Steve Miller is a tough guy to catch. Owning and operating an artisan bakery seven days a week while raising four kids leaves little time to spare. He was kind enough to carve some time out one morning to walk through Historic Downtown Salida and tell me about his livelihood, Little Red Hen Bakery.
We left the bakery on the corner of Third and G Streets and walked west toward the Arkansas River. Miller explained that Little Red Hen started as Salida Bread Company eight years ago and operated in the back of a former local foods market, Ploughboy. Steve and his wife, La Sal, purchased Salida Bread Company four years ago and continued operating out of Ploughboy. Two years later the Millers changed the name from Salida Bread Company to Little Red Hen Bakery. Last fall they purchased and remodeled an old auto body shop, installed a wood-fired brick oven, and turned it in to the current home of their business.
As we walked along the river trail, Miller explained the path that led him here. Miller once owned and operated a bakery in Colorado Springs years earlier, but sold it 13 years ago before he and his family moved to Salida. They were seeking a smaller, quieter town to raise children. Between moving to Salida and purchasing Salida Bread Company, Miller was a brewer at Amica’s Pizza. He also owned and operated the Tomichi Lodge, a mountain retreat opposite the Continental Divide from Chaffee County, which he has since sold, keeping five acres and one cabin.
A full Riverside Park interrupted our trajectory along the river path, so we meandered around the outdoor church service. “We have four main business principles that we follow,” Miller said, “delicious, organic, generous and community.” Delicious, obviously referred to the quality of the product. Ninety percent of Little Red Hen’s ingredients are organic in order to offer as healthy a product as possible.
We made our way riverside again as I sidetracked Steve to ask about sourcing. The sound of the river was the only background noise now. He said their bread is made from high gluten, organic white flour. High gluten is preferred because it’s higher in protein, although, Little Red Hen does offer gluten-free items as well. The wheat comes from Bay State Milling, an east coast company who recently bought Rocky Mountain Milling. The wheat itself sometimes comes from Colorado farms, otherwise Wyoming or Montana.
All of Little Red Hen’s breads are made from scratch, and the dough is processed and prepped by hand. Miller explained that within a few days of cracking the wheat berry the grain is activated with water and yeast. Shortly after it’s baked in their traditional-style, wood-fired brick oven. Sourdoughs take a little longer to prepare, requiring 18 to 20 hour retardation time. Miller said he envisions one day having a mill to process their grains.
The river trail led us up away from the river to the parking lot of the city’s administrative buildings. We returned to the topic we had veered from, Little Red Hen’s four business principles, “delicious, organic, generous and community.” The Millers offer every customer a slice of free bread when they visit the store. They strive to make their business for the community, not distributing outside of the city except for a few rare exceptions. As much as possible Little Red Hen sources non-wheat ingredients locally. Their cheese comes from Jumpin’ Goat Dairy in Buena Vista, and their produce comes from Central Colorado Foodshed Alliance (CCFA) producers. They also sell their bread at CCFA’s Salida Farmers Market on Saturday mornings in Alpine Park.
Miller and I made our way back to Little Red Hen so he could check the status of an incoming shipment of grain. He introduced me to baker, Mark Minor, to learn more about the breads the bakery offers and the baking process. Minor told he makes five different types of bread, ciabatta, sour dough rye, miche, baguette and batard. Ciabatta being the most popular, and the sour dough rye having “the biggest following.” Minor explained that the sour dough rye is traditional to Eastern Europe and rare to find in Southern Colorado, so when people discover it here they keep coming back for it. The miche is sour dough whole wheat that Minor described as a “peasant loaf,” weighing four pounds.
Minor explained the baking process while he prepared ciabatta dough. “It’s a black oven so the baking chamber is directly fired.” As opposed to a more modern white oven, which is fired indirectly. “It’s probably the most primitive style,” Minor said, pausing from cutting and weighing dough to look up, “it’s probably as old as, I don’t know, baking.”
On baking days, which are two or three times a week, the fire is lit at 330 in the morning and baking begins at noon. Minor led me outside and removed bricks from the oven’s opening, revealing a few remaining coals. “We sweep all of the ash underneath,” Minor showed me the gap in the cement just before the oven door, “then clean the hearth and place the dough.” The oven will hold the heat for over a day, allowing for six bakes or more. Minor pointed to the oven walls explaining they are a foot thick, adding to six tons of mass, which is why the oven could still be over 300 degrees over 24 hours after firing.
Minor put a couple of bricks back in the oven door to control the rate of cooling, and we went back inside the bakery. Miller was slicing bread, directing his staff, and greeting a customer. Little Red Hen has 12 employees, with four to six working at a time. Their open hours are from 6 to 6 Monday through Saturday and 7 to 2 on Sundays. You can learn more at their Facebook page and their website is coming soon. Find them at 302 G Street in Salida every day.