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Otter Creek Bakery sold to a new owner

LONGTIME OTTER CREEK Bakery owners Ben and Sarah Wood, right, are passing the proverbial rolling pin to Ned Horton (second from left) and his manager, Chiyo Sato.

MIDDLEBURY — Thirty-three years after creating and operating the Otter Creek Bakery in downtown Middlebury, Ben and Sarah Wood are ready to retire their aprons and cook up some new adventures.
But worry not, those who have long been beguiled by the bakery’s intoxicating aromas and decadent pastries. The business will continue to do what it does best under new ownership. Addison County resident and coffee aficionado Ned Horton has purchased the bakery and will retain its workforce and eclectic menu.
“It was time to do something new,” Sarah said of the couple’s decision to move on. “Ben has been doing this for 50 years; I’ve been doing this for 40 years. We have a lot of adventures to have. We’re not leaving the area, but we will be freed up to do some other stuff.”
It’s been a long road marked by thousands of cornmeal scones, specialty sandwiches and majestic cakes.
In the beginning, the Woods had led a nomadic culinary life, working summers at the Chanticleer Restaurant on Nantucket Island, Mass., while spending the rest of the calendar apprenticing with chefs throughout the country, from Miami to San Francisco.
They settled in Vermont during the 1980s after what they said were “months of survey and statistical analysis” that confirmed Middlebury as the perfect location to open a baked goods business. They first opened their bakery/café in 1986, in what is now the Mad Taco space (formerly Storm Café) in the old Stone Mill building in Frog Hollow.
In 1989, they purchased and renovated the old Esso Station at 14 College St. and turned it into the current Otter Creek Bakery, while simultaneously running the Frog Hollow café for one year.
As they nurtured the bakery, the Woods combined their cooking and baking techniques with local ingredients.
“We pulled from our past and incorporated what was local, and saw how it sold,” Ben said. “And it usually sold really well.”
Well enough to produce an extensive, tasty menu that has yielded a lot of repeat customers. Honey-cornmeal scones, chicken salad, fruit tarts and croissants have been perennial favorites.
The Woods have been serving a second generation of some area families. They recalled the experience of making wedding cakes for the parents and then the children of a local family. The Woods have been grateful for their customers’ loyalty, a devotion that extends into the Middlebury College campus. The bakery has made treats for graduating students, some of whom stick around for their wedding cakes, and then goodies for their children.
“We have people who come in three times a day, and have been coming in for 30 years,” Ben said. “We have people who bought a Caesar’s salad on day one, and that’s still what they choose to buy.”
Seasoned clients have developed such a rapport with the Woods that they sometimes meander behind the counter to chat with the couple as their order is being prepared. This can be a curse and a blessing.
“Sometimes it works out fine, sometimes we’re really busy,” Ben said with a smile.
That’s when Sarah can stop them in their tracks.
“We’ll give them an apron if they’re really persistent,” Sarah laughed.
Generally, Sarah starts baking at 3:30 a.m., and Ben comes in at around 8 a.m. Their workdays overlap, with Sarah leaving when she can and Ben often staying until closing at 6 p.m., or perhaps a little earlier.
“It depends on what we have to do,” Ben said.
And you never know how the orders will stack up.
“It’s never the same,” Sarah said. “Every day is different.”
They won’t miss the personnel responsibilities of the business, but they will miss the easy access to great coffee and food.
“It’s been a labor of love,” Sarah said. “You don’t do this for money; you do it because you want to do it, and you love to bake and make people happy. That’s what it’s all about.”
After helping Horton learn the ropes at the Otter Creek Bakery, the Woods plan on a six-month break before embarking on adventures that will undoubtedly include trips to see their grown children. They’ll also be attentive to Ben’s mom, who’s 92 years old. Ben still has a year left on his term with the Cornwall selectboard. And there’ll be plenty of gardening, woodworking, horse riding and other hobbies and projects to occupy their time.
“We never got that gap year after high school, so we’re getting it now,” Sarah said.

NEW OWNER
Meanwhile, Horton is enthusiastic about his new acquisition and the team that will oversee day-to-day operations. He and Manager Chiyo Sato promised few changes to the bakery’s fare and operations. The current 13 full- and part-time staff will stay on.
“I’ll stay out of the kitchen and recipes; I’m more of a marketing person,” said Horton, a successful entrepreneur.
He spent many of his formative years in the Middlebury area. Then he left to attend Bowdoin College, and after graduating he got into the radio business in Maine. He eventually (in 1986) settled in Tennessee, purchasing radio stations in Nashville and Birmingham.
Along with radio, Horton loves a good cup of coffee. He established — and still owns — two “Tin Cup” coffee shops in the Nashville area.
Horton moved back to Addison County two years ago and wanted to invest in a local business. He saw the Otter Creek Bakery listing and engaged in productive talks with the Woods to acquire the property.
Sato needs no introduction to the Otter Creek Bakery. She was its manager for three years prior to spending the past year helping set up Haymaker Buns at its Bakery Lane location. She accepted Horton’s offer to rejoin the fold.
“Things will run as usual, and there will be some additions of gluten-free and vegan items to have a bit more variety for the changing diets we’re seeing now,” Sato said. “The staple items will continue on.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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