Brian Noyes left his career as a Washington Post art director to pursue dreams of founding a bakery. His success is driving a rural Virginia renaissance.
Story by Jimmy Proffitt / Photos by Angie Mosier
YOU KNOW THE old riddle; What’s black and white, and red all over? Well, Brian Noyes will happily tell you it’s a newspaper. And it’s one that’s best read while sipping a cup of Bulldog Edition coffee and devouring a slice of Caramel Cake with Pecans from his Red Truck Bakery. I can’t say I disagree. After all, Brian knows a thing or two about newspapers and perhaps a few more things about cake.
Brian’s love of newsprint comes from his dad, whose newspaper office he would stop at on his way home from school as a kid in California. His family went back five generations in Pacific Grove, where they could pick Meyer lemons right off the tree, a staple he insists on in his larder today. Brian stayed with newspapers and publishing for quite a few years, but it was one of his first tasks as a 19-year-old art director which taught him that with food, there are no rules. He recounts the story of that lesson in the introduction of his first book, Red Truck Bakery Cookbook, when John Wayne, yes that John Wayne, made him a tuna sandwich.
The pure confidence that Mr. Wayne displayed while combining the tuna, salt, mayo, sweet pickles, celery, and then “smashed a fistful of potato chips” on top as he boasted “This is why you’ll like this.” is what stuck with him. Why would John Wayne make a teenager a sandwich? Well, he was supposed to meet up with the Wayne’s housekeeper to return some photos the newspaper had borrowed, but John was the one who ended up answering the door. Forty-five years later, Brian still makes his tuna sandwiches that same way.
There were other lessons to be learned in the kitchen, and those came from his Uncle Stan who lived in Florida and his paternal grandmother who lived in North Carolina. And then there’s Dwight, Brian’s husband of several years now, who really taught him what Southern food was.
Brian’s Uncle Stan sparked his love for baking. Visits to Stan’s Clearwater home meant working next to him in the kitchen. Those times spent together were bridged by shipments of baked goods across the country. Uncle Stan would send some bread and Brian would return a batch of cookies – along with a recipe which his uncle would red-line and send back, awaiting samples of improvements made with his suggestions. A year-long project between them resulted in a bread recipe that has a prominent spot in that first cookbook, which Brian also dedicated in part to Uncle Stan.
YET HIS FIRST real introduction to Southern food came when he flew to Asheville, North Carolina to visit his grandmother, Willamana, when he was a teenager. She was the first to take him to a meat-and-three diner where the table was filled with collard greens seasoned with country ham, okra with stewed tomatoes, pork chops, and of course grits and cornbread. Before leaving, and after cleaning his plate, a slice of buttermilk chess pie was laid before him. All of this was foreign to tastebuds familiar with avocados, artichokes, fresh seafood, and occasionally pancakes as a dinner treat. Brian was hooked; on Willamana and Southern food. Weekly letters followed those summer trips, recounting her daily life in Hendersonville, including what she was making for supper. There were many more summers spent in North Carolina as Brian learned her secrets to perfect biscuits and to whisk the cornbread batter just long enough for the lumps to fade. When the dinner bell, named “Isabell”, rang, she would exclaim “Wash your hands, we’re fixin’ to eat!”
He also learned to love the South for a plethora of other things, many of which he’s made a conscious effort to honor at the farmhouse he and Dwight now call home in Orlean, Virginia. There’s a bottle tree, folk art, handcrafted pottery face jugs, old wooden sheds they’ve repurposed, a front porch for rocking chairs and an American flag, a back porch with more rocking chairs, and of course, a red truck. But more on that in a minute.
When Brian met Dwight, who was from North Carolina himself, they traveled quite a bit throughout the South visiting family where the lessons of Southern food and cooking continued. Brian met Aunt Edna, who was in her 80’s, who took him out behind her house where he first laid his eyes on rows and rows of collards. She taught him how to prepare those collards and it opened a whole new world for him. Dwight’s mom would bake a peach cobbler, which looked funny to Brian because she just dumped the peaches in the baking dish and then a batter on top and somehow it all worked. It wasn’t like anything he’d known. He thought these were amazing things that everyone needed to know, but to Dwight and his family, it was all they knew. It was that comfort that was exactly what Brian wanted to embrace.
But that embrace would end up being a gentle and slow one. Brian was in the midst of a successful career in publishing. In 1984 Brian heard the siren’s song of the South even stronger as he moved to Washington, DC. For 25 years, he was the Art Director for the Washington Post’s Sunday magazine, followed by stints at House & Garden, Smithsonian, Preservation, and Architecture magazines, before circling back to the Washington Post. In addition, he wrote from time to time.
The trips he and Dwight went on included photography assignments for the Post’s food critic. They hit all the restaurants being written about, for which he would then design the weekly restaurant reviews and annual dining guides. They ventured further throughout the South, taking direction from Roadfood, a guide by Jane and Michal Stern. Dog-eared, and stained from the BBQ and buttery pastries they ate on the road, removed from the glovebox, it inspired more than just the next joint to stop at, it spoke to Brian.
On a trip back to California, he noticed a cookbook for The Jimtown Store, so off on an excursion they went. They found the faded yellow market, now a landmark that had been there since 1895. With its “Good Food” sign and screen door, which slammed every couple of minutes, and an old farm table, it seemed to marry both of Brian’s lives. It had the charm of the South he’d come to love, but it was in the West Coast where he’d been raised. He was enamored by the busyness as locals came and went getting lunch and homemade pastries, and he exclaimed to Dwight, with a fist on the table, “Man, this is the kind of place I want.”
BRIAN’S grandmother had passed away about a decade before that fateful visit, but what she taught him about Southern food and cooking stayed with him, as did her mixing bowls, a box of her recipes, and Isabell (the bell.) He decided to take charge of what he would learn next about cooking, with the goal of one day opening his own “food joint” as he puts it. Brian headed to the CIA, the other CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in New York. Then on to L’Academie de Cuisine near DC, followed by King Arthur Baking Company classes in Vermont. He also followed Rick Bayless to CIA’s program in Oaxaca, Mexico. There, he volunteered to bake breads at three am, cooked regional foods such as mole sauce, and burned up his vacation time in the process. Always his eye was on the prize.
Recognition followed when he won his first prize at the Arlington County Fair. He and Dwight had moved to Arlington, Virginia and now he had a suitable yard for a garden and not just patio planters, a farmer’s market in the neighborhood, and the yearly county fair. Entering his Peach Jam, made with some crystalized ginger he’d liberated from a friend, he put all his training and hard work before a panel of strangers for the first time. It’s one thing to give a friend a jar of something you’ve made and have them give you feedback. Good or bad, you take their opinion in stride, because they’ve got your best interest at heart. It’s entirely something else to hand it over to folks who’s only job is to judge it. Would they like it? Would they redline it and send it back like Uncle Stan did?
Prior to this the most feedback he’d gotten was at his weekly editorial meetings at the Post. Each week someone was assigned to bring something in to eat. Most picked up bagels from a local bakery on their way in, but when it was Brian’s turn, he took the opportunity to try out his Raspberry Frangipane Tart, Butternut Squash Quiche, and Flourless Chocolate Truffle Cake he’d developed. His editor told him that when it was Brian’s turn, the headcount at the meetings doubled. Winning champion, best of show, and first place for his jam really put him on a path toward opening his bakery and now those items he brought to the meetings are all now favorites at his Red Truck Bakery.
Brian and Dwight wanted to find a place to get away to on the weekends and searched east of DC, in the northern Piedmont region of Virginia. There they eventually found an old farmhouse that was exactly what they wanted. With Brian’s past at Preservation Magazine and with Dwight’s training as an architect, they knew they could honor its past while making it their own. Now that he had a farmhouse, he felt it needed an old red truck. He went through a service to find the vintage red truck of his dreams. Made an offer, not knowing who the owner was unless the offer was accepted. He really thought he was dreaming when he found out his new old truck was owned by designer, Tommy Hilfiger.
Now the farmhouse felt complete.
On weekends they would leave DC and head the 50 miles east. He would spend all night Friday baking breads, cakes, pies, and his now famous granola, just to get up early Saturday morning to load up the bed of his truck and head out to three regional and rural stores that bought up all he baked. The Village Green, Epicurious Cow, and R.H. Ballard would have customers lined up before they opened just to pick up his latest bakes. It was obvious to him that he could make a go of a bakery of his own, and it was even more obvious that his red truck was going to continue to play an iconic role. He created a website and figured out how to ship. It was a nice little online business that kept him busy.
It was with a chance introduction to his work at a nearby Rappahonnock County picnic that really changed his life. Marion Burros, food writer for the New York Times, attended that picnic and Red Truck Bakery led her fifteen favorite national food purveyors in the 2007 Christmas roundup. He woke the next day to find his website, which had seen an average of 24 hits a day, had 57,000. It was now a family business that took everyone, including the mail man, to help fulfill all the orders that were coming in. It was time to make the leap from the career in publishing he thought he was destined to have since he was a kid, to pursuing the passion of being in service to others through food that his grandmother taught him.
BRIAN LEFT publishing and put on his chef coat full-time in 2008. He knew he needed a space to open a bakery where his very own customers could line up. He found a 1920’s Esso filling station in Warrenton, in need of repair. Dwight set out right away to design a “rural-yet-sophisticated mercantile look” to replace the old customer area, while Brian set out to find all the equipment needed to turn the two old garage bays into the bakery. With schoolhouse lights, bead board paneling, a long wooden table, three large ovens, and a five-year lease, the Esso station became Red Truck Bakery.
That year also saw a turn in the economy and suddenly Brian’s investors disappeared. He was fully invested though and pushed through with 18-hour days and faith in the new President to pull our country out of the ditch. He opened in 2009 with four part-time employees, still sleepless from the work and worry of how to pay them. Other’s took notice and before long Esquire, Southern Living, Garden & Gun, and Saveur were singing his praises. Then one day Jane and Michael Stern of RoadFood walked in, and with the first bite, they added Red Truck Bakery to their list of must-stops for all their followers, now on their website. It was a full-circle moment. His work was on a trajectory of success and more accolades came to the bakery. It didn’t take long to feel the squeeze of the four walls of his little gas station turned bakery. It was time to find more space.
Brian knew he wanted to offer more room for his customers, and not just more space to bake, so he set out to find a second location. Heading a few minutes north, he was looking for another small town with a main street that could compliment the Warrenton location. He found that in Marshall. It was once a bustling little town that everyone had to pass through, until I-66 was completed just a mile away. Now the bank had closed, the 50-year-old family run grocery store was shutting down, and some buildings began boarding up. Brian again was becoming concerned when all he could see was a kid on a bicycle passing through the center of town as he completed renovations on the 1920’s pharmacy and old Masonic Lodge buildings he had combined to open his new location. He even managed to find a spot for an old screen door inside, and on opening day, lines were down the sidewalk. He breathed a sigh of relief but wondered if the town could sustain the bakery.
It wasn’t long before a butchery, The Whole Ox, opened down the street. Then friends opened Field & Main, a farm-to-table restaurant, right across from him. That was followed by a double-decker bus, called Johnny Monarch, in the old grocery store parking lot with a grill on the first level with seating at picnic tables, and dinning on the second. All of this was followed by more businesses opening until all the storefronts were occupied again, and now new residential developments are under construction. The bakery opened a new era for Marshall. The county and state took notice and are just completing a Main Street project with underground lines, wide brick sidewalks, better parking, trees, and benches. It’s now a pedestrian friendly town, complete with the bakery making sure there’s a refreshing drinking bowl at the base of their steps for dogs of customers and passersby.
What does Brian hope for Marshall next?
Well, a bookstore would be great and he’d love to see the return of an old-fashioned hardware store. As for Red Truck Bakery, Brian is keeping his eyes on how to better service their online customers and finishing up his second book tour for The Red Truck Bakery Farmhouse Cookbook.