Why does Tellico Plains, a very small town in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, have such a terrific artisan bakeshop—Tellico Grains Bakery?
story & photos by Bakery Boy
Tellico Plains, Tennessee is one of those tiny towns (population around 900) you half expect to just blow away someday. Located 60 miles southwest of Knoxville and 75 miles northeast of Chattanooga in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains and surrounded by farms and forests, it amounts to a few homes and a couple of blocks of one- or two-story stores. A trickle of recreational travelers passes through while driving the area’s scenic highways or going biking, hiking and white-water rafting.
So how does Tellico Plains—which earns only the briefest of mentions in accounts of 1500s explorer Hernando Desoto passing through, 1700s Cherokee trading paths, 1800s Civil War skirmishes, and the heyday of logging—come to have a world-class artisan bakery? Complete with a handcrafted wood-fired brick oven and a devotion to classic Old World baking techniques? Cranking out all manner of pastries, pies, cakes, cookies, muffins, crusty breads and even pizzas?
The simple answer: “Because we love it here!” says baker Stuart Shull, co-owner of Tellico Grains Bakery along with wife and fellow baker Anissa Shull.
“We looked at places all over the country and then decided to come here in 2002,” Stuart says while stirring starter for bread dough and eyeing the temperature in their prized wood-burning oven.
“The cost of living is low. We found the perfect building where we can live right upstairs from work. Our neighbors have been very receptive to all the things we’re baking,” he says.
“We both like to hike and ride bikes, two things this area is perfect for,” Anissa adds. “And it’s a great area to raise a family. We had our two daughters—Anja, who’s 6, and Simone, who’s 3—since moving here.”
The couple zigzagged their way to Tellico Plains. Stuart, originally from Kansas, discovered an interest in foods during high school when he signed up for a cooking class because it sounded easy. Baking pies and breads and cooking steaks and lobsters turned out to be more fun than he expected. At Kansas State University, he studied baking sciences and restaurant management before slipping off to ski-resort-intensive Crested Butte, Colorado, to work as a line cook in a restaurant, where he met pastry chef Anissa.
Anissa, an Iowa native, came to pastry through, of all things, artificial insemination of hogs. “I was a lab rat with a degree in animal sciences, and I worked with hogs at the University of Missouri for three years before becoming a baker,” she says with a slight smile, knowing how odd this must sound, as she rolls dough for turnovers. “I also worked in a veterinary molecular biology lab at Montana State University, making vaccines used on bison in Yellowstone National Park,” she adds, checking on the progress of a browning quiche.
“I discovered the comfort of baking at home while I was still in college, but I never thought I’d do this for a living,” Anissa says. “In Bozeman I worked part time at two bakeries—a coffee-and-scones place called The Daily Coffee Bar and later On the Rise, where they bake in a traditional wood-fired oven. I was fascinated by that oven.”
Inspired in part by the seminal bread-baking book Bread Alone by Daniel Leader of Bread Alone Bakery in Boiceville, New York, Anissa made the jump from critters to the culinary world, heading to New York City to complete the Art of International Bread Baking course of study at the French Culinary Institute.
Stuart and Anissa relocated together from Crested Butte to Aspen, Colorado, to work in another ski-town restaurant. One day Anissa brought home The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens, a book by wood-fired-brick-oven-building guru Alan Scott. “That started us thinking about having our own bakery,” Stuart says. “We later met Alan Scott and took his oven-building class at Scratch Bakery [Scratch Brick Oven Food Works] in Johnson City, Tennessee.”
But first, more detours. “To get some accreditation beyond a lot of on-the-job training, I was going to go to culinary school in New York,” Stuart explains. “Classes were to start on September 15, 2001—four days after 9/11, which changed everything. We’d barely settled in before chaos broke out, so we packed everything into our Chevy Blazer and headed to Charleston, South Carolina, one of the best foodie towns on the East Coast.”
There, Anissa worked at Normandy Farm Artisan Bakery on Society Street downtown (it has since moved to the West Ashley area). “That’s where I learned to make croissants by the hundreds for the Charleston Place Hotel, one of Normandy Farm’s biggest customers,” she says.
They began searching for a place to launch their own bakery. After passing up nearly a dozen possibilities, they found tiny Tellico Plains and a squat little brick building available just off the town square.
HOME AT LAST
“This building began as a bank in 1908,” Stuart says, ducking into a steel vault now used to store ingredients. “Over the years it also held a doctor’s office, vinyl and carpet store, post office, VCR repair shop and other businesses. We have the building next door too. It was a movie theater, pawnshop, grocery and who knows what else.” They gutted both to make Tellico Grains downstairs and the family’s living space upstairs.
With friends helping, they constructed a wood-burning brick oven with a 6-foot by 4-foot hearth, an arched ceiling, and a cave-like arched door. “We burn about $60 worth of wood a week, mostly 3-foot lengths of old pallet boards made of poplar, maple and red oak that all burn great,” Stuart says. “It might cost about the same as if we used gas, but we prefer baking with wood.”
“We take turns baking,” Anissa says. “I bake in the daytime and Stuart bakes at night, so we don’t get in each other’s way and one of us is always available to be with the kids.”
As if on cue, Simone makes an entrance, riding a pink bike with training wheels through the bakery, dodging hot pans of scones, avoiding whirling mixers, and asking what’s for lunch? She and her sister Anja, a first-grader due home from school any minute, are growing up in a bakery, just like I did, with work, play, home, jobs, customers, friends, parents and bosses all rolled together. What an adventure they’re having!
Working their separate shifts, with overlaps that let them talk while staying busy, the two bakers produce a miraculous variety. Hefty scones teem with blueberries or cranberries. Brownies feature walnuts, cheesecake and other variations. Croissants come plain, filled with chocolate, or topped with strawberries and whipped cream cheese. Muffins, cookies, cupcakes, turnovers, fruit tarts, Danish pastries and more gradually fill showcases and then quickly disappear in the hands of satisfied customers.
I watch as Anissa fills a quiche with eggs, bacon, tomatoes and spinach, bakes it, slices it, and serves it to people who wait around after catching a whiff. The whole aromatic pie is gone in minutes.
Meanwhile Stuart plans out his night’s bread schedule. The oven holds at most 35 loaves at once. He must time each batch of dough to be ready in tight sequence, making efficient use of the space and accounting for the gradually falling temperature inside. The results—big, brown, crusty loaves of herbed black olive, honey wheat, cranberry pecan, multi-grain, pumpernickel rye, raisin walnut, sourdough, herb flatbread smeared with a salty brine on top, and other variations—take center stage on rustic wooden display shelves. Some loaves get sliced for piled-high deli sandwiches, which fly out the door with hungry hikers, bicyclists, whitewater paddlers, motorcycle clubs and other fans.
Saturday is Pizza Day at Tellico Grains. Instead of making his usual humped, round, crusty loaves, Stuart rolls out flatbread dough and tops it with fresh local ingredients, including prosciutto and bacon from Benton’s Smoky Mountain Country Hams in nearby Madisonville, Tennessee, and portabellas from Monterey Mushrooms in Loudon, Tennessee, as well as feta, spinach, artichoke hearts, onions and more. “During the growing season around here, people bring us extra tomatoes and zucchini and other produce from their gardens just to see what we’ll do with it,” Anissa says.
EXPANDING THEIR AUDIENCE
“To survive as a bakery in this small of a community, we cater to three different audiences,” Stuart says. “First there are the locals. Many had never tasted some of the more exotic things we bake, but they’ve been great about trying new things. Second are visitors who come to the area for the Smoky Mountains and hear about us or stumble upon us. Third are what I call the ‘foodies,’ people who really know and love great food, who seek out good food wherever they go, and who are willing to drive from Knoxville or Chattanooga or Atlanta or other cities just to try whatever we’re making at the time.”
The bakery also delivers baked goods regularly to several fresh markets: Three Rivers Market, a natural-foods cooperative at 937 North Broadway in Knoxville (moving to a bigger site at 1100 North Central Street in late August), 865-525-2069; The Market in Maryville at 606 High Street in Maryville, 865-541-5150; The Market at Union and Gay at 504 South Gay Street in downtown Knoxville, 865-541-5150; The Public House organic restaurant at 212 West Magnolia Avenue in Knoxville’s Old City district, 865-247-4344; and the Just Ripe food co-op at 513 Union Avenue in downtown Knoxville, 865-851-9327.
To reach an even wider audience, including people who’ve been to Tellico Grains but don’t live close enough to stop by often, the bakery offers mail-order service. Gift boxes include cinnamon rolls slathered with gooey vanilla butter cream, scones loaded with cranberry and orange or raspberry and white chocolate, variety packs of brownies, or whole loaves of hearth-baked breads.
One Monday each month Stuart and Anissa drive to Knoxville for a live television spot on WBIR-10’s “Channel 10 News at Noon” show. “It’s a 4-minute segment, so we come up with recipes or techniques we can demonstrate in that short a time,” Anissa says. The TV gig helps attract more day-trippers to Tellico Plains to check out Tellico Grains.
LABOR OF LOVE
“Tellico Grains is our labor of love,” Anissa says. “Considering that I used to be a lab rat who hardly ever had people around to talk to, and now I talk to customers constantly, it’s been a complete turnaround for me. We’ve made so many friends here! I think some people come in as much to see each other and chat with us as they do for the baked goods. But they like the baked goods too, so it’s all working out fine.”
105 Depot Street
Tellico Plains, TN 37385
Click here to see a separate Bakery Boy Blog post about Stuart Shull enjoying cookies and milk at Tellico Grains Bakery
For more about traveling in Tennessee: www.tnvacation.com
For more about Great Smoky Mountains National Park: www.nps.gov/grsm