

Mark explained the baking process while he prepared ciabatta dough: “It’s a black oven so the baking chamber is directly fired.” This is opposed to a more modern white oven, which is fired indirectly. “It’s probably the most primitive style,” Mark said, pausing from cutting and weighing dough to look up for another joke. “It’s probably as old as, I don’t know, baking.”

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On baking days, which are 2 or 3 times a week, the fire is lit at 3:30 am and baking begins at noon. Mark led me outside and removed bricks from the oven’s opening, revealing a few remaining coals. “We sweep all of the ash underneath.” Mark showed me the gap in the cement just before the oven door. “Then we clean the hearth and place the dough.” The oven will hold the heat for over a day, allowing for 6 bakes or more. Mark pointed to the oven walls, explaining they are a foot thick, adding to six tons of mass—which is why the oven could still be over 300 degrees over 24 hours after firing.

Mark put a couple of bricks back in the oven door to control the rate of cooling, and we went back inside the bakery. Wearing his apron proudly, Steve was slicing bread, directing his staff, and greeting a customer. The grain shipment had not yet arrived, so we had just enough time for a few more questions. Steve talked more personally about the ups and downs of entrepreneurship. The Millers have not had a vacation since the started Little Red Hen, and Steve rarely even takes a day off. The positive is earning a living feeding people and employing people. Little Red Hen has 12 employees, with 4–6 working at a time.

As the shipment arrived, Steve rushed back to work. The walk through the life of a baker and his bakery was now complete, and I was left standing with deep admiration for someone who knows how challenging it can be to keep people fed, but who works tirelessly to do so anyway.

Originally published in Colorado Collective Volume 3, September 17.

EatTyler Grimes