SINCE LAST AUGUST, crowds have lined up on Saturday mornings to buy bread from The Cottage at Blue Ridge, a market stall that pops up regularly in Perrinville, a commercial crossroads where the cities of Edmonds and Lynnwood overlap. It’s probably the most excitement Perrinville has seen since 1938, when Gertie Perrin registered the neighborhood name with high hopes, after her husband, Carl, bought some acreage. “If I’m going out in the sticks,” she reportedly said, “I’m going to start me a town.”
—Perrinville didn’t quite become a town, but Gertie would be gratified to see the queues that snake around the corner even before baker Conor O’Neill opens his stall at 10 a.m. The breads, cookies and buns sell out by noon. A visit to The Cottage at Blue Ridge has become a weekly ritual for many because, as one habitual customer puts it, “You can’t buy bread like this anywhere close to here.”
Naturally leavened, hand-shaped, hearth-baked loaves of such high quality are indeed rare in south Snohomish County. The 25-year-old O’Neill knew there was a niche to fill because he grew up nearby. The eponymous “cottage” is the O’Neill family’s modest, two-story home, half a mile north in the community of Blue Ridge.
A trip to Paris with friends ignited O’Neill’s passion for bread. He baked his first loaf while still a student at Washington State University. His “communication in society” major led to marketing jobs that couldn’t match the “overwhelming sense of fulfillment” he gets when people enjoy his bread. Opening a small bakery became his goal. A year working at Columbia City Bakery gave him insight into the business, but he’s been experimenting with fermentation on his own for five years, learning from cookbooks (“Tartine” is a favorite) and the community of home bakers he’s found on Facebook and Instagram.
When his practice loaves resulted in more bread than his family could consume, he alerted the neighborhood through social media that he had bread to share, and wheeled a cart with about a dozen loaves out to the sidewalk in front of the house. The deal was: Pay what you want, and bring your own bag. Business ballooned like warm dough. After three weeks, he ramped up production and moved the enterprise to the Perrinville corner. On a typical Saturday, he sells about 185 loaves plus dozens of cookies.
The Cottage at Blue Ridge currently operates within Washington state’s cottage food laws permitting certain “nonpotentially hazardous products” to be made in a home kitchen. O’Neill’s workspace is not much bigger than, well, a bread box. Hemmed in by metro shelving, speed racks and 50-pound sacks of flour from Cairnspring Mills in Burlington, he has just enough room to pivot between two large-capacity mixers, a wooden baker’s bench where he shapes loaves and his three-deck Rofco hearth oven.
Prep for the weekly bake starts on Wednesday and accelerates steadily. On a typical Friday, I watched him shape baguettes while, cued by a four-channel timer, he intermittently shuffled oatmeal porridge loaves in the oven, so they browned evenly. Sourdough was still proofing, but brioche and challah were already bagged.
To get everything done single-handedly, O’Neill keeps himself on a tight schedule, with a task list broken into half-hour segments. On Thursday mornings, he’s at work by 5 a.m.; on Fridays, 3:30 a.m. He bakes from midnight Friday up until it’s time to pack up his 2005 Chevy Tahoe on Saturday morning. The last bread out of the oven is focaccia, still warm when it’s bagged and binned for transport to Perrinville. The whole family pitches in to help sell: dad Kevin, a Seattle police officer and girls basketball coach; mom Rose, a preschool teacher; older sisters Caitlin and Michaela; and younger brother Aidan.
As a cottage business, O’Neill can’t wholesale to stores or restaurants, but that might change. He’s close to signing a lease on a space in Perrinville Village, the retail strip across from the popup, where he plans to build a commercial kitchen. “It’s a strange climate we’re in to be diving into a food business, but I still have confidence this will work out,” he says.
In March and April, the line at the popup only grew longer as customers spaced themselves 6 feet apart, the distance marked by orange cones. The family now works with gloves on. They strap Purell bottles to the tent poles and provide wipes at checkout. The loaves for sale, once piled lavishly on the tables, are all safely bagged and out of public reach. Only one of each loaf is displayed, cut in half to reveal the lacey crumb. People still flock — some with coffee cups, others with babies or dogs — but many now wear masks.
O’Neill recognizes most of them, and he’s grateful for their support. “People want to have good bread in the neighborhood,” he says. “People appreciate the community that develops around bread baking.” Perhaps now, more than ever.
Rose Demun’s Mushroom Toast
When it comes to breakfast toast, O’Neill often has a slice of his brioche pan loaf topped with Ayako & Family jam, or peanut butter. His high school friend, Rose Demun, who now lives in New York City, gave him this recipe for mushroom toast. “I like it because it’s a reminder, especially in times like these, that simple, nourishing food is always the best.” He suggests using his country sourdough or his hearty spelt-and-flaxseed mountain loaf as a base, and “whatever mushrooms get you excited.”
1 tablespoon butter
1 clove of garlic, minced
8 ounces sliced mushrooms
1 teaspoon dried oregano or thyme (plus a pinch more to finish)
Salt to taste
1 thick slice of toasted bread
Crème fraîche (or cream cheese)
Freshly cracked black pepper
1. Melt the butter over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and garlic. Sauté for 3 to 4 minutes. As the mushrooms soften, sprinkle with herbs and salt. Cook until mushrooms are completely soft.
2. Spread toast with crème fraîche or cream cheese. With a slotted spoon, spread the mushrooms over the toast; top with cracked pepper and more herbs.