Melissa Conway has one of the best-smelling jobs around: She’s a baker. But she only recently gave up her longtime corporate career to open the area’s third Great Harvest Bread Co. “When I was younger, I worked on Capitol Hill, I worked for the federal government, Fortune 500 companies, but I always wanted to do my own thing, so this was kind of the next step,” says Conway, who lives in south Charlotte with her husband, Hank, and their two kids. “I wanted to do something on my own, something where people would come in and, I don’t know how to phrase this, just be happy. My husband was watching customers come in when we first opened and he said they would walk in, look around, and slowly they would just smile. They definitely come for the smell. It’s not a stressful place. There’s no drama.”Great Harvest opened November in The Arbors at Mallard Creek, offering its famous freshly baked whole grain breads, sweets and made-to-order sandwiches and salads. The Great Harvest national franchise started in the late 1970s. Headquartered in Billings, Mont., more than 200 of its bakeries dot the continental U.S., Alaska and Hawaii. The company shares an arsenal of perfected recipes and boasts it is the nation’s first family of independently owned and operated whole grain bread bakeries. Great Harvest bakeries grind “premium” Montana wheat berries into whole wheat flour each morning using electrical mills on site. The pesticide-free flour then gets blended with ingredients such as yeast, honey, purified water and herbs that are designed to help retain nutrients. “It’s a whole equation, including the temperature, how long it’s been mixing, it’s a whole science,” says Conway, who always stays loyal to a recipe at least twice before tweaking it. “Humidity, elevation and oven temp also can affect things. You just have to get in and try it.”Conway’s father was in the military and one of her earliest memories is baking Christmas cookies with her mom while stationed in Germany. “We made dozens and dozens, but when I look back on it, I don’t know why because we didn’t know anybody; nobody came to visit. It just made us feel like home,” says Conway.Conway took cooking lessons at an early age and was an avid baker before she was 10. When she was 13, she went on a cornbread kick and served different varieties with her family’s dinner almost nightly. She then moved on to “Sticky Buns.” In college, she’d leave Virginia Tech on the weekends to bake bread at her parents’ house. “I was trying to perfect recipes. I wanted to find the perfect recipe,” says Conway. “Oatmeal bread, Sally Lunn bread, I just love a really good yeast bread. They’re hearty – when you open the bag and it smells like a bakery.”And that, she says, is exactly what you’ll find at her store, where a stream of repeat customers help deplete its 300-plus loaves of bread baked daily. Its signature and specialty breads range from $5 to $7 per loaf. Varieties include the traditional Honey Whole Wheat, Farmhouse White and the more exotic: Mediterranean Olive, 9-Grain and the owner’s favorite, Apple Crunch, a whole wheat and white flour blend made with Granny Smith apples, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg. Sweet treats make up more than half of the store’s inventory. They include Dillon cookies, an oatmeal walnut chocolate chip cookie, and Snickerdoodles; brownies; muffins (apple spice, blueberry lemon and raspberry white chocolate chip, to name a few); cream cheese or maple oat scones; and the ever-popular Savannah Bars, a richly layered bar with oats, coconut and an assortment of berries and fruit. Patrons can choose from more than a half-dozen signature, classic and kids’ sandwiches that excite the palate. The California Cobb combines turkey, avocado, bacon and blue cheese spread. Fresh pepper rings, cucumber slices, provolone and a cheddar and red pepper garlic spread mingle on the Harvest Veggie. There are chicken and tuna salad sandwiches as well as a roast beef and a BLT. They top out at $6.50. Four types of salads – a garden, harvest, chicken and tuna – also are about $6 each. Bread and dessert gift baskets can be customized and start around $30. The store’s “Grab and Go” selection features mixes for pancakes, scones, brownies and an assortment of dipping oils, jams, jellies and honey. Patrons can (and should) browse “The Bread Board,” which is filled and regularly re-stocked with hefty free samples of the day’s baked creations.Exactly the kind of fresh food that makes customers smile.
Want to go?What: Great Harvest Bread Co.
Where: 1824 E. Arbors Drive, Suite 390, Charlotte, in The Arbors at Mallard Creek, next to Trader Joe’s.
Store hours: 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Mondays-Fridays; 7 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Saturdays.
More information: 704-791-7280 or Great Harvest North Charlotte.