On a given night, Ashton Woodward bakes approximately 1,500 buns, 200 loaves, and 3,000 rolls in an unassuming strip mall along an I-30 access road in Benton. You have likely eaten Woodward's bread before. That you didn't recognize it as a Woodward creation — not to mention that you've likely never heard of Ashton Woodward until now — is not because he's not a star, whose bread is habit forming. He is, and his bread is fantastic.
His relative anonymity is a consequence of his business — he works entirely in wholesale. Since he opened Arkansas Fresh Bakery in February 2012, he's built a client list that includes Argenta Market's cafe, Big Orange, Boscos, Bray Gourmet, Capriccio Grill, The Pantry, Savoy 1620, White Water Tavern, Verizon Arena and ZaZa. And it's growing.
Woodward, 29, comes with an impressive pedigree: He graduated from the culinary arts program at Kendall College in Chicago, worked under renowned baker Jory Downer at Bennison's in Evanston, Ill., and trained under Scott McGehee at Boulevard Bread Co. But it's his persistence that's helped him gain such a foothold in the market.
Working with McGehee and his partners to develop the hamburger bun at Big Orange, Woodward agonized for days on end over the look, taste and texture of the bun that would come to define their menu. "The quality of beef and the quality of the bun is 90 percent of the taste in a hamburger restaurant," said McGehee. "He must have baked us a thousand samples."
"The trend across the United States is a brioche bun, which has a high percentage of butter, which is heaven on earth to bite into." But with a burger, it's too much fat to consume, so much that "you feel gross after eating it," said McGehee. After countless trials and variations, Woodward and the Big Orange partners landed on a "brioche-challah hybrid," which McGehee described as having less fat but the same delightful, "airy fluffiness of a brioche bun." Big Orange is now one of Woodward's biggest clients.
Local chefs say they've switched to Arkansas Fresh from national food suppliers for the flexibility and quality of Woodward's product.
"I can call Ashton and ask for 350 more rolls for a banquet," said Andre Poirot, chef at the Peabody's Capriccio Grill. His former national supplier was less able to change his order in a pinch, he said.
When Woodward first solicited his business, Poirot said he was skeptical. "Being French, bread is really important to me. It's an art, bread baking — the ingredients are very simple and even the weather can change the outcome." But Woodward easily won Poirot over. "I like his bread, I like the variety," he said.
Jon Lamb, who is the chef at Verizon Arena, switched from his food supplier to Woodward because, he said, "I wanted to be comfortable with the ingredients and be able to tell my customers about the food without any shame." Lamb chose Arkansas Fresh bread specifically because it doesn't contain any L-Cysteine, a dough conditioner.
"If I can't feed it to my 1-year-old, I'm not interested," Woodward said of his ingredients, noting that he doesn't use corn syrup or preservatives, like other wholesalers tend to do.
In fact, a survey of his ingredients at Arkansas Fresh doesn't turn up anything out of the ordinary: There are stacks of 50-pound bags of flour (eight of which he uses nightly) and a number of tall bags filled with various grains — rolled oats, cracked rye, cracked wheat, flax, sesame seed, multi-grains, and sunflower seed. Other than that, there's yeast, eggs, butter, and a highly coveted sourdough starter, five years in the making, which Tracy Edwards, who works with Woodward, brought with him from his family's former bakery.
Mostly, Woodward said, he's working with water, flour, salt and yeast or starter.
"It's a mathematical process — a lot of working with proportions and knowing how much water your flour can handle, knowing what your ingredients can handle."
As he began the early stages of a batch of multi-grain bread, he swiftly scooped several pounds of grains from a 10-pound bag and poured them into a white five-gallon bucket and ran water to cover the grains.
"Some bakeries roast all these grains but when you soak them you get a totally different flavor." He explained that soaking the grain produces mucus, a fatty acid coming off of the flax seed, which changes the flavor and texture.
"I don't think people realize how subjective bread baking is. No two bakers bake the same loaf of bread," he said. "There's a million ways to skin this cat."
Nearby, an enormous, industrial-age looking oven steadily hummed as Woodward prepared to bake a batch of brioche buns.
"It's a 1949 Rainier oven," he said proudly, explaining that it was responsible for the beginning of Arkansas Fresh. Woodward and his father, Walter, who has invested in Arkansas Fresh, bought it at the estate sale of Fordyce's famed Klappenbach Bakery. The oven weighs 5,500 pounds. The Woodwards used their farm tractor to disassemble its colossal pieces before hauling it home.
A few feet away from the Rainier oven stands a French steam oven, which Woodward bought on eBay, from a Finer Foods store in Ohio. "It was a risky purchase," he said, but it turned out to be in mint condition. The oven creates a sauna-like environment, which, Woodward said, allows him to bake artisan loaves longer so that they can develop beautiful, richly layered crusts. Like an expert painter putting his brush to canvas, he cut quick, diagonal slits across the sourdough loaves with a tiny razorblade concealed in his hand before sliding them in the oven.
Later, watching Woodward lift a batch of brioche buns from the oven was like watching pottery come out of the kiln for the first time. The egg-wash glaze applied to their tops produces beautiful, burgundy-colored striations and hundreds of tiny golden bubbles.
For now, unless you want to go to a restaurant, there aren't many options to purchase Arkansas Fresh bread. Argenta Market carries it, though soon after Woodward delivers on Mondays and Friday, it often sells out. The Arkansas Local Food Network, whose members place food orders in advance, also carries it, as does the Argenta Farmers Market April through October. That may change soon though, as Woodward looks to new outlets, including Whole Foods.
"I see myself doing Arkansas Fresh 'til I'm too old to work," Woodward said. "The sky is the limit with the wholesale bread business."