The road to Serenity Farm Bread is a winding one. The bakery’s pastry shop is tucked into a curve of U.S. Highway 65 South, in a little yellow and green house with a wraparound porch that travelers could miss in a blink. Less than a mile away, the Serenity Farm bakery — and its 27-year-old wood-fired brick oven — is housed in a sturdy red brick building on the corner of Main Street and state Highway 66 East in Leslie. Serenity Farm exclusively bakes sourdough breads and pastries, and co-owner Jordan Archotie said the oven is “the heart” of both the baked goods and the business. “It’s what makes us what we are,” Archotie said.
Serenity Farm Bread was established in 1992 by Dr. Morris Keller. Current co-owner Adrienne Freeman said Keller “really believed in the benefits of sourdough bread and returning to traditional baking techniques.” David Lower bought the bakery from Keller in 1993 and ran it until Freeman and Archotie purchased it in July 2018. Freeman and Archotie both grew up in Leslie and visited the bakery as children, and they described their interest in buying the bakery as “sentimental plus practical.”
“I wanted to live here and raise my child here, and what can you do in a small town to make a living?” Archotie said. “We wanted to keep the bakery around …”
“For selfish reasons,” Freeman interjected.
“… for selfish reasons, so we could have the benefit of the product and so that the customers who are used to it could continue to enjoy our bread,” Archotie said.
Freeman said she worked for Serenity Farm Bread from 2003-06, and she came back to work one day a week at the bakery in 2017. By the time Archotie and Freeman bought the business in 2018, Archotie said the bakery had gone down from four “bake days” a week to three bake days, as Lower was “in his later season of life and wanting to retire.” But Archotie, 35, said that she and Freeman, 36, “just have a lot of energy” to put into the bakery, and they hope to “drum up enough business” to increase the bake schedule back to four days a week.
Serenity Farm employs seven people, including head baker Zach Folkers and pastry chef Lynnwood Hage, who crafts the bakery’s sourdough cookies, croissants, sticky buns and sweetened breads. Freeman and Archotie said the dough — which is fermented using naturally occurring microbes, such as wild yeast — works “symbiotically” with the bakery’s wood-fired brick oven to produce breads with a “nice hearty crust” that are good for the gut.
Instead of baking in a convection oven, which uses a fan to constantly circulate hot air and cook food quickly, Serenity Farm uses a wood-fired brick oven that bakes bread using residual heat. Built in 1993, the interior of the oven is 6 feet wide, 8 feet deep and about 3 feet tall and lined with layers of bricks. On a “pre-bake” day, a fire is started in the oven in the morning and fed throughout the day. At the end of the day, once the fire is mostly coals, a large iron door is placed over the oven’s opening, suffocating the heat and “soaking” it into the bricks. Freeman said the bakery burns fires in the oven every day, whether they’ll be baking that day or not.
“We have to keep its core temperature at a certain level, or we won’t be able to get it hot enough to bake in it,” Freeman explained.
The heat then soaks into the bricks for the next several hours until a baker arrives around 2 or 3 a.m. to check the temperature of the oven and start another small fire. Freeman said the baker then rakes the coals into an ash pit built into the oven and uses a large broom dipped in water to brush soot and ashes off the bricks. Then, starting around 9 a.m., breads are baked directly on the bricks using the ever-present residual heat from the fire.
“We set up what we bake and when we bake it around the idea that the oven is going to be getting colder as the day goes on, because the heat goes,” Freeman said. “We start with the focaccia, we go through the breads, and then we end with the cookies, which need a cooler oven.”
Freeman said Serenity Farm has to plan its bake day schedules two days in advance, a process that takes into account the time it takes for the leaven to ferment, the mixing and rising of the dough, the preparation of the oven and the types of breads needed for the pastry shop and customer orders.
Archotie and Freeman said that about 20 percent of Serenity Farm’s business in the summer is made up of a “small group of very dedicated, loyal local customers.” During the winter months, this same local following is the “primary source” of the bakery’s business, Freeman said. She and Archotie added that their local customers aren’t just folks who live in Leslie, but also people from “outlying” communities such as Mountain View and Clinton. In addition to nearby patrons, Freeman said the “bulk” of the pastry shop’s in-store sales comes from “loyal, out-of-town people” who pass by the bakery while traveling.
“We’ve got people that come through from Iowa or Texas,” said Archotie, who manages the pastry shop. “They drive this trip maybe once a year or a couple times a year and they always stop; they put it on their route.”
Serenity Farm Bread also ships bread and cookies to all lower 48 states. David Lower began shipping the baked goods, and Freeman and Achiote expanded the practice when they purchased the business. The pair said they’ve worked out an agreement with the local post office to ship their orders through priority mail, which allows them to reach customers all over the country within three days. Serenity Farm doesn’t use any preservatives in its bread, so quick shipping helps ensure an order is fresh when it arrives.
Freeman said shipping is “primarily what carries us through the winter season” and a large part of the business year-round. In addition to shipping nationally, Freeman and Archotie said Serenity Farm Bread has several “long standing” relationships with wholesale customers who sell their bread, including The Eureka Market in Eureka Springs, Nature’s Wonders in Harrison, the Good Measure market in Searcy and Ozark Natural Foods in Fayetteville. In 2018, Serenity Farm Bread also began delivering their goods bi-monthly to Me and McGee Market in North Little Rock during the market’s open season. Serenity Farm Bread can also be found on the menus of a few Arkansas restaurants, including WunderHaus in Conway, Prestonrose Farm in Paris and L’Attitude Bistro in Clinton. Serenity Farm Bread products are also available through the business’s food co-op with Azure Standard, which delivers organic food and products around the country.
Archotie and Freeman said they want to continue cultivating new relationships with restaurants, local markets and wholesale customers. They’re also looking forward to crafting new recipes after the successful debut of two new seasonal breads in 2019: an autumnal Arkansas black apple and walnut bread made from locally sourced black apples and a summertime blueberry bread made with corn grits.
In addition to forming new recipes and relationships to help grow their business, Freeman and Archotie said they want to educate more people about the health benefits of fermented foods.
“We have [Serenity Farm] in our backyard,” Freeman said. “You sort of start understanding the speciality and uniqueness of what you have right next to you, [which] you kind of overlook when you grow up with it.”