Hi-Line Living: A slow rise
Grateful Bread owner talks restaurant growth
November 4, 2016
Havre's Grateful Bread is not an overnight success. It's more like the slow rise of a loaf of bread made from scratch.
Owner Rick Neuwerth's love for baking was kneaded in him a long time ago.
"My mom, when I was a kid, used to make the bread for the week for the family. She had six kids," he said, in between sandwich bites after lunch rush.
"She'd get to the kitchen table, take two or three big dish pans - like they had before you had kitchen sinks that you wash dishes in, right? - and she'd throw in the lard and some warm water and the yeast and the salt and the sugar, and just start mixing it up by hand on the kitchen table," Rick said, reliving the story.
"My job - I was probably 4 or 5, maybe 6 - was to go and get the flour out of the spare bedroom. She'd just give me a little bucket that I could handle, and I'd go to the cloth flour sack and I'd pull out the flour, fill it up and bring it to her and she'd tell me, 'OK I need another one, Richard.' I'd go get her another one, and she'd mix up this bread, and she'd have me grease bread pans and let it rise and bake it," he said. "And then, later on, when I was further on in grade school, I'd come home to the smell of fresh baking - you could smell it before you even got inside the door.
"There'd be donuts and bread and cinnamon rolls, all kinds of stuff. And she'd bake fantastic lemon meringue pie. One time she made a peanut butter frosted cake. It had peanut butter frosting - it was like a yellow cake. Oh, it was like to die for. Years later, I said, 'Hey, Mom - how did you make that?' ... She was a good cook."
Neuwerth said he had a music store for 20 years, but there was something about having a bakery he couldn't shake.
"I'd always kind of wanted a restaurant," he said. "It was always in the back of my mind. And then I thought: 'What would it be like if somebody made fresh homemade bread from scratch and then put it on sandwiches?' So I decided I wanted a bakery."
Neuwerth said he started selling baked goods in the Atrium Mall, where his bakery-restaurant is now located, when the mall had the craft shows on the main floor, about 13 or 14 years ago. During that time, Neuwerth's wife, Sheila Neuwerth, suggested to Dottie Wilson that she bake cookies and sell them at the craft shows.
"Holy cripes. We'd barely get our cars unloaded at the craft sale and we'd be sold out. She'd sell all of her cookie trays and I'd sell all my cinnamon rolls and my bread and stuff and all the rest of the crafters would be looking at us like this," Neuwerth said, his mouth gaping to imitate amazement.
Wilson is now one of two, along with her daughter, who make the hot-selling cookies at Grateful Bread.
Neuwerth said he was saving the money he was making from craft shows to start his bakery.
Grateful Bread opened eight years ago. It began as a place where people could get a morning snack.
"When I first started, it was just me here. I'd open up and I'd make cinnamon rolls and I'd make coffee," he said. "Then it went to the soup and bread. And then to the two sandwiches, and then it evolved from there."
Neuwerth believes destiny played no small role in the restaurant's launch and growth.
"That oven right there - I got that for free," Neuwerth said, pointing at the industrial oven in the restaurant kitchen.
"I'd been talking to some food reps about equipment for a bakery because I wanted to start a bakery. This guy comes in one day to the Frontier Landscaping - when I was working there as a nursery manager - and says, 'I heard you're looking for equipment.' I said, 'I want an oven.' He says, 'I know a guy who's got an oven.' He gave me his number, I called him up and I said, 'Hey, I heard you got an oven. How much you want for it?' He says, 'Fifteen-hundred dollars.'"
Neuwerth said he had to pass on the oven, even though he thought it was a very good deal. It was the end of the season for the nursery and money would be tight for the winter.
But something wouldn't let him forget about the oven.
"The next spring, I had some days off," he said. "I was thinking about my bakery, and you know how you have that voice in your head? Your voice - that's you, when you're talking to yourself. This other voice is saying, 'Hey, give that guy a call.' ... It's the God voice. I'm arguing with God - if you wanna put it that way - 'Oh no, that's gone, that's gone.' 'Give 'em a call.' 'Oh no, it's gone. It's gotta be, it's been almost a year.'"
Neuwerth said he still had the man's card in his wallet. He pulled it out and made the call.
"I called the guy and I tell him who I am and he remembers me," he said," I said, 'Hey, do you still have that oven?' He says, 'Yeah, I do.'
"And before I could ask him how much he wanted for it, he says, 'As a matter of fact, if you come down to Helena and get it, you can have it.'"
Power was another factor that proves destiny to Neuwerth.
"I didn't really wanna come in (the Atrium Mall). ... But something kept guiding me back here. And this was unknown to me - right outside that door is bank and banks of 220 power," he said.
Neuwerth said that if he would've opened the restaurant in the building he originally wanted to, he would've had to spend all the money he got from his loan on bringing power in. But despite reluctance, he ended up in the right place, and it was only afterward that he found out what a big deal it was.
"And stuff like that happens all along," he said.
Today, Grateful Bread has gone from two sandwiches and few soups to 19 sandwiches and 23 soups. They've grown to seven employees and are looking for one more.
Neuwerth said the restaurant would not be what it is today without its workers.
"If I didn't have the crew, this wouldn't be here. I'd be a one-man show without them. This wouldn't go," he said.
What makes them such good employees, Neuwerth said, is that they all want the same thing he wants - "Put out a good product in a timely manner."
"We kind of have a family atmosphere. We have our meal - we all sit down at the table and eat it together," he said. "It's a nice place to work. When it's busy, it's busy and you got to put the pedal to the metal."
Nuewerth has no plans to expand the restaurant's hours, but he is working on introducing some new treats.
"I figured out a way to make a maple stick, or some people call them long johns or maple bars - that I can bake in the oven that still stays tender and soft and. I have a really good maple glaze to put on," he said.
The problem, he said, is time - "As busy as we are, we're pretty much occupied with bread and cinnamon rolls and dinner rolls."
There are no regrets about starting the bakery.
Nuewerth said he comes in to work around 5 a.m., sometimes as early as 3 a.m., all dependent on how many orders he has.
"The bread is always great. It's kind of like a meditation," he said. "I'm down here, it's just me. I got my tunes going, and I'm mixing bread. It's great."