Jeff McCarthy, 42, Bread Whisperer
Jeff McCarthy ditched his high intensity chef career – which was chewing and spitting him out – for something he loves: Being a dad with a serious baking habit.
Jeff and his wife Ingrid run College Hill-based cottage bakery, Bread Service. They’re feeding Greensboro bread and cookies every week.
“I get a lot of time with my family. I get to do what I love, which is make bread, every week,” he says. “Fermenting sourdough will never not be magic to me.”
He was raised in upstate New York in the middle of an apple farm. He was introduced to the culinary world as part of a high school vocational program.
“When I stepped foot in the kitchen, I was completely enthralled. I bought into the whole idea of being a chef hook, line and sinker. It wasn’t really the cooking part of it that enticed me. It was the kitchen itself,” he says. All those moving parts, the scaling up of recipes, the organization it takes to prep and make food for 1,000 people.
He went to a community college in upstate New York and cut his professional teeth in the pastry world at the historic Hudson Valley resort, the Mohonk Mountain House. He was hired as a pastry cook and ended up competing in American Culinary Association competitions making large sugar sculptures – a dying culinary arts tradition only found in high end establishments.
When he burned out of that gig, Jeff moved to Vail, Colorado, and later to Portland, Oregon. He worked as a waiter, a pastry chef and eventually a stay-at-home dad working part-time for a culinary incubator that helped home burgeoning food based businesses develop their food products and take them to market.
As a professional chef, he took it as second nature that you would use certain equipment and techniques to make your product as efficiently as possible. Some home bakers didn’t have that knowledge, so Jeff shared his knowledge with them.
While at the Portland incubator, he also wound up developing a bagel business with a partner that is still delivering upward of 4,000 bagels to wholesalers and a retail store daily today.
He eventually got lured back into a restaurant job, where he got to hire his pastry dream team. But those days that started at 5:30 am and ended at 7 pm, the six-day weeks, “kind of broke me.”
“It was an obscene amount of work. It solidified for me everything I had been thinking – this is not for me. I never see my kid. What I love to do I get jammed down my throat every day,” Jeff says. “I decided that being a dad was the most important thing.”
Ingrid, also a talented chef with a high-paced career in the culinary word, had a similar experience. They decided to relocate to Greensboro to be closer to Ingrid’s mom.
Ingrid joined her mothers’ textile brokering business. Jeff searched for his path, and wound up being intrigued by the stay-at-home parents running home baking businesses he saw on Instagram. Jeff researched the Greensboro bakery scene and realized no one was making the kind of high quality sour dough he enjoyed and regularly made for this family.
On a whim, he took an idea to Nextdoor, the neighborhood communication app. He posted it to his neighbors: He could make 12 loaves at a time. Anyone interested in buying?
Within hours, “people were knocking on my door. It was crazy.”
In 2019, Bread Service launched a subscription service providing sourdough loaves straight from his mother-in-law’s double ovens. Jeff could make about 60 loaves if he baked for 15 hours straight. Then they expanded the business and started selling at the Corner Farmers Market in Lindley Park.
“We had a line literally around the block to get bread,” Jeff says. “The very first week we were selling out in an hour or two. We could not make enough bread.”
From the beginning, Bread Service has also donated loaves to Out of the Garden Project, too, to feed more people.
Jeff lets the quality of his bread speak for itself. He uses local suppliers, like the historic Old Mill of Guilford in Oak Ridge.
“I get all my flour from Old Mill of Guilford,” Jeff says. “I feel like I am part of history working with them. They were milling flour during the Revolutionary War. I make a special trip out there every week.”
Bread making is more craft than art, Jeff says. You develop an intuition about your ingredients. How to grow your starter. How to coax the most flavor out of whole grains (his recipe is 20 percent whole wheat flour). Every flour is different from week to week, month to month, based on the environment where it is grown.
“Every time I mix sourdough bread it’s a little bit different, and I’ve been doing it for seven years straight,” Jeff says.
Being a home-based business, the family is fully a part of the operation. Ingrid runs the business side. Early on, Jeff was often baking while he cared for his youngest. The operation is now a fully certified cottage bakery at their home, with a commercial-style oven.
The nature of the business – being a side gig of sorts meaning that Jeff can shift and change the model to avoid burnout and put the family first. He likes it that way. “It is a privilege, but it is also a part of the design of the business,” he says. “We have the luxury to grow at our pace.”
Still Bread Service has grown and expanded, with specialty loaves and a monster sized sourdough sugar cookie that has taken on a life of its own, a sold-out subscription service, and wholesale clients.
The loaves are available at Deep Roots on Wednesdays and Fridays. The cookies are sold at the Green Bean and at the farmers market. Get there early if you want some, because Bread Service products sell out quickly.