Edible Artisans: Backyard Bakers

The first time I walked down the small lane off 26th Avenue in Santa Cruz where Evan Lohr lives and bakes, I wasn’t sure I was in the right place—until I rounded a bamboo-lined fence and saw a friendly face dusted with flour.

Tall and tan, with a surfer’s physique and oceanic blue-green eyes, Lohr wasn’t exactly the baker I thought I’d encounter. He greeted me with a rough hand and told me to pick any loaf I wanted from the baker’s rack. Heat radiated from the clay oven nearby as I chose a wide, crusty loaf scored with a fern. I couldn’t resist giving it a sniff, and a warm, heady bouquet spiked with the soft tang of fermentation filled my nostrils and made its way down my throat. My mouth watered. Without really thinking about it, I tore a chunk off with my hands. I’ve been back almost every week since.

Lohr has been baking bread for his family since he was a kid, and was selling at his local farmers’ market in Shasta County before he was old enough to drive. A few years ago, he found himself baking almost every day for his household and the occasional friend or neighbor, and he needed a larger oven. A natural craftsman, Lohr built the earthen, wood-fired structure partly because he thought it would be a fun project and partly because he wanted to put it to good use. “One reason kind of chased another,” he says. “I wanted to see what the process was. And if you do something like that, shouldn’t you do something with it?” He began sending a text out to his friends and neighbors every week letting them know when he would be firing the oven, and then baked to order a few days later.

A couple months in, word started to get around. Lohr was baking small batches of eight to 11 loaves twice a week when his list of emails and phone numbers started to grow, with a few new people being added every week. Soon, it expanded beyond his immediate community to include friends of friends, then people he had just met. His unofficial bakery, 26th Ave Bread, was born.

This is about the point in the story when I first met Lohr, whom I still refer to as “my bread guy.” Visiting his East Side home might be more out of the way than stopping by the closest grocery store, but I look forward to these visits far more. Just as purchasing produce from the local farmers’ market builds communal bonds, knowing my baker gives me the same slow food satisfaction.

The popularity of his renegade bakery, which charges $5–$6 per loaf, has yet to influence Lohr’s low-key demeanor—more likely, his welcoming, friendly vibe has contributed to its success. The number of people on Lohr’s list has swelled to more than 400,

but he takes it in stride. “It’s not that I’m not surprised because I think that I’m doing something that’s so great, but I mean, I would buy bread from me,” he says nonchalantly.

Limited by its size, available counter space and how much flour and ash he’s willing to subject his girlfriend to, Lohr has exceeded the capacity of what he can produce out of his home. So by the end of this summer, 26th Ave Bread will move a few doors down to the new Two Six Market at 400 26th Ave. (previously Kong’s Market). Lohr and his business partner Dave Anderson plan on updating the market to provide a small grocery and sell bread, baked goods and wood-fired pizzas out of a larger oven Lohr plans to build. It’s a sustainable shift for Lohr, who is pushing the boundaries of what is acceptable within California’s cottage food law. Moving to a commercial space would give him peace of mind.

For Lohr, the expansion of his circle has been the most rewarding result of this project. “I’ve developed this amazing community of people, I guess you could call them like minded, but just doing fun things,” he says. “I thought I had a pretty neat social sphere, but now it’s expanded to include all these people who aren’t the same age or have the same interests, who aren’t people who would normally fall into your circle.”

Lohr has also become a mentor to other bread enthusiasts, whom he affably refers to as “the bread interns.”

“I’ve got about a dozen people in the early stages of bread baking,” he says. “Some of them are extremely hands on with me and want to touch and do and feel. Others have an understanding, but are having problems. It’s a whole eclectic mix of people who want to learn more about bread and are excited to come over and find out more about their own process.”

Although he won’t take credit for inspiring these amateur bakers, he admits that seeing his operation helps them see how easy home bread baking can be. “There’s so many small bakeries popping up with their lines out the door because people want a product like this. When people come over and see what I’m doing, it makes it seem much more accessible,” says Lohr. “It doesn’t really take more than the ingredients that are easily available, your hands and time.”

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