When Ned Atwater was growing up in the close-knit community of Catonsville, one of his favorite pastimes was going to Gilbert’s to buy oatmeal cookies, three for a nickel.
These days, the old-fashioned general store is long gone, but Atwater can now walk to his own place, Atwater’s Naturally Leavened Bread, from his nearby home.
In January, after years of planning, Atwater moved the baking operations for his ever-expanding business to the historic 1895 Catonsville Post Office. As customers—some of whom he hasn’t seen since his days at Catonsville High School—stream in for a cappuccino or a fig walnut scone, Atwater admits his newest endeavor is his most personal professional venture yet. (Even the artwork displayed on the cafe
walls—painted by high-school buddy Karl Schlenker—has roots in his childhood.)
“It would be pretty tough if we didn’t make it here,” says the 52-year-old Atwater. “If it were to fail, I’m still going to live here, and it would be hard to ride by the building where I couldn’t make a go of it.”
Failure is not exactly in the forecast. “I think he has outgrown his spot already,” says Teal Cary, executive director of the Greater
Catonsville Chamber of Commerce. “It’s always packed in there, and people are looking for him to do lunch, which he doesn’t have space for.”
On a recent day, business bustles inside as Atwater sits outside on a wooden bench reflecting on his life and times as a top toque. The amiable Atwater (who’s a ringer for political pundit James Carville) enjoys a quick conversation with nearly every passerby. “Good job,” says a woman as she walks by. Atwater smiles back and blushes so much that even his scalp turns red. “That kind of comment is better than money,” he says. “That’s it. It makes it all worth it.”
Clearly, at least in Ned Atwater’s case, you can go home again.
If there is a recession, Atwater seems not to know it. While many food operations have been hard hit by the economy in the past few years, Atwater’s continues to grow, with retail shops in four other locations, including Belvedere Square Market, Mt. Washington (where all soups and some salads get made), Annapolis (which opened last fall), and Towson, as well as the 10 area farmers’ markets he works on weekends.
His bottom line says it all: In 2003, before opening at Belvedere Square, Atwater’s sales were approximately $300,000 with a staff of six. In 2009, they were more than $4 million with 135 employees, including his wife Priscilla (“La”), a trained pastry chef who helps manage the business, and daughter Hallie, 23, who works in the office. Hallie and her sisters, Caroline, 21, and Casey, 20, also help out at the farmers’ markets.
With each of his outlets, Atwater has had different goals. “Belvedere is the bustling, casual market,” he explains. “Atwater’s Ploughboy Soup Kitchen [in Mt. Washington] is the place for business people to get a healthy lunch. Annapolis is a market stall on a smaller scale than Belvedere. Kenilworth came about when my brother Tom commented that places like Bob’s Big Boy and McDonald’s are not going to be around forever. He said, ‘Why don’t you put yourself in a place where, when these places go out, you can operate a drive-through?’ People said I was crazy, but look at it now.”
Atwater’s motivation harkens back to his boyhood as the second youngest of six. His father, Ed, who was a sports reporter for The Baltimore Sun, died when Atwater was 13. “I think my drive might come from being young and losing a parent,” he says. “My mother, who was a schoolteacher, did the best she could, but she had six kids and struggled. During times like that, at least, subconsciously, you realize that no one is going to do it unless you do it. No one is going to take care of you. It’s not like we were on the streets, but it shapes you.”
His mother fed a big family on a tight budget. “I was born in the late ’50s, and my mother was the typical post-war cook,” says Atwater. “She was making seven dinners with $10. We had the same rotation every week: spaghetti, meatloaf, lasagna, fish sticks on Friday night. My mother was a good, resourceful cook, but she had limited time and budget.”
At an early age, Atwater knew that he wanted to go into the food business. “I never wanted to do anything else,” he says. “When I was in middle school, I liked to bake cakes and cookies.”
Atwater learned the tricks of the trade right out of high school. He enrolled in Catonsville Community College in 1976, and two years later, he attended the University of Baltimore to study business administration. At the same time, he also apprenticed (making $110 a week) for
Michel Beaupin, a well-respected French chef who owned The Kings Contrivance restaurant in Simpsonsville.
“Michel was a very stern teacher, but he never lost control,” recalls Atwater, who worked there for seven years. “There was a long prep table that was about 10 feet long by four, and he stood at the head of the table, so he could see what was going on. If you did something wrong, you would be corrected by the sous chef. I loved it.”
The early lessons gleaned from Beaupin—among them the importance of buying local ingredients—have carried him through today. At Atwater’s, the focus is always on buying from small family farms and producers. Everything is crafted by hand with fresh, and, whenever possible, organic ingredients.
“Ned Atwater is successful because he has created a wonderful product that appeals to a great many people,” says Kate Dallam of Bel Air-based Broom’s Bloom Dairy, which has supplied Atwater with aged cheddar cheese. “He has followed his core belief of supporting local growers.”
Joan Norman of White Hall’s One Straw Farm, who, with husband Drew Norman, provides Atwater with vegetables on a weekly basis, agrees. “Ned has been buying local for a long time,” she says. “I have known him since 1999, and what separates him from others is that he has held the course—it’s not about being a part of a trend. It’s what he has always believed in.”
Atwater’s education continued as he put in time on the line in some of the area’s best restaurants, including a stint as executive chef at the exclusive, gated Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, where he cooked for international business leaders, politicians, and VIPs. While he was given carte blanche artistically, ultimately, he felt constrained by the lack of exposure in the community. “It was a great job,” says Atwater, who left to start a wholesale operation in 1999, “but it was like working on a stage where no one ever sees you.”
In 2003, when Atwater opened inside the formerly fallow Belvedere Square Market with his open kitchen and trademark soups, he found his audience. “There’s nothing like seeing people eating your food,” he says. Atwater’s soup bar also helped revitalize the marketplace, which had been vacant for nearly 10 years.
“Ned has made a tremendous contribution and has a terrific operation,” says John Pezzulla, director and general manager of Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse, one of the developers of Belvedere Square Market. “Atwater’s is an integral part of the market.”
Now, Atwater has come full circle witha store in his childhood town. But he also opened Naturally Leavened Bread for practical reasons—its nearly 2,700 square feet more than doubled his work space.
“We were chained into a corner at Belvedere,” he says. “We had to share space with everyone in that kitchen—the pastries, the bread, the dishwashers, and all that foot traffic going back and forth from the parking lot.”
The new shop is a veritable Santa’s workshop of bakers busily mixing wholewheat dough; slicing into thick, rich, chocolate brownies; and shaping cranberry biscotti loaves. On an average weekday, the kitchen gives rise to 700 loaves of bread (made during the nighttime shift) and 845 cookies (prepared during the day). The air is redolent of chocolate-chip cookies, almond shortbread, and gingerlime muffins baked with certified organic flour and sugar and locally made milk and butter. Atwater is also proud that he bakes bread the traditional way, even though the labor-intensive process is not necessarily cost-effective in this day and age of quickrising yeasts designed to maximize output.
“Most of my breads are slow fermented and hand shaped,” says Atwater, who studied bread-making with Richard Bourdon at the esteemed Berkshire Mountain Bakery in Housatonic, MA. “Sourdough bread, for instance, takes 12 hours to make—we have to scale the flour, mix the dough, let it rest, cut the dough, let it rest, shape it, let it rest, reshape it, let it rest, then it bakes, and has to cool before it’s even sliced.”
For Atwater, having Natural Leavened Bread and all his other incarnations is about continuing to create. “I would never want to repeat myself,” he says. “Even when I am cooking at home or entertaining, I would never do the same thing twice—that would just kill me.”
He’s not surprised by the growth of his mini-conglomerate. It was always part of the plan. “Eleven years ago, when we went to Mercantile Bank [to get a loan for a wholesale business in Linthicum], I drew the loan officer a diagram that was like a wheel with spokes,” says Atwater, sketching his grand plan on paper. “We were going to have a neighborhood bakery there,” he says, pointing to one of the spokes, “a produce stand here, a pastry shop there, and in the middle was our office or something. It took a long time to get to this point, but we are getting there.”
And selling bread and soup is truly good for Atwater’s soul. “At Caves Valley, I cooked for President Bush Sr. and President Clinton, but who knows what they are thinking when you feed them?” he says. “I can seriously say that standing across from somebody who scrapes the bottom of their soup bowl and eats all the bread and knowing every bite is important to them is more fulfilling than seeing those guys eat my food."