Kalispell bakery has grown from inauspicious beginnings into a beloved culinary mainstay serving customers and restaurants across the valley
Story by Myers Reece | Photography by Sally Finneran
When the temp worker showed up to help Rick Grimm and Hannah Bjornson move an oven, he was understandably expecting the everyday cooking appliance that we all have in our kitchens, the type of job he could knock out on his lunch break. What he found instead was a five-ton Pavailler hearth oven, disassembled and laying in pieces like an archaeological discovery.
It was April 2005, and Grimm and Bjornson were in Seattle to pick up the oven, which was destined to serve as the centerpiece of their soon-to-be-born Ceres Bakery in Kalispell. Working within the confines of a bakery where it resided at the time, they spent nearly a week taking apart the behemoth, labeling the myriad parts and snapping photos for later reference during reassembly. They rented a 24-foot moving truck to transport it back to Montana, but they were given an 18-footer instead. They had to adapt on the fly, much like the unsuspecting temp worker.
“The worker thought it would just be a regular little oven,” Grimm recalled recently. “He ended up being really helpful. He was amazing.”
After Grimm and Bjornson loaded the heavy equipment and started driving home, two more problems awaited them in Montana: they didn’t know exactly how to put the thing back together, nor did they have a home for it.
“We didn’t even know where the bakery was going to be,” Bjornson said.
As they contemplated their next step, with the oven stowed away in a storage unit, they started poking around for information on a forum for the Bread Bakers Guild of America. They knew that if the oven was assembled improperly, it could explode.
Grimm posted a notice – a plea, really – on the guild’s forum asking if anyone with knowledge of Pavailler hearth ovens would like to come visit “beautiful Northwest Montana,” indicating their labor would be paid for not in dollars but by the experience itself. Somebody took them up on the offer, signing on to rebuild the oven in their newly leased Main Street location in downtown Kalispell.
That somebody, unbeknownst to them, turned out to be a highly regarded figure in the artisan baking world, Alvaro Duque-Zamora. He had always wanted to visit Montana, so he hopped on a plane.
While overseeing the reassembly, Duque-Zamora discovered that a crucial part was missing. He whipped up a drawing of the part and took it to a local metal fabrication shop, which cranked it out.
“Without him, the oven just wouldn’t have worked and we would’ve never known why,” Grimm said. “When he was leaving, we kept waiting for him to jump out of the car and say, ‘By the way, here’s a bill for $20,000.’ But he never did. It seemed too good to be true.”
Grimm and Bjornson may have been touched by good fortune in the beginning, but in the years since they’ve made their own luck, living out the Yogi Berra saying, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”
Over the ensuing months, they transformed their downtown location, previously Lucky’s Craft Store, from a gutted shell – no plumbing or electrical infrastructure – into a quaint Main Street bakery, opening on Jan. 23, 2006. With no employees at first, Grimm would bake from 9 p.m. until 2 or 3 a.m., take a catnap, and then wake at 5 a.m. to deliver bread around the valley until noon or 1.
“My goal was to be asleep by 3 so I could be up at 9 to start baking,” he said.
Bjornson, who lacked the commercial baking experience of her husband, worked equally long days making the pastries and running the front end of the shop, which sold baked goods and coffee. They lived in a 300-square-foot apartment above the storefront and didn’t know anybody in town, having moved from Missoula. Red’s, a popular watering hole and gathering place at the time, provided much-needed social support.
“We met so many people at Red’s,” Grimm said. “We were building our community while we were building our business.”
Grimm and Bjornson both grew up in Bismarck, North Dakota, where Grimm got his first baking job at Green Earth Café right out of high school. They moved to Missoula in the mid-1990s and Grimm worked at Bagels on Broadway, followed by a baking gig at the fledgling Le Petit Outre. Leif Bjelland, Le Petit’s owner, took Grimm under his wing and later encouraged the young couple to open their own business. He also sold them equipment that he had stored away in anticipation of opening a second bakery, which he never did. The only essential item Bjelland didn’t have was the oven.
Bjelland helped Grimm and Bjornson decide on the Flathead, partly because he was from the valley and also because it was the only highly populated area of Montana without a similar bakery. To scout out the market, Grimm baked breads in his Missoula house and hand-delivered them to businesses in the Flathead. One welcoming destination was McGarry’s Roadhouse in Whitefish.
Steve and Sandy Nogal, owners of McGarry’s, wrote a letter extolling the quality of Grimm’s breads and gave it to the bank that was determining whether to hand out a loan to start Ceres. McGarry’s, which still serves Ceres bread, was initially one of the bakery’s few wholesale accounts. Today, there are 56 spread across the valley, including Café Kandahar and other respected fine-dining restaurants. The bakery might churn out 1,000 pounds of dough in a single day.
Perhaps the most pivotal new account was Scotty’s Bar. When owner Karla Levengood approached Grimm about making burger buns, he had never done it before. But he gave it a whirl, and the buns quickly became Ceres’ most marketable commercial item.
“If I would have said no (to Levengood),” Grimm said, “the bakery might not exist today.”
As Ceres celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, Grimm and Bjornson are taking time to appreciate how far they’ve come. With 17 employees now, ranging from delivery drivers to bakers to baristas, the couple doesn’t have to work such grueling hours, freeing up time to spend with their 7-year-old daughter, Freya.
“For seven years we basically sacrificed our personal life,” Grimm said. “I’m super excited that we could make it work out here and get to live here.”
Over the decade, they’ve had to endure the usual dilemmas of any startup, as well as problems specific to their industry. When you work exclusively with commodities, you’re beholden to market whims that are often volatile and occasionally outrageous. During the recession, the price of flour doubled and semolina tripled.
“We can’t just raise our prices and put it all on our customers,” Grimm said. “So we have to suck it up, weather the storm, cross our fingers and hope it comes back.”
While the 10-year anniversary is cause for celebration, another significant milestone occurred five years ago when they bought a second oven. Duque-Zamora returned to lend his expertise. This time went smoother, although Grimm and Bjornson don’t regret the difficulties of the first purchase, nor do they bemoan the brutal hours it took to realize their dream, because through struggle the rewards grow sweeter and the stories get better. Somewhere on the West Coast, there’s a guy telling his buddies about the time he showed up to move an oven and ended up launching a career.