Growing up in Acton in the 1980s and 1990s, West Concord was our closest town center. Back then, there was a five-and-dime and a train stop. The food scene — well, there really wasn’t one. I cannot overstate the excitement of Starbucks opening in Concord Center sometime in the mid-1990s.
When I returned to Boston a few years ago, I was amazed at the neighborhood’s transformation, especially culinarily. There’s Adelita and Woods Hill Table, for organic and sustainable cuisine from local restaurateur Kristin Canty; Saltbox Kitchen, run by former No. 9 Park chef Ben Elliott; and Reasons to be Cheerful, an ice cream parlor that belongs in a Norman Rockwell painting.
Leading the charge was Nashoba Brook Bakery. It opened in a kayak warehouse off of Commonwealth Avenue in 1998, the brainchild of John Gates and Stu Witt. The pals met at St. Paul’s School in Concord, N.H., and stayed close even as their paths diverged. Gates went on to Washington, D.C., and law school; Witt became a bread baker at Klinger’s in South Burlington, Vt., specializing in sourdough.
“I’ve always been in love with good food, and I couldn’t get enough of his bread,” Gates says.
The pair went hiking at Tierra del Fuego National Park in Argentina and hatched a plan to open a business together. Gates keeps a photo of the hike in his small office — “if photographs could smell, this one would,” he says, laughing — marking the exact moment the bread bakery was born.
They settled on West Concord precisely because it wasn’t like other New England town centers.
“We liked the spirit of West Concord. Everything is beautiful little town squares, and West Concord felt like Main Street USA, with lots of little entrepreneurial startups. It has character.”
It’s true: West Concord still manages to look like a British village conceived by Agatha Christie. Somewhere, a deceitful shopkeeper knows too many secrets!
And now, over 20 years later, the café and wholesale business is still in the same converted warehouse, next to a narrow footbridge that spans Nashoba Brook. There are a few bins with kids’ books and couches in a corner overlooking the water. A bulletin board advertises help with college essays and news of an upcoming accordion concert. Heart-shaped homemade cookies in a case are decorated for Valentine’s Day; those saying “Bye, Felicia” and “Bye Boy” get prime real estate. My 9-year-old ambles up to the counter and begins snapping photos; a teenager poses for him and waves. No assembly-line, antiseptic coffeehouse vibes here. On a recent Sunday morning, a line stretches to the door — a couple of older fellows catching up on politics; families with little kids; women in workout gear. Nobody seems in any hurry to leave.
“We want this to be what a brewpub is to beer,” Gates says.
The webby, crusty breads are made fresh daily in a 24-hour process anchored by a 32,000-pound French oven; the work area is visible from the café. Sourdough is the signature, but olive is the most delicious, in my humble opinion — a lacey, glossy, stretchy slice dotted with tangy, wrinkled Kalamata nubs.
Everything else is made in-house, too, and that includes a lengthy roster of $9.50 sandwiches: hummus, tuna salad, smoked salmon (a healthy, rosy pink portion), roast beef and horseradish mayo. Another nice bonus: Breakfast ($9) is served daily until noon (or 1 p.m. on weekends), and items like scrambled eggs with a grilled prosciutto scone come with some of the finest home fries I’ve had outside a Somerville diner: compact, crispy, and just salty enough to feel indulgent. Coffee is from Intelligentsia.
My son grabs a house-made cookie dough cupcake ($3.50) for the road; topped with brown sugar buttercream and a miniature chocolate chip cookie, it’s gone before we merge onto Route 2.
I wish Nashoba Bakery had been around when I was his age. Judging by the line of grown-ups crowding the entrance as we leave, I’m not alone.
152 Commonwealth Ave., West Concord, 978-318-1999, www.slowrise.com