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Friday, Aug 12, 2022

Otter Creek Bakery maintains essence among changing leadership

<span class="photocreditinline"><a href="">MAX PADILLA</a></span><br />Last Fall, Otter Creek Bakery’s previous owners, Ben and Sarah Wood, handed over the 34-year-old establishment to Ned Horton. With new leadership, Horton hopes to retain the essence of the well-loved bakery, with potential expansion projects and menu updates.
Last Fall, Otter Creek Bakery’s previous owners, Ben and Sarah Wood, handed over the 34-year-old establishment to Ned Horton. With new leadership, Horton hopes to retain the essence of the well-loved bakery, with potential expansion projects and menu updates.

Otter Creek Bakery, a bastion of baked goods and cardinal coffee counter in the town of Middlebury since 1989, is preparing to take its first steps without the guidance of founders Ben and Sarah Wood. After serving as the business’s right and left hands for more than thirty years, the couple has sold the culinary mainstay to Middlebury native and Bowdoin graduate Ned Horton. With the purchase, the new owner is taking on a unique challenge: preserving the bakery’s beloved core while bringing new flavor to its edges.

“We’re real old-school,” said Sarah Wood, who arrives in the kitchen at 3:30 a.m. each day to start baking. “I mean, we’ve been doing the same thing for 33 years. I think we definitely need a little, y’know —”

“Dusting off,” said Ben Wood, her husband, who also works in the kitchen daily to marshal Otter Creek Bakery’s savory items.

This is just what Horton intends to do. Although beloved staples like their West Coaster sandwich and chunky cookie selection aren’t going anywhere, Horton plans to augment the menu with new savory breakfast items, specialty coffee vendors, and gluten-free and vegan options. He also hopes to undergo construction to expand indoor seating and is considering a heated outdoor area for wintertime use.

“A group of us worked on a plan to help make a transition,” said Horton. “We need to understand everything about it that makes it so successful and why everybody loves it so much.” 

“Yep,” added Sarah Wood, apron-clad, as she bobbed between trays of fresh croissants and cinnamon-blanketed dough. “We’re just supporting the transition until we get fired.”

Aiding in the switch is new manager Chiyo Sato, who previously worked under the Woods for three years as a baker and was brought back as a familiar face with new ideas. A dependable employee who knows the ropes, she is looking forward to helping the bakery move forward.

“Chiyo’s a different generation that has things she wants to try for sure,” said Horton.

“She’s great,” added Sarah Wood.  

Sato, a cheerful, purple-haired 29-year-old who offers wide smiles from under a baseball cap at the counter, knows all of the Otter Creek Bakery regulars. She is also glad to have each of the old 13 full- and part-time employees remain on staff through the transition, and her presence provides peace of mind to owners both new and old. The Woods, who have worked in synchronic rhythm in the kitchen for three decades, are currently training Sato in fulfilling the many roles it takes to run the bakery.

“It’s your typical small business,” said Ben Wood, to which Sarah added, “You have to have ten trades.”

This is not to say that Sato will take it on single-handedly, however. Although Horton will not be doing any kitchen work, he plans to bring on several new staff members to assist with baking and working the deli under Sato’s leadership. Horton is also seeking part-time help for the summer rush and is considering bringing on a full-service waitstaff after special expansions, though he wants to be careful to preserve Otter Creek Bakery’s notoriously all-hands-on-deck operations.

“Everybody is interacting with the customers. If somebody’s waiting in line –” Horton said, to which Sato finished, “Any one of us back here will step up to the plate, y’know?”  

For many, the allure of the establishment comes from this formula: familiar service plus familiar food. Many of the couple’s recipes have gone unchanged over the last three decades and have continued to bring in regulars. The Woods have even made wedding cakes for couples — and then, years later, the couples’ children.

“We have people coming in two, three times a day for thirty years, so we pretty much know everybody,” said Ben Wood, who is as dedicated to his regulars as they are to the bakery. “When people didn’t pick up their special orders for Christmas because it was snowing hard, I just put them all in the truck and just dropped them all off,” he laughed, adding, “I’m like, okay. If you can’t come, I can drive!”

Another time, the bakery made a custom cake for a local man who then took the confection to Albany. Shortly after he picked it up, Ben said, “He calls me up and he has a special favor to ask. He said, ‘I think I left the door unlocked to my house. Would you go over and lock it for me?’” So, naturally, Ben took a break from work, drove to the man’s house and locked up for him.

“This is a full-service bakery, by the way!” laughed Sarah. 

Although Horton intends to keep favorite features like the devoted staff (and the honey-cornmeal scones, of which Sato lovingly says, “It’s like eating the top of a corn muffin. Just the top.”), he also hopes to bring a little extra energy to the space. 

“I’d definitely like to see some music playing both inside and outside,” said Horton, who was once given a WRMC show as a local Middlebury ten-year-old.

For the Woods, Horton, and Sato, it’s crucial that the Otter Creek Bakery keep its substance. Even through the menu additions and special reconfigurations, the biggest change will be the absence of Ben and Sarah Wood’s welcoming faces. After having been found behind the counter and in the kitchen pouring themselves into their second home for the last three decades, they haven’t quite said goodbye. For now, the couple will continue to train new employees until they’re sure the bakery can stand on two feet.