This is the sixth in a series (view previous stories here) of posts about the people and stories that inspire us. We’re motivated by the dreamers and fearless doers who mold matchless products from their deep passion. Telling their stories is our way to salute their success and say thanks for the inspiration to be better at our craft.
A dozen years ago, Claire Meneely emerged from the culinary school oven, fresh and warm and eager to bake. After years of getting her hands doughy in San Francisco, and learning from the best in Paris, Claire returned home--to Nashville. In her hometown--which she never thought she’d return to--her pop-up holiday cookie store become Dozen Bakery. The story just gets sweeter from there. We emailed with Claire, Dozen’s owner and baker, last week.
CREMA: You graduated from the California Culinary Academy’s Baking and Pastry Arts Program in 2002--that’s a dozen years ago. At the time, where did you see yourself in twelve years? If someone had told you, “In 2014, you’ll own Dozen Bakery--in Nashville,” what would you have said?
Claire: I probably would have laughed in their face. When I left for San Francisco, I told myself that I'd never move back to Nashville.
Since my lemonade stand days, I've always wanted to run my own business, I just never thought it would be in Nashville--and I'm so glad I moved back.
About Nashville--you’re from here. Though you say you “never meant to stay so long,” you’re still here, and thriving. What kept you here? How has Nashville surprised you, or welcomed you, as a pastry- and bread-eating city? And what makes this place different from, say, San Francisco or Paris?
When I first started Dozen, it was as a pop-up holiday cookie business. I thought I'd try out Nashville for a couple of months to see if anyone liked what I wanted to bake, and if so, maybe I'd move back in a few years. But, almost five years later Dozen is still going strong, and ever since then I've totally been surprised by and grateful for Nashville eaters--I'm always getting to debate the intricacies of baking with customers, I love it. Nashville cares about much more than just cornbread and caramel cakes (no offense to cornbread and caramel cakes!).
What makes Nashville different than San Francisco or Paris?
The people make it different. It's a totally different Nashville than the Nashville I grew up in, but it still has the same heart and the same generosity and the same caring and curious people as when I grew up here. I love that Nashville is hip and flashy these days, but if there wasn't a strong foundation of a supportive community, it wouldn't mean anything. There's such a great Nashville spirit--everyone wants to see everything from Nashville succeed, which has led to a very supportive small business community in the city.
You make a focused effort to use local and organic ingredients, and to do things the right way. We know why these things are important to us, but why are they important to you?
Quality. Freshness. Supporting my neighbors. Environmental sustainability. Simplicity. I could go on and on, but basically, I strongly believe that putting the best ingredients in results in the best products we can make. And that's all I want to do - make the best baked goods we can possibly make.
What does a typical baking day look like for you?
I personally don't really have a typical day right now. But at Dozen, the first shift starts at 3:30 am, seven days a week (well, 5:00 am on Sundays, if I'm being completely truthful). Everything is baked fresh daily and out the door for deliveries by 5:15 am to be at the coffee shops by the time they open. The rest of the day is spent baking for special orders, farmers' markets and the afternoon deliveries, doing dishes, prepping fruit, tasting fruit, mopping floors, moving heavy bags of flour, prepping for the next morning, testing new recipes, making messes, cleaning up messes--all the typical glamour that comes with baking. Then we bookend the day with another round of deliveries to restaurants around 4:00 pm. There's paperwork, emails, and phone calls in there somewhere too.
What is your favorite part about Dozen? The farmers’ markets? The satisfaction of people enjoying your baking? Or perhaps the baking itself?
It sounds kind of weird and simple, but I love the cycle of the days--it's so rewarding to load up the delivery van in the morning, deliver baked goods all over town, and know that everything will be eaten that day and then we get to do it again tomorrow. I also love that we sell to a wide variety of businesses. For example, we sell our pies to the hip and trendy Pinewood Social, as well as the long-standing, more traditional Picnic Cafe.
So yeah, as you said, your breads and pastries are just about everywhere in Nashville. Is that a special thing, to have close ties to so many people doing sincere work all around town?
It's a very special thing, and completely inspiring. I spend lots of time every day at these businesses that people have totally thrown themselves into, so every day I am inspired to try harder because I see people all over Nashville working their asses off.
I also love that because Dozen started and continues to sell at farmers' markets, we have connections to the people who grow some of our ingredients. I totally value and appreciate people that work with their hands, and I think the work we do is some small part of a much longer tradition of people in Middle Tennessee who sweat and labor and create something from nothing. I'm proud to be a part of that.
Of all the things you bake, what do your friends, family, and customers love the most?
Oh man, can I sit this one out? That's tough. Everyone has their favorites. We sell the most of the more traditional items like blueberry muffins and chocolate chip cookies. But, I think the Dozen staff favorite has to be the chocolate cardamom madeleines.