Brian Noyes Left a Brilliant Career in Publishing to Pursue His Dream of Becoming a Full-Time Baker
For 60-year-old Brian Noyes, the road to becoming one of the country’s most celebrated bakers was long and circuitous. For the first 25 years of his professional life, he served as an art director for prestigious national publications like The Washington Post, Smithsonian, House & Garden and Preservation.
Though baking and cooking were always passions—Noyes delighted in crafting tarts and pastries to share with coworkers—it wasn’t until 2006 that they seized the limelight.
What happened? Seeking an escape from the bustle and roil of D.C. life, Noyes and his now husband, Dwight McNeill, bought a farm in Fauquier County and started weekending in the country. Inspired by the eat local, farmer friendly ethos, Noyes began taking his culinary hobbies more seriously. Making jams from fruit trees on the farm, he sold them in a nearby country store. The products were well-received; customers urged him to make more. Within a year, he’d obtained a cottage-industry permit to commercially bake in the couple’s farmhouse.
“Soon, I was taking Fridays off and baking as much bread, cakes, focaccia, granola and pies as I could,” he says. Come Saturdays, he’d sell them out of the back of a restored 1954 cherry red Ford F-100 pickup truck he and McNeill had bought from Tommy Hilfiger. When Noyes showed up, his ‘Red Truck’ goods quickly sold-out. It didn’t take long for customers to commence arriving early.
“I started to realize that, while I was great at being an art director, baking was my true passion,” says Noyes. Then one Saturday he pulled into the store 30 minutes before it opened and was greeted by a line of waiting customers. “That’s the moment I knew I was on the right track,” he says. “I thought, ‘If I don’t pursue this now, then when?’”
In 2008, at the age of 50, Noyes quit his job at Smithsonian. Cashing out his retirement plans and savings accounts, he renovated a 100-year-old Esso station in the 9,897-person town of Warrenton and opened the Red Truck Bakery.
Ten years later, the company has expanded to a second, much larger location in Marshall. There, in addition to sandwiches and soups, Noyes’s menu of fascinating oddities and Southern staples includes sweet potato bourbon pecan pie; double-chocolate cake with Culpeper County moonshine; and, in the autumn, Shenandoah apple cake, a bundt made with fresh heirloom apples, apple sauce and local apple cider, and glazed with Highland County maple syrup.
Since opening, Red Truck has received more accolades than can easily be listed, including being named one of the U.S.’s top-13 destination bakeries by Condé Nast Traveler. In 2016, former president Barack Obama outed himself as a fan, endorsing Noyes’s pies as follows: “I like pie. That’s not a state secret. And I can confirm that the Red Truck Bakery makes some darn good pie.”
What was your first experience in baking?
I started cooking in high school, then got into baking in my early 20s. My uncle Stan lived in Florida and, because he was a lot like me, we were very close.
Stan loved to tinker around in the kitchen and, at some point, started shipping his latest breads to me in California. I took that as a challenge and reciprocated, proudly sending my own baked goods across the country. A Florida-postmarked carton would arrive a couple of weeks later, along with his response. My original recipe would be in the box, with friendly ‘corrections’ marked in red ink.
After a spirited back-and-forth over the better part of a year, we nailed down a multigrain wheat bread full of golden raisins, dried cranberries and walnuts. It’s now a staple at Red Truck.
Though you were working in demanding positions for a variety of publications, you received a formal culinary education. Tell us about your background and training.
By the time I opened Red Truck, I knew my way around a kitchen very well. Throughout my tenure in the magazine world, I would occasionally take a month off to study at the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. There, I was trained in café breads and pastries, as well as artisan, hearth and specialty breads.
Later, I followed Chicago restaurateur Rick Bayless to the CIA’s program in Oaxaca, Mexico, where we cooked regional cuisine in a former convent. I even spent a week taking bread classes at King Arthur Flour’s headquarters in Norwich, Vt.
I learned much more at the prestigious L’Academie de Cuisine, a French-oriented baking and cooking school just outside of D.C. There, I took classes led by Mark Ramsdell, former assistant to White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier.
How did you make the leap from weekend warrior to opening a full-time, brick and mortar location?
After Dwight and I bought our farmhouse in Orlean, baking became a major weekend hobby. I started selling on Saturdays and getting a following. The enthusiasm of my customers led to considerations of opening my own food joint. But that was a huge leap; I remained hesitant.
Then, by a stroke of luck, food writer Marian Burros tasted some Red Truck goodies a patron of ours had brought to a Fourth of July picnic in Little Washington. Afterward, she called me and asked for some more samples. On Nov. 28, 2007, she wrote us up in The New York Times as part of her annual guide of great foods to order online. That day, we got 57,000 hits on our website. The day before, we’d had just 24.
That’s when I saw the future. I tendered my resignation almost immediately.
But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. You had some troubles early on, correct?
Oh yeah. Going in, I had a bunch of investors lined up to help fund things and, feeling confident, signed a five-year lease on a rundown old 1921 Esso service station. Then came the Great Recession—and everyone fled.
By then, I’d already hired a couple of staffers and worked out contracts with more than a few local farmers to produce specialty crops or items. Luckily, Dwight was all in. He agreed to design and renovate the space in exchange for free coffee for life and all the baked goods he could eat. I sank every dime I had into getting us ready to open and we did so on July 31, 2009.
For a couple of years, I spent quite a few sleepless nights fretting about making payroll or paying suppliers. I even had to take out a loan from an acquaintance to keep the bakery afloat. It was terrifying and pretty tough, but I believed in what I was doing and, somehow or another, managed to stick it out.
You opened a second location in Marshall in 2015, which is now your headquarters. Tell us about the move.
Our original location in Warrenton was really small. The retail area is literally the main office of an old gas station. Our kitchen and dining room are located in what used to be two service bays. Ingredients, plates, and so on are stored in a basement that you have to walk around the building to get to.
After Marian Burros and others wrote us up, we suddenly had orders flooding in from around the country. We managed the shipping by renting space in an office building across the street next to the courthouse. But that left us wheeling baked rum cakes down the street on a cart through sleet, snow and rain to box them up and get them ready for shipping during the Christmas rush.
We did that for about five years and knew we had to find a permanent solution.
One day, county supervisor Peter Schwartz stopped by and suggested we consider the village of Marshall. Dwight and I checked out the area, and I fell in love with a pair of conjoined historic buildings on Main Street. They were in complete disrepair, but I loved the feel and look of them. Also, the space was four times as big as our Warrenton location and had a loading bay out back.
Peter helped us gather investors, and Dwight reenlisted as my architect. We gutted the buildings and tried to make them look a bit more like they did in the early 1910s, when they’d housed a pharmacy, Masonic lodge and sweet shop. One of our first customers, actor and filmmaker Robert Duvall, cut the red ribbon on Labor Day 2015.
You emphasize fresh local ingredients. Care to talk about your sourcing policies?
Our focus is on fresh, local and seasonal ingredients—most of which are produced within 20 miles of our stores. Because of that, we proudly participate in the Piedmont Environmental Council’s Buy Fresh, Buy Local campaign. I don’t think we could have found a better region in which to open this kind of operation.
It’s been such a joy to develop close relationships with so many of the area’s farmers, butchers and artisanal producers. We love using their organic and naturally grown produce, sustainably raised livestock and dairy products, local-made honey and so on. I take pride in being able to tell customers exactly where our ingredients are coming from, how they were raised and the stories of those that produce them.
Is there a favorite product, artisan or ingredient you’ve discovered recently?
As part of my mission to develop new takes on old Southern traditions, I’ve started using a lot of sorghum as a substitute for honey or molasses.
It started when a guy came in and wanted to know if I had any shoofly pie. While I love shoofly pie, that’s more of a Yankee thing and, therefore, wasn’t something I offered. But then I thought, ‘Why not run it through a Southern blender?’ Rather than molasses, I decided to use sorghum and call it Not Your Amish Grandmother’s Shoefly Pie.
As a result of the project, I found this amazing farm way out in the Shenandoah Valley called Compass Winds. It’s run by a family of Mennonites. They grow heirloom crops, practice hand-cranked milling and do everything the old-fashioned way by hand. I paid a visit and absolutely fell in love. They make the best sorghum I’ve ever tasted, bar none.
A new item on the menu you’re excited about?
Last fall, I did a green tomato pie. It’s big and beefy and has this amazing hand-formed bacon cheddar crust. Tucked inside are roughly chopped veggies from Jumpin Run Farm, smoked paprika, mayo and bacon from Tennessee’s pork guru, Allan Benton.
I got the idea from keeping a garden and being inundated with green tomatoes. I’d been using them to make chutney and jam, and thought, ‘Why don’t I dump some of this in a pie shell and see what comes up?’ The results blew me away, and I’m eagerly anticipating its return this fall.
What’s next for Brian Noyes and Red Truck?
We recently landed a big cookbook deal with ClarksonPotter, the only dedicated lifestyle group within Penguin Random House. My inspiration for the project was the fact that there are few, if any, cookbooks that tell the story of food as seen through the eyes of Virginia’s Piedmont region. It struck me that this would be a great way to share our recipes, as well as a good excuse to visit and photograph some of our favorite producers …
I’ve been working with food writer Nevin Martell, and it’s taken us about three years to put the thing together. For me, the hardest—and also most time consuming—aspect has been trying to translate recipes that I use in a commercial kitchen into something that will work at home. It’s been a long time since I was cooking out of the oven in the farmhouse. The process has required a lot of experimentation and back and forth with test cooks.
The book will be out this October and will include around 80 recipes. We’re not holding back any secrets. We ship thousands of bags of granola each year, and our granola recipe will be in there—and believe me, that’s one people have been trying to get their hands on for a long time!
See the Red Truck Bakery’s Green Tomato Pie recipe from the Red Truck Bakery Cookbook here.