It's early. We know it's early because it's still dark out, the streets are surreally still and the birds aren't even up yet. The photographer and I are not fully awake and wondering how on earth we could have thought this assignment was such a great idea. But Joe Thomsen meets us at the door of his coffee shop with floury hands and suddenly the sleep deprivation, the busy day ahead of us -- none of it matters anymore. We walk into a space redolent with the spicy-cozy aromas of carrot cake, and the warm yellow light feels like a temporary sun. As Thomsen hands us each a cup of coffee, all is right with the world.
"Even though I've been up for a couple of hours, I'm not used to talking to other people this early in the morning," says Thomsen, who owns the eponymous coffee shop and bakery, Joe's Coffee. He leads us into the kitchen, which he shares with Beneditto's Pizza next door. "The first thing I do is rearrange and straighten things up from the night before," he says, pulling some flour buckets out and checking his spices. Thomsen comes in between 3 and 3:30 am. Having the kitchen ready to go is crucial. We ask him if he's a morning person, and he laughs, shaking his head. "Not really. And I try not to have any coffee until around 6 or 7," he says. "The last thing I want to do is start waking up at 3 am on my days off craving a cup of coffee."
The kitchen is mostly quiet while he works. He weighs dough, checks the carrot cakes -- mini-loaves, perfect for solo snarfing -- and slices the scones into tender triangles. He says that he usually starts with the scones and the mini-loaves, but, depending on the day of the week, he might also start with something yeasty like a kugen or Saturday's main attraction, the cinnamon rolls.
"I also have mental markers," he says. "I know what things I need to have in the oven by this time or that time."
His recipes are in a big white binder with plastic pages, which he periodically checks while he works. His carrot cake is a family recipe, and while the rest of his baked goods originated in cookbooks checked out from the library, he's also open to experimentation.
"I'm playing with these lemon zucchini muffins," he says, gesturing at a panful of squat, bowled-over little quickbreads. "They're not very photogenic, but they taste good. You find out that a simple thing like lemon juice changes the whole chemistry. Sometimes I've been so out of it that I'll forget to put lemon juice in the scones and they come out like door wedges."
It's beginning to grow light outside, and conversation turns to the "bakery scene" in Spokane. Thomsen has worked in the coffee business for 10 years and has worked at nearly every bakery in town, including the Rocket. Still, he thinks the scene is shrinking. "If anything, in the last five years I think it's shrunk. There's the Rocket, Great Harvest, there was Fugazzi, and there's Cobblestone. And then there's one or two small players like me, Karen Edwards, Take the Cake and the Rockwood Bakery," he says. "And it's funny, specialty baking is one of those things I just kind of stumbled onto. If I thought I could make it as just a coffee shop, I would. "
The sun is fully up by now, and the early trickle of business has begun. Mark Camp from the Shop comes by to pick up some goodies, Thomsen's girlfriend Robin comes in and dons an apron to help open the store, and a few customers stop by for their first cup of coffee. Hunkered over our fresh scones, we are selfishly glad that Thomsen entered the baking world.
Later in the day, we're at Cabin Coffee in Browne's Addition. Pastry chef Karen Edwards has been up since before 5 am to bake the delicious wares in the case, and now she's between her morning job as a self-employed baker and her afternoon job as pastry chef for the Davenport. Like Thomsen, Edwards runs her business, Jackson Valentine's (named after her Jack Russell terrier), with the help of pizza ovens, this time at David's Pizza on Hamilton. Before opening her own business, she worked as an elementary art teacher in New York, and as a pastry chef for Fugazzi in Spokane. Now she finds all of her previous experience coalescing into her current vocation, which she likens to "making art on a plate."
"Business has been really good," she says, her eyes lighting up with enthusiasm. "I've even had to turn away some business because it's just me." In addition to her two jobs, Edwards also does a Monday morning segment on KXLY where she demonstrates a new dessert every week.
A typical day for Edwards begins around 5 am, starting with croissants, cinnamon rolls and coffee cakes. "What's trickier for me is that I deliver," she says. "So I leave David's when the first batch of baking is done, and I do my rounds. I come to the Cabin, to Carter's Coffee and the Shop, and then I go back to David's and bake until about 11, and then I go out and deliver the second round of things, which is usually not so much breakfasty -- stuff like coconut bars, cakes and so on."
As soon as she's done with the second round of deliveries, Edwards heads into the Davenport, which provides a nice balance to the solitude of her morning work. While not officially open yet, the Davenport Hotel is keeping a catering crew busy with its many special events. Edwards says the restaurant (the Palm Court) and lounge is expected to open July 1. "It's kind of fun, it's a pretty tight crew there, and we all kind of feed off of each other," she says."
But the greatest challenges of her work as a baker have little to do with flour, water, yeast and sugar.
"The hardest part is getting the licensing. It's really tough, especially with the fees and then everything you have to do when it's your own business," she says. "I hear people sometimes say, 'I make a really good cheesecake, I should try to sell it here.' Well, if only it were that easy. You've gotta get your Department of Agriculture license, your Department of Health license, your commercial baking permit. It's not just the baking; it's the bureaucracy you've got to go through."
Still, the work is enormously rewarding for Edwards, who takes great pride in the technique and execution of her craft. "I love being able to bring my product to people. Some of my recipes are things my mother would make or my grandmother would make. Being able to bring that to people with my own little touch is really valuable."