Rock Hill Bakehouse
Matt Funiciello owner of Rock Hill Bakehouse is living proof that sometimes really good decisions can be made over one too many shots of schnapps on New Year’s Eve.
“It was a magical night. New Year’s Eve,” Matt remembers. “There was quite a bit of schnapps. My stepbrother Josh was taking pharmacology courses at SUNY Albany, and I was at University of Ottawa, studying English with an eye on the journalism program at Carleton, which is nearby. We were going back and forth all night, trading stories. He decided he was spending most of his time ‘killing mice’ and I felt like college was just paying for intellectual prison. We were working-class kids without resources, but we decided then and there to figure out a way to start our own business.”
Matt, who spent his high school years in Ottawa, had worked in a butcher shop, and the pair moved to North Bennington, Vermont, to open up their own small bakery and deli. But they were in their 20s, and despite their initial eagerness to make a go of it, classic first-time entrepreneur issues with capital, space and intellectual acrobats over the business plan ensued. Time wore on. The boys considered slinking back to school with their tails between their legs.
But then, these working class boys without resources stumbled into the biggest get of their lives.
“Josh had an on-again, off-again relationship with his father, Michael London,” Matt explains. “And Mike and his wife and baking partner, Wendy, invited Josh over for lunch at their house in Greenwich to catch up. I went along for moral support. Well, Wendy brought out this fresh baguette and I was blown away by the taste. I had never had bread that good. The rest of the lunch it was mostly me, Michael and Wendy talking about the bread, their process and how they achieve such an incredible taste with fresh ingredients and classic techniques. When we drove away, I told Josh, ‘You do realize we’re going to take their business over, right?’”
While Michael and Wendy hadn’t consciously invited the would-be entrepreneurs over to their home and waved their fragrant loaves of artisanal bread under their noses to hypnotize them into taking over their business, the thought must have occurred to them as an obvious solution to both of their conundrums. The Londons were ready to move onto another business, and these two hungry young bucks were eager to take on something they could call their own.
It wasn’t without complications, both personal and professional. The Londons had first opened shop as Mrs. London’s on Saratoga’s Phila Street in the current Four Seasons space in 1977 but were driven out of business in 1983 because of construction in front of their shop (no one could get to them), Matt explains.
After the first iteration of Mrs. London’s shut down, a non-compete arrangement effectively kept the Londons out of retail business in the Saratoga Springs market for the better part of a decade. They retreated to their Greenwich farmhouse and decided to try to make a go of it simply baking bread. By 1986, cresting on the reputation of their fine hearth-baked breads, they had established a serious footprint in the market, from here to Manhattan. (They were one of the first vendors at the Union Square Greenmarket.)
The Eastern European ryes and sourdough loaves emerging from their farmhouse kitchen soon began to catch the attention of not just carb-focused foodies, but Michelin-starred New York City chefs at restaurants like Le Bernardin and Aureole.
But the Londons had young children (Max and Sophie), and they had their eyes set, once again, on opening a patisserie in Saratoga. (They officially opened the patisserie Mrs. London’s in 1997 and a restaurant, Max London’s, shortly thereafter. They sold both businesses in 2014.)
As before, Matt did the talking with Michael and Wendy. Josh and Matt essentially moved into their kitchen, willing apprentices in the art of baking alchemy and Rock Hill Bakehouse was born.
“Looking back now, it’s unimaginable doing what we did again,” he says. “But we were in our 20s. We worked 100 hours a week. Michael didn’t use recipes. We just watched what he did, fascinated. He had a vision, and we just watched it, observed and took what we could. We never worked with commercial yeasts. We’re working with microbes and organic flour that undergoes seasonal changes. When the weather changes, the process has to change. To make really good bread, you learn that it’s a dance. You do something and wait for the dough to react, see what develops. This is how a great baker learns how to react.”
After three years of invading their home, sometimes baking 18 to 20 ovens worth of bread in a day in just one oven, they were ready to leave, and the Londons were ready to wave farewell to them.
“Remember, we were in their home,” Matt says. “I could have cared less then, but now I imagine what they were going through, trying to raise a family and dealing with three surly guys in their 20s invading their kitchen most midnights.”
In 1989, Matt scored a whopper of a distribution deal with downstate grocery stores, making an upgrade to a bigger space an absolute essential. By 1993, the Londons sold Matt and his two partners (Josh and another baker friend Adam, who is no longer with Rock Hill) a controlling interest in the business, and ramping up an already straining-at-the-seams production schedule in the Londons’ kitchen wasn’t an option.
So, what was a blue-collar baker to do?
“I saved and scraped together what I could and settled on a space I could afford, in an ugly strip mall that I found on a motorcycle ride,” he explains. Sounds about right. “We quadrupled the oven space and went from a team of seven people to about 62. We were in Whole Foods, Hannaford, Price Chopper and other markets, in addition to our continued presence at the Union Square Greenmarket.”
And, they were in fancy restaurants where many New York Times and Vogue scribes dine, seemingly just for Rock Hill’s bread, which Mimi Sheraton calls “the very best” example of rye in New York, with a “firm, tight crumb and plenty of caraway.” Vogue’s Jeffrey Steingarten sniffs that they are the “paragon of purism.”
About 15 years ago, Josh opted out of the business to sell wine, though he and Matt are still best of friends. And business has never been better. Rock Hill manages to crank out 20,000 loaves each week of oft-times organic, always naturally leavened, high-quality bread sold from Brooklyn to Canada, across parts of Massachusetts and Vermont.
His bread tastes artisanal. The flavors are complex, with notes of honeysuckle and deep smoke, a satisfying chew, dense crumb and delightfully robust crust, but the ingredients are not. Whole-grain flour sourced as much as possible from local growers like North Country Farms, local water, ground seeds, occasionally honey, salt.
But he chafes at that description.
“We will never be the McDonald’s of bread, I wouldn’t allow it,” Matt says. “I’m happy being a large-ish regional brand. What Michael was doing, that’s artisanal. The daily dance with the bread and the oven. But it’s important to recognize where you are on the chain. We make amazing bread with a small-batch soul. But the volume we do now? It would be ridiculous to still call ourselves artisanal.”
Despite his laudable dodge on a technicality, the imprint of artisanal is there, and the elegant dance goes on, up and down to Brooklyn and back. Not bad for a blue-collar guy without resources.