by Michael Sherman
After thirty-seven years of baking, slicing, wrapping and delivering bread for family, friends, neighbors, much of central Vermont, and more recently, Burlington and Middlebury, Elaine Manghi has hung up her apron and turned full-time to tending her garden, riding her bicycle, walking or cross-country skiing in the woods around East Montpelier, knitting and other pleasures. Retirement hardly seems the right word for the busy, active Manghis’ Bread bakery co-founder, who on May 4 handed over operation of the business to her daughter Maria Manghi Stoufer and son-in-law Steve Stoufer.
A native of Northfield—with short interludes living with her parents in Plainfield and Marshfield—Elaine Thomas graduated from Northfield High School, attended Castleton State College and the University of Vermont, where she studied to become an elementary school teacher. She was teaching at Ira Allen Elementary School in Burlington when she and a good friend from high school, Paul Manghi, reconnected and married in 1969. Paul, who graduated from Maryknoll College in Illinois but gave up a plan to be a missionary priest to instead work in special education, enlisted in the army and had just completed Officer Candidate School in Georgia when he and Elaine married.
On their road trip from Northfield to Fort Knox, Kentucky, where Paul was posted, Elaine admitted that she didn’t know how to cook: “I had never really even scrambled an egg. My mother was an amazing cook and did all of that, never really taught us how to cook or asked us to cook. So Paul kiddingly said, ‘Well, you’ve got ten days to learn how to cook’—and five of those were on the road getting there. But we both did pretty well and we both learned to cook.”
After a brief posting at Fort Polk in Louisiana, Paul was assigned to Vietnam, so Elaine returned to Vermont, got a teaching job at Union Elementary School in Montpelier, and waited for Paul to return, which he did in the summer of 1971. They moved to Syracuse, NY for two years where Paul studied special education at Syracuse University and Elaine found a substitute teaching position. In his second year of graduate school, Paul was assigned to do his practice teaching in the class that Elaine had taken over when the permanent teacher broke her hip and was out for the semester. “So I got paid and he did all the work,” Elaine says. It was their first experience working together and they enjoyed it. Returning to Vermont, Paul and Elaine settled briefly in St. Albans, where they both found teaching jobs.
If you ask Elaine how she got into the bakery business, she’ll tell you, “Probably, just daydreams. Paul and I would daydream about doing jobs together. We had done some weaving and Paul was very handy at carpentry, and one year we made Christmas gifts for the whole family: breads, cakes, knitted goods, homemade things, bookcases, and we thought it would be neat someday to have a little business. One of the dreams was ‘Wool, Wood and Wheat.’ We thought working together and being independent business people would be fun. And we thought we had some skills.”
But Elaine’s baking business started with a friend in the kitchen of the Manghis’ rented house in Randolph, where they moved in 1974 with their newly adopted infant daughter, Maria, when Paul took a job with Orange County Mental Health (now called the Clara Martin Center). Elaine started baking breads and pastries with a friend who had her own children to look after. They sold and delivered their products to the Randolph Herald offices, the high school, White River Co-op and a few individual customers. When her friend returned to a nursing job, Elaine continued baking, along with some substitute teaching. In 1977, the Manghis, now with another adopted child, Matthew, moved to North Randolph, where Elaine continued and expanded her baking business—not always for cash. “We started bartering bread. We had to have a tree cut down and we bartered with a fellow to cut the tree down, traded him bread and eggs, because by then we had chickens. We bartered with various people for maple syrup and I don’t know what else.” Elaine carried on the bread business by herself for three years “baking bread while the kids played with Playdough or their own dough, in between house chores, garden chores, chicken chores, and trips into town for delivering and pre-school.”
In 1980, Paul took a job in Waterbury, helping patients at the state hospital learn work skills that would allow them to transition out of the institution. The family moved to Montpelier, where Elaine’s bread baking expanded yet again. A friend suggested that she market her bread to the Hunger Mountain Coop; another friend, who commuted to Randolph, offered to carry Elaine’s breads to her customers there—the origins of the now well-established network of commuter bread drivers who work in Montpelier and live elsewhere (or vice versa), and who receive a loaf of bread for each delivery they make to a store out of the Montpelier-Barre area. Paul made some racks to hold six loaves—some still in use at the bakery on School Street—and carts to hold the racks, because by now, Elaine was baking twenty-four to forty-eight loaves of bread twice a week and delivering them to Northfield and downtown Montpelier, or walking them down the hill from their Ridge Street home to the co-op, at the time located on Barre Street.
In 1981, Elaine’s baking business took another big step when the vestry committee at Christ Church in Montpelier offered Elaine the use of their kitchen and oven for her bread baking and Paul left his position in Waterbury. A decade after daydreaming about working and operating a business together, Paul joined Elaine in the baking operation—he always said that Elaine hired him, so she was “the boss.” They borrowed $3,000 through the Montpelier Small Business Development Loan Fund (which used to be administered by the predecessor of Montpelier Alive), bought a second-hand industrial-sized mixer from a baker in Lincoln, moved it and what little equipment they had into the church, and set up a business. A few months later, they moved the bakery to an unused gas company storage building behind the Savoy Theater, and when that building was sold and slated for destruction, they moved again in 1982 to their current location at 28 School Street. For a few years, they shared the space and facilities with their friend Caroline Garside. The Manghis baked bread in the morning, left around 3 p.m., and Garside baked pastries until midnight.
The bread business expanded in quantity, market reach and variety. Starting with four breads—high protein, rye, challah and white—they added honey bran, a whole wheat/white recipe, and—at the request of the Green Mountain Diner in Barre—a high gluten white that was especially good for toast. Although Paul believed that every community ought to have its own baker, the Manghis were glad to be able to sell their bread to many communities that did not. They sought out stores and delis throughout central Vermont—wherever they could find commuter-drivers—and then, stores and delis started to contact them. They researched and experimented with new recipes and added new kinds of products. They improved their business operations and skills by having an artist design a label for them and by printing labels that relieved them of the task of handwriting the weight and price for each loaf; refining their billing and sales procedures; tracking prices of ingredients and operating costs; and taking accounting courses at CCV. Over the years, they added new breads and bread products—some by request (dinner rolls) and some to expand their offerings. “We needed the variety. We wanted to bump it up for us, for our own interest and creating things,” Elaine explains. They added new breads to use distinctively local ingredients. “We decided that it’s Vermont, so we should really be making a bread with maple syrup, so we made that loaf up,” Elaine says. They added some to mark holidays and their own family traditions, including challas of various shapes, sizes and varieties, as well as Italian panettone, German stollen, Paul’s mother’s bourbon cake, and Elaine’s mother’s spice cake for Thanksgiving and the winter holidays, along with hot cross buns in early spring until Easter. One or two evolved by accident like their whole wheat-raisin-cinnamon-oatmeal. The offerings have grown to the current list of 27 varieties of bread, two kinds of dinner rolls, two varieties of granola, two varieties of pizza dough, four kinds of breakfast sweet treats, and five kinds of holiday treats.
The bakery remained a two-person operation for several more years, with Paul starting at 5 a.m. and Elaine arriving at the bakery after their children went off to school and leaving in time to meet them after school. One year, they hired Jeffrey Larkin, a student at U-32, who persisted in asking for work to fund a cross-country bicycle trip he was planning (Larkin now owns Arvad’s in Waterbury, which still buys the Manghis’ breads). In 1985, they hired their first coworker, Beth Barndt, a baker who lived upstairs, to help Paul with the early morning mixing. After that they slowly added full-time and part-time staff to do mixing, shaping and baking, slicing and packaging, and local delivery. Some staff stay for a short time, some stay on for years, some leave and return—all feeling as if they are part of a family.
And over the years Elaine has treated the staff—and her customers—like family. A few of the bakery traditions—mostly Elaine’s ideas or practices—reinforce those feelings. Each employee gets a pie on his or her birthday. “I love birthdays. I love celebrating people’s birthdays in little ways or big ways, so I decided to make a pie for everybody on their birthday that would be shared at the bakery, and then the rest of the pie would go home with them. And my recent decision is to continue that because it’s in the [employee] handbook and because I love doing it, and it will keep me connected to the tradition that I’ve really liked. I, however, get a cake or ice cream on my birthday.”
Every year the Manghis hosted a dinner for their staff. Early on, Paul and Elaine did all the cooking. When they expanded the party to include families, it became a potluck.
Perhaps the best known and most beloved tradition at the bakery is the distribution of rolls (Italian guastelle) to school kids and toddlers. The tradition began when Elaine’s own children started bringing their classmates to the bakery. It expanded to selling rolls for a nickel to kids waiting near the Kellogg-Hubbard Library (next door to the bakery) for the Lotus Lake bus during the summer. Those kids then started coming into the bakery on their way to or from Union Elementary School (down the street from the bakery), and then parents began showing up at the door with their toddlers on the way to or from the library’s story hour programs. Now there are generations of kids, some grown to adulthood and with children of their own, who come to purchase or receive as a little gift a guastelle fresh out of the oven. Kids learn to say “please” and “thank you”; some get their first lessons in applied arithmetic as they learn to count change. Combined with the adults of all ages who come in to purchase a loaf of bread or some other product, these small transactions make the Manghis’ bakery a community crossroads and meeting place.
“We love the customer retail community,” Elaine says, “and we’ve made friends and become close friends with several of our customers. We have become a listening and sharing force with people’s lives. A community like Montpelier can do that.”
Paul Manghi died unexpectedly in February 2010. He and Elaine had already begun discussing their transition to retirement and passing the bakery on to Maria and her husband Steve, both graduates of the New England Culinary Institute with experience in operating and managing businesses in the food industry. Maria was working at the bakery at the time and has gradually taken over much of the financial, marketing and customer service side of the business. Steve left NECI in May 2011 to work full time at the bakery, oversee production and develop some new products. But most of what Paul and Elaine dreamed about accomplishing and started remains at the core of The Manghis’ Bread as Elaine has prepared for her departure from day-to-day presence there and handing the business over to the next generation.
Reflecting on her thirty-seven years at the bakery, Elaine emphasizes two ideas. First was the challenge of learning how to manage a business. “Learning how to be bosses is one of the challenges that we complained about the most. We were not management-type people. We too much enjoyed sharing the construction and the sales and the benefits of this business that was working out so well. We liked working with people, hiring people to work with us.”
The other is the fulfillment of the daydream she and Paul had early in their marriage: to work together to create and build a business using their skills and personal resources. “It’s been a joy. It’s been confidence-building. We learned a ton of skills that we did not have and didn’t think we’d ever need. We just learned by doing, making some mistakes and figuring things out by spending a lot of time processing. We didn’t have staff meetings, but we had after-dinner meetings or after-dinner conversations all the time. We talked about being proud to have made something—a business, a connection to the community, something that people need and something that is essentially good for us.”
Michael Sherman is an employee at The Manghis’ Bread.