Published February 3, 2009 at 6:14 p.m.
Richmond may be a Burlington suburb just 4100 residents strong, but its food scene is uncommonly rich. Folks hop off Interstate 89 to pack the town’s three acclaimed restaurants — Toscano Café Bistro, Sonoma Station and The Kitchen Table Bistro — where upscale comfort foods reign supreme. For a more casual crowd, Richmond’s hip-yet-crunchy bakery and café, On the Rise, offers the sort of funky ambience you might expect to find in a town 10 times the size.
Not that On the Rise doesn’t look pastoral from the outside. In the summer, tomatoes, herbs and sunflowers bask in the terraced garden in front of the building, which is just a scone’s throw from a park and the Winooski River. In winter, snow blankets the outdoor sculptures. But the front door — a wood, glass and metal concoction that is itself a sculpture — promises quirkiness within.
Inside, a visitor at peak hours will find the sunny main room packed with laptop users digging the free Wi-Fi. Children zoom among the tables while their parents sip coffee. On the wall, a 6-foot-high calendar lists musical acts, open-mike nights, poetry readings, and classes in pottery making and fiber arts. They all happen here, reminding visitors that On the Rise isn’t just a bagel joint. Open every day with live performance several nights a week, it’s a full-blown community center.
But before it moved into its current space — designed and built by the owners with help from friends and family — On the Rise was more of a typical bakery. From 2004 to 2007 it operated out of a “hole in the wall” in downtown Richmond, where it aimed to help fill the space left when Richmond’s well-loved Daily Bread Bakery & Café, operated by Betsy Bott from 1979 to 2000, closed its doors.
Though On the Rise isn’t the reincarnation of The Daily Bread, it may feel like a spiritual successor of sorts — with reason. Ben Bush, 36, who co-owns On the Rise with his wife, Raechel Barone, 34, grew up in Richmond and began working at The Daily Bread as a youngster. “It was my first job, in eighth grade,” he recalls. His mother Judy Bush, a baker and sculptor who now cooks and teaches at On the Rise, worked there, too.
Bush and Barone met at artsy Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts, where she studied art, dance and education and he focused on theater design. During school vacations, Barone came back to Richmond with Bush, and both earned part of their daily bread at The Daily Bread.
After graduation, the pair did a stint in the Big Apple, during which Bush taught at Barnard and worked on Broadway and off-Broadway shows, while Barone taught preschool. But eventually they “panicked and decided we needed to leave the city,” she says.
Back in Richmond, Bush put his stage-design experience to work building real houses, while Barone continued to teach. “But we didn’t have a strong enough attachment to what we were doing,” she recalls. So they decided it was time to make The Daily Bread rise again . . . sort of. Starting small, the couple planned bigger. “Even when we were in the storefront, we knew it wasn’t the full vision,” Bush says. “We wanted to have more of a community space, but it was a good way to start — develop a relationship with regulars and get a foot in the door.”
At first, Barone recalls, the duo made a bunch of recipes from The Daily Bread, such as Amazon Cakes, Orange Tea Cakes and Honey Oat Bread. But, as they garnered success in their own right, they began to branch out. Fresh bagels in unusual flavors such as “salt & fennel” were one innovation, and the rounds became the basis of their most popular breakfast item: bagel, egg and cheese sandwiches. The new building, where On the Rise moved in 2007, boasts a wood-fired oven, and creative pizza has become a big part of the bakery’s brand.
Not that it’s all about raking in the dollars. “We do what we love,” says Bush. A close look at the menu shows the couple’s convictions reflected in the fare. There are plenty of gluten-free and vegan baked goods, but not a bit of pork, beef or poultry to be found.
Because the pair doesn’t tout the place as a meat-free restaurant, says Barone, it can take some time for customers to figure it out. “We do get the occasional question, like ‘Can I put ham on that?’” she says. “And I sort of like saying, ‘We’re all vegetarian.’”
Those craving a savory addition to their breakfast sandwiches or pizzas can sample strips of tempeh “bacon” and house-made crumbles of flavorful seitan “sausage.” But many On the Rise dishes are hearty enough that carnivores won’t miss the meat. Take the “deluxe” salad, topped with broccoli, sprouts, raisins, sunflower seeds and cheese; or a spinach and feta concoction wrapped in flaky golden dough. Even the English muffins and flour tortillas — used in the breakfast burrito and various wraps — are homemade. Java comes from Awake Coffee of South Starksboro, and there are local brews on tap.
Because the bakers make so much from scratch, the menu fluctuates; customers can’t come in any day of the week and expect to find corn molasses bread or challah. But, just as each treat typically appears on the same day of the week, so eaters find themselves falling into rituals, too. “A lot of our regulars have a favorite item on a favorite day,” Barone remarks. “On Thursday, a group of people always come in for spinach feta pie. On Sunday morning, the Morning Glory Muffin is a popular thing.”
To keep a close eye on their operation, Bush and Barone live above the restaurant with their two children, a 7-year-old son and 15-month-old daughter. While both do a little of everything, they share the labor with 16 regular employees, some of whom have been with them since the beginning. Barone, the “day person,” handles a bunch of baking as well as some shifts at the counter. Bush — who enjoys jumping in and cooking weekend brunch — picks up an occasional overnight baking shift and takes care of the evening entertainment.
Also a musician — he played out before the demands of the bakery became too great — Bush particularly enjoys booking the café’s eclectic music, drawing from the resources of the “great music scene in Greater Burlington.” The fare ranges from bluegrass to jazz to folk, and reggae DJs stop by once a month. “As a venue on the outskirts, we sort of have to balance [various musical styles] to keep appealing to people’s different interests,” says Bush. The mix draws patrons from Burlington and Montpelier.
A steady following is a wonderful thing — Bush was surprised at how many people turned up for live music during last Wednesday’s snowstorm. But that doesn’t mean running the bakery is without financial challenges. The beautiful building was made possible by a bank loan that, Bush says, “we’ll be paying . . . off for quite some time.” To make ends meet, he still does some housing design in the winter.
Then there are unpredictable factors. Last year, flooding forced the temporary closure of Richmond’s bridge, turning a main drag into a cul de sac; construction will do the same this coming spring and summer. But “You can find a silver lining to being on a dead-end street,” says Bush. For one thing, circumstances have pushed the couple to find new markets. “We sell bagels, granola and biscotti at Mountain Greens Market in Bristol. We sell our pizzas at the Vermont Green Grocer in Richmond and Beaudry’s in Huntington,” Barone says. “We want to do more of that.”
They want to try new workshops and programs, too. On the Rise’s family-friendly activities have ranged from a holiday gingerbread-house-building workshop to theater performances and puppet shows. Next on the agenda: helping customers green up. “We have someone who’s going to come in and do a workshop on solar,” says Bush. “We’re going to design as a group a fountain that goes in the garden and works in the sunshine.”
To keep their fans up to date on the packed schedule, Barone and Bush have begun sending out a weekly e-newsletter. “I think one thing we’re trying to convey is how different the atmosphere can be,” Barone says. With acoustic offerings earlier in the week and bigger bands on weekend nights, the ambience can turn on a dime, and the coffee-and-laptop crowd may not be aware of just how cool the café can be. “Last Saturday,” Barone adds, “the tables were moved out and everybody was dancing.”
Sounds like On the Rise is raising the roof. Says Bush: “One of our greatest sources of joy and amusement is when someone who usually comes during the day comes in at night and says, ‘Is this my bakery?’”
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