New bakery rises up along Main

Shop offers pastries, coffee in old Gresham home
by: Jim Clark Cindy Wich, left, and her daughter Chelsea Smith run Banaka & Brown's Bakery. Chelsea was dressed for Halloween.

Nothing quite complements a cup of coffee like homemade pastry.

At the newly opened Banaka and Browns Artisan Bakery and Coffee House on Main Avenue, the smell of freshly baked goodies is as welcoming as owner Cindy Wich.

'I love family and I love friends,' Wich said. 'That's what I want here. We've tried to create a real homey place where people can be comfortable and meet their friends. There wasn't any place like this around here, so we've been really pleased with the response since we opened.'

Banaka and Browns, named for Wich's late parents, opened quietly in mid-October. The 101-year old building was home to the former Bryant Station restaurant, which closed late last year. It now features cozy niches for conversation, antiques and a sideboard laden with pastries to die for.

For Wich, it's the 'happy place' she'd been seeking when she decided to make a career change two years ago.

A longtime East County and Gresham resident, Wich, 48, had managed the manufacturing house for Clackamas-based commercial printer, Craftsman, for 14 years. Initially, the responsibility of her work was rewarding, she said, but over time, the job became all-consuming. It took her away from family, personal pursuits and eventually took a toll on her health.

'I ran myself into the ground,' she said. 'The job was very stressful. So I took some time off, got healthy and then, got bored. About a year ago, I started thinking about what I wanted to do. I wanted to be in a place where people were happy and people are always happy in a bakery with coffee.'

She embarked on a search for a bakery and coffee house location, settling on a place in Milwaukie she'd found online. When that fell through earlier this year, she learned of the vacant historic building practically in her own backyard.

'After we walked through here, I asked why this place was still empty,' Wich said. 'It's such a beautiful building. The Realtor told me (owners Jan and Carol McCabe) were just waiting for the right people. We wrote a letter to them, told them what we wanted to do, and they agreed, so we must have been the right people!'

Wich enlisted her husband, Phil, and her daughter, Chelsea Smith, as Banaka and Browns first employees, but was fussy about who would round out her vision for staffing the coffee house. Several interviews failed to produce the right blend of personalities, until she stumbled across 23-year-old baker Monica Neffendorf.

'I think it's important that you have a good team,' Wich said. 'I was looking for the right cohesion when I interviewed people. You can have the most talented workers, but if you don't mesh together, then it's a disaster. I was very lucky to find Monica and (barista) Katie Temple. They're like my family.'

Neffendorf is the mastermind in the kitchen. A 2008 graduate of the Oregon Culinary Institute in Portland, Neffendorf had worked as a pastry chef at the Portland City Grill and later, at Mehri's Café in Southeast Portland. She'd grown tired of mass produced desserts and was looking to stretch her wings.

'I wanted to do more and something different,' Neffendorf said. 'I was bored doing the same things. When I got this job, I was really nervous. I'd never hadanybody tell me to do what I want.'

Neffendorf arrives at Banaka and Browns at 'O-dark-30,' Wich said, and begins cranking out trays of fresh fruit Strudel, turnovers and biscuits. She crafts baguette dough into artistic shapes and uses primarily her own recipes, many drawn from her German heritage. It's the freedom and creativity she relishes.

'I was always the baker in my family, and I love to cook,' Neffendorf said. 'I love to see people's faces when they eat what I bake. That's my greatest joy.'

Banaka and Browns also makes a serious effort to be a 'green' business and support area growers. The fresh fruit featured in Neffendorf's pastries comes from local farms and orchards, and recently, Wich's granddaughters even harvested the plum tree on the building's property. Most cups, flatware and plates are made from compostable products or are recycled.

Wich admitted that opening a new business during an unstable economy was a nerve-racking venture. She's been inspired by others in the historic downtown area who have taken the same leap of faith as she, but in times like these, she said, coffee and homemade savories are only part of the comfort she plans to offer.

'I want to be part of my community, and I want to give back,' she said. 'At first, people would try to give us tips. Even though I told them we don't accept tips, they kept throwing money at us. Now, we take the money in the jar and donate it to Backpack Buddies, a program for kids. And we have lots of plans for charitable giving at Christmas. Giving back is so important to me and my family.'

New bakery

What: Banaka and Browns Artisan Bakery and Coffee House, daily homemade breads, scones, coffee cakes, muffins, biscuits and more; featuring Stumptown Coffee and made-to-order specialty drinks

Where: 835 N. Main Ave., Gresham

Phone: 503-492-6100

Hours: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday