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Amy Comerchero, owner of Amy’s Bakery Arts Café in Brattleboro, works behind the counter serving the late lunch crowd on Monday.

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A beloved Brattleboro bakery turns off the oven

Its owner tired of exhaustion and financial stress, Amy’s Bakery Arts Cafe prepares to close

BRATTLEBORO—The first thing Amy Comerchero wants the public to know is, “I’m in perfect health.”

With the news that her eponymous bakery and café on Main Street is closing after nearly 15 years of operation, Comerchero said rumors have been flying about her well-being.

As she sat outside her shop, trying to eat her lunch on a busy Saturday afternoon, every 30 seconds or so she had to stop chewing to receive messages of condolence and wishes for her well-being from concerned fans.

“I’m fine,” she said. “I’m just tired of being exhausted all the time. I work really hard, and that’s been my life for 15 years. The last two years were a financial struggle. I was really fighting to stay afloat.”

Amy’s Bakery Arts Café opened on Friday, Nov. 3, 2000, for Gallery Walk. Comerchero said the bakery, at least in its current incarnation, will close the weekend of June 6.

Comerchero hopes to sell her business, and while she is currently engaged in “a few discussions” with possible buyers, “we’re open to great ideas.”

She encourages interested parties to call the bakery.

Tight margins

In the last 15 years, Amy’s Bakery has survived the same challenges as nearly every Brattleboro business that has managed to stay open: Tropical Storm Irene, the Brooks House fire and its aftermath, the economic recession.

Add to those factors the travails of running a food-based establishment.

“In the food business, margins are very tight,” Comerchero said. “It’s all about labor cost and food cost, and my food costs have doubled — almost tripled — in 15 years,” she said. “And I can’t double or triple the price of a cookie or a sandwich. A bakery, a restaurant, has high labor costs.”

Quite simply, the business formula is not “making sense” for her to continue.

To further compound the threats to a bakery, add in food trends.

From the Atkins Diet “no carb” craze of the early 2000s to the current “caveman” and gluten-sensitivity diets, all sorts of weight-loss regimens are down on bread consumption.

“There was a time I could feel people eating less bread,” Comerchero said.

Taking pride in her product

Comerchero is proud of her cakes and pastries, noting “we filled a niche” when she opened her bakery.

But her bread, specifically her sourdough, is the one thing she is most proud of.

“It’s real sourdough,” Comerchero said, asserting that “it’s much healthier than commercially yeasted bread. I’m happy we could provide that.”

“I’ve always used the best ingredients I could. I use real butter and cream,” she said, adding, “there’s no shortening or Crisco” in her kitchen.

To prepare the food for the café portion of the business, Comerchero said, “I use only olive oil. No soy or canola. There are no antibiotics or hormones in the chicken. That contributes to the food costs.”

Another point of pride Comerchero feels is with her staff. She said her staff “has always been wonderful, but the last few years, they have been close to perfect.”

She told the story of her pastry baker, John Carson, who started about six months after she opened her shop.

“He worked here for 10 years, then took a little break” before returning about three years ago, she said.

When she announced the pending closing of the business last week, she said her staff cried.

“They are like a family. They want to live together,” she said.

Comerchero explained how much of a headache it can often be staffing a busy, fast-paced food-service business, but not with her staff.

“I don’t know what I did to be so lucky. I want to give them a big shout-out, for sure,” she said.

She also wanted to thank the town “for their great patronage and support. All the way through, I felt much appreciation from the public, from Brattleboro. I’m really grateful for the whole town.”

Comerchero mentioned Daniel C. Yates, president and CEO of the Brattleboro Savings & Loan. “He was really supportive when they knew things got difficult” for her business, she said.

Her landlords, Christopher S. Dugan and Daniel Systo, also “rose to the occasion” when the bakery began struggling. “They lowered my rent, and tried to help make the transition,” she said.

From hippie baker to entrepreneur

What’s next for Amy Comerchero?

“I’m ready to see what else is out there. What the next phase of my life will look like,” she said, noting she has no plans to leave the area.

Her plans do include food.

“It’s in my blood, but I don’t know what that will look like,” she said.

Raised in New York City and Teaneck, N.J. and self-taught in the culinary arts, Comerchero said, “my first job was in a hippie bakery in the Adirondacks. I was 17.”

Comerchero had a catering and delivery service of “yummy sushi” in New York City in the mid-1980s with Matthew Blau, the owner of Fireworks and former owner of Max’s, a West Brattleboro restaurant.

She left New York City “because it got too intense for me” and came to Brattleboro because her brother was attending the School for International Training.

“It was perfect,” she said.

Prior to opening Amy’s Bakery Arts Café, Comerchero said she worked at Max’s and at the former Common Ground.

“Having a child was easier than I expected,” Comerchero said. “Owning a business of this kind was harder. I had no idea,” she said.

Prior to opening her shop, “I was just a little baker,” she said.

Comerchero said her original mission was to create a “home-away-from-home” kitchen to “provide delicious, nutritious, comforting food that could sustain the people of the town.”

Has she been successful in those goals?

Ask the steady stream of sad-faced patrons offering the staff support after the announcement.

Ask the downtown office-dwellers wondering where their next late-afternoon bliss bar will come from.

Ask the more than 120 people who expressed their grief on the bakery’s Facebook page within three days after the staff posted news of the closing.

Ask local resident Michelle Simpson-Siegel, who posted on her Facebook page: “Is my frozen bag of Amy’s bread the Brattleboro equivalent of a case of Wonka bars? How much bread can I buy and fit in my freezer before they shut their doors?”

She has a few weeks to find out and stock up.

“We will be open for the [Strolling of the Heifers] parade,” Comerchero said. That’s Saturday, June 6, and she might stay open the next day, too.

“It’s hard to know,” she said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #307 (Wednesday, May 27, 2015). This story appeared on page A1.

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