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Editor’s Note: This piece is featured in the anthology Best Food Writing 2017, edited by Holly Hughes.
On the floor in a tiny back room of a converted 1880s Victorian house in Louisville sits a hulking 1940s-era Hobart mixer, its single-phase motor turning a cake-batter paddle in a huge steel bowl while Andy Clark (pictured), owner of Moxie Bread Company, “juices” his ciabatta dough by drizzling in water. A dough hook, he explains, couldn’t handle a mix this goopy. The stuff fwap-fwap-fwaps around while a stooping Clark coaxes it toward an even wetter state. It’s tricky work that varies with the heat of the room and the weather outside. For Clark, it’s also a daily obsession, one that takes place long before the sun rises.
Clark is devoted to producing crust with a fine crackle and crumb with a perfect spring and sheen. “As bakers,” he says, “making the dough really wet and baking it dark are two things we can do to be cool.” Anyone who has the good fortune to eat Clark’s bread will appreciate that his definition of cool stretches to include things like finicky hydration rituals at 4:30 in the morning.
A few steps away, at a long marble-topped table in Moxie’s other back room, Jeff Leddy, Clark’s chief baker, works dough that will become the bakery’s specialty treat: kouign-amann. Leddy is known for his ability to incorporate staggering amounts of butter into flour, the “bourraging” that renders kouign-amann even richer than croissants. “Jeff’s the pastry whisperer,” says assistant Nikki Albrecht. “He’s the Bob Ross of the pastry world.”
A couple of hours later, a conveyor apparatus slips hand-formed loaves into the heart of Moxie’s four-deck oven, while just a few feet away, Keely Von Bank arranges pastries on the service counter. To her right, chief barista Sullivan Cohen dials up the espresso machine for the arrival of the first customer, who will poke her head in at 7:01 and expect a happy hello. Some of Clark’s crew will be here until the joint, which makes a midday transition to sandwiches and pizza, closes at four.
A town wants to rise and feel warmly about itself each day. This is the purpose of the diners and shopworn cafes and bakeries that nurture regulars in small communities from Alabama to Alaska. These patrons expect the staffs to know their names, and they like to see other regulars with whom short chats string together, over months and years, into long necklaces of specific, local conversations about kids and family and town bylaws and the weather. It’s not that such places don’t exist in cities, but in small towns, they have a special savor that usually doesn’t have much to do with food or coffee, often untouched by the trends that obsess urbanites.
Communities like Louisville, in orbit of Boulder and Denver, exist on fault lines between city and small-town life. Residents treasure the quaint, local vibe, but many have acquired commuter palates. They hanker for a spot that serves the cortados of RiNo or Old South Pearl Street and sandwiches that remind them of that trip to Italy or Provence, France. Yet serious chefs and bakers are often reluctant to open a business that’s even 10 miles from reliable city crowds. Which is what makes Louisville’s 17-month-old Moxie especially notable. It’s a young place with an old soul where the owner has found a way to combine urban culinary exactitude with small-town ease and purpose.
During his first 22 years in Colorado, Clark, 41, ran big bread operations for Whole Foods and Udi’s. Corporate work had him baking around the country: He knew what it took to keep a baguette from drooping in Houston humidity or turning into a cracker javelin in desert air and exactly how big the problem was if you made a proofing error with 700 pounds of dough.
But as a member of the Bread Baker’s Guild of America (he eventually served on its board of directors), Clark had tasted what artisans such as Chad Roberston at Tartine and Jim Lahey at Sullivan St. Bakery were up to in San Francisco and New York City, respectively. Clark was a soft-spoken fermentation nerd, a quiet doctor of pH. Wanting to scale down, he hankered for a hometown corner bakery where he’d know the customers and the daily turbulence would be “more like landing a Cessna on a little strip in Baja, California.” Bread, at its best, is small and slow.
Clark was scouting potential locations when he met Louis Karp, father of the proprietor of Louisville’s Waterloo bar and restaurant. Several years earlier, in 2007, Karp’s son had opened what quickly became the most congenial evening hangout in the historic downtown area, and he told Clark the place had the sort of small-town charm he was looking for. That, and there just happened to be a 19th-century house available on a prominent corner along Main Street.
Rumors that something special might be percolating spread weeks before Moxie opened. “When Andy came to town,” says Randy Evans, 65, who can be found at Moxie almost every day around 8 a.m., yakking with the staff and sipping a cortado, “I tasted his bread and I said, ‘This is what I’ve been waiting for. Nobody’s doing this.’ ” Evans, now a freelance copy writer, previously ran food operations for Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts in California and raced Formula Ford cars in the ’70s. For years, otherwise happy with life in Louisville, he’d been mourning the quality of local food.
The town quickly realized it had a new morning hearth serving pastries and bread that were something special. From the start, Clark showed a knack for hiring staff adept at the chatty-cafe greeting, essential when lines are long and the wait for a proper latte stretches to several minutes. Customers, even the shy ones, started to talk back. A few formed a spontaneous, informal board of advisers. These are the super-users for whom Moxie’s success, not a sure thing in the food business, became important. Evans is a super-user. Matthew Coghill, 36, is another.
Coghill admits to three Moxie visits most days to catch up with staff and the regulars, yielding “serious overcaffeination.” He’s a bicycle nerd, CrossFit geek, and coffee connoisseur who’s the president of a small, techy Boulder company. For him, the acuity of Clark’s baking is matched by a mise-en-scène intuition and hiring acumen he compares to that of Noah Price, co-founder of Crema, the Populist, and Finn’s Manor, three exemplars of neighborhood cheer in Denver. It wasn’t just the food that turned Moxie into a hangout; it was the congenial way it was sold, finely tuned to the local temperament, which Coghill says gave him “a view into all the people that I live with in this town but I had no other mechanism to know prior to this.”
Guys like Coghill are the ones with commuter palates. If something is lacking in an establishment, they tend to either stay away or stick their noses in. Early on, in Coghill’s opinion, the quality of Moxie’s coffee lagged woefully behind that of the bread. Longing for a local fix to match all the coffee action in Denver and Boulder, Coghill asked Clark to do something “meaningful” at the espresso station. Clark, remarkably, listened, another key to his canny nature.
“I gave him a list of a lot of equipment to buy,” Coghill says, “and then I scouted Sullivan [formerly of Boxcar Coffee Roasters] and introduced him to Andy. He just slowly implemented what is standard best practice from there. I’d say the coffee is now in the top tier of what’s available in Colorado.”
Coghill also proved a fount of food insight. This summer, when Clark went on a reconnaissance trip to LA, Coghill suggested coffeehouses to visit. Clark was wowed by “fizzy hopped teas” and turmeric-infused nut milks, returning eager to try such things at Moxie. He also says he was a bit put off by the expensively curated aesthetic of many of those urban food temples. “It’s a contradiction of mine that I love that and hate it at the same time,” Clark says.
Which explains, presumably, why there isn’t a damned thing even vaguely hip about Moxie’s decor. There are two rooms for lingering, filled with tables, musical instruments, and bric-a-brac of such flea-market eclecticism that it’s almost comic. Out front, a few chairs crowd a small porch overlooking Main Street. Out back, there’s a shambolic space that on summer Wednesday nights hosts a bring-your-banjo, roots-music hootenanny with pizza. It adds up to what Clark describes as “a really homespun, pragmatic-farmer, middle-America, old-fashioned, your-grandmother’s-house kind of vibe.”
As regulars soon came to learn, Louisville was now home to a national-quality baker who had a knack for playing the local heartstrings: Not much more than a year after it opened, Moxie was named one of the five best new bakeries in America by Bon Appétit.
Moxie’s succinct breakfast and lunch menu includes croissants and a few varieties of Leddy’s now-famous kouign-amann (seasonally flavored with black plum or peach in summer, pear or apple in the fall, and dark chocolate and grapefruit in winter), along with something called the King Egg, a diabolically buttery turban-shaped creation with croissant pastry wrapped around a warm egg and cheese. There are a few well-made sandwiches and lunchtime pizza. There’s a salad or two and some cookies and muffins (not all of which equal the quality of the best items, and the music-night pizza can be uneven).
The place runs all out, seven days a week, which is why Clark tends to limit his holiday-season offerings to wintry kouign-amann and croissant variations, though last year Leddy produced a persimmon pudding with a spiked hard sauce. A walnut bread will likely make another appearance, and Clark yearns to produce a complex, chewy European gingerbread whose formula has eluded him despite years of trying.
For a guy who is a bread man in his soul, however, there’s pain in the truth that it’s these treats—and not the beer-inspired malthouse loaf or the mighty-crusted Algerian—that keep his little ship afloat. “It’s tragically, comically sorrowful how little bread we sell,” he says. Maybe 80 or 90 loaves a day. Another baker had warned him: You’ll basically be a sandwich shop.
Yet he persists in not selling the one thing that would up his tally: white baguettes. Clark does not disdain baguettes and may eventually cave, but for now he persists with sour starters, long rises, and mostly multigrain blends. These breads are his passion. He’s like a musician who plays beautifully from an old songbook and waits for the audience to catch on. There is a cheerful spirit in Moxie’s front room and the prep rooms, but it’s in the bread that local converts find Clark’s true gospel. Someday, he believes, his adopted town will fully understand.