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The Sampler: Harmony Baking Company

Good food requires avoiding shortcuts
by: Jeff Spiegel One of the best items on the lunch menu is the Reuben, featuring freshly baked rye bread.

'Food is our first thought, not our second,' said Linda Lawrence, owner of Harmony Baking Company.

It sounds like a statement any restaurant would claim to live by, but the more you talk to Lawrence, the more you understand what sets this place apart.

In tough economic times, many restaurants have to make tough cost-cutting decisions in order to keep their doors open.

Unfortunately, cost-cutting measures can mean a lower quality product at the end of the day.

Not at Harmony.

Whether it is the fresh fruit and raspberries they offer even in the winter, the homemade bread for sandwiches, the real butter used in the kitchen or even the biodegradable to-go boxes, Lawrence takes no shortcuts.

The beginning

Linda Lawrence grew up in Orange County, Calif., and was always drawn to the food industry. While working in Los Angeles at Grace Restaurants, a company that owned a few restaurant chains, Lawrence eventually worked her way into a supervisory role.

In her new job, Lawrence was in charge of opening new restaurants across the region. After eight years in that role, however, Lawrence needed a change.

'I said, 'I don't care if I open a hot dog stand somewhere, I am getting out of Los Angeles,'' she said.

With hopes of moving somewhere she enjoyed vacationing to, Lawrence landed in Estacada, a place she visited often because of family in the area.

So on Jan. 1, 1984, Lawrence drove to Estacada and began looking for the perfect place to open a restaurant. With no bakery in town, Lawrence opened Harmony on May 8, 1984, on Broadway St. downtown.

'This was a logging town, and the mills were just closing and we were closing our schools,' she recalls. 'And at first when I made bagels, nobody knew what they were - they thought they were donuts.'

The initial restaurant featured both a bakery and dining room, with just four tables in the place. Quickly, however, Lawrence realized that with just four tables she would never survive, and so she set out to find a new location.

Hearing about an open building on Wade Street, she went to the bank looking for a $15,000 loan to buy the new building and make the appropriate changes. The bank told her it wouldn't work and turned her down.

Nearly out of options, Lawrence turned to Kathy Howard, who was a dishwasher at the time, and asked for the same $15,000 loan, offering to pay 17 percent interest.

Lawrence was in luck.

With the money she needed, she purchased the building the restaurant currently sits in and made the transition out of downtown in 1987.

'This place used to be open and gutted because it used to be a RV repair shop,' she said. 'And I figured that if the food was good enough, people would be willing to walk the extra two blocks here.'

Once again, Lawrence was right.

Over the past 25 years, Harmony has become a staple of the Estacada restaurant community and one of the few true breakfast spots in town.

In 1992, Lawrence was joined by her partner, Sandy Walker, in running the business. Walker now runs the kitchen while Lawrence handles the business side of things.

The food

The adage 'Don't mess with a good thing' rings true in the menu at Harmony, which hasn't changed in years.

Serving breakfast and lunch, Harmony's menu starts with a handful of omelet options alongside favorites like pancakes, stuffed French toast, breakfast sandwiches and oatmeal, among others.

For lunch, the menu consists of salads, sandwiches, burgers and soups that could satisfy anyone.

What is clear throughout the menu is just how intertwined the bakery and restaurant are. Sandwiches are served on homemade bread, and breakfasts can be accompanied by freshly baked bagels or donuts. Trust me, you can taste the difference.

'I'm a foodie,' Lawrence said. 'Nobody bakes anymore because it isn't economical, but I just like good food.'

In addition to fresh baked goods, Harmony uses real potatoes for the breakfast sides, hand-formed hamburger patties that are never frozen, the thickest (and most expensive) bacon that money can buy, vegetables from its own garden out back and fresh fruit all year round that isn't cheap.

It all goes back to her sentiment that food comes first, not cost.

Among the items that we tried were the 'Greek scramble,' a Reuben sandwich, pancakes and a freshly baked bagel.

Lawrence insisted that the buttermilk pancakes, made from scratch with real buttermilk, would be noticeably better than powdered pancake mix. She was right.

She also promised that the Reuben, made with corned beef on top of freshly baked rye bread, would taste noticeably better than any Reuben I have had before. Once again, the difference was obvious in the thick slices of fresh bread.

While some may wonder whether the quality and freshness of ingredients really does matter in preparing food, anyone who eats at Harmony can taste that difference.

As a reflection of that quality, Harmony is usually crowded on weekends, seating 35 people inside and another 25 people on the patio during the summer.

Bakery

For those without the time or money to stop in for a sit-down meal, Harmony is the ideal place for a quick meal or snack.

With a wide selection of freshly made bagels, donuts, muffins and breads for sale at the counter, Harmony can rival any bakery in Portland.

'I want everyone to be able to get a donut after church,' she said. 'When I was a kid, after working all Sunday my dad would take me to get ice cream for just 25 cents for all of us, and while a donut is 85 cents, I want to be able to offer the same experience.'

In fact, for those looking for a high-quality meal at a low price, Harmony offers a breakfast bagel for $3.50. The sandwich includes a freshly made bagel, freshly cooked eggs, cheese and either bacon, ham or sausage. Sure beats a processed Egg McMuffin.

Dining with Dignity

One of the things that makes Harmony unique as well is its participation in the 'Dining with Dignity' program, which offers a free meal to those who are hungry.

Participants come in and mention that they're part of the program, and Lawrence will serve them their choice of either breakfast or lunch, free of charge.

'The only thing we say is that this isn't social hour, but some people are very, very appreciative,' she said. 'We never turn anyone away.'

Harmony Baking Company is open from 6:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Sunday. It is located at 221 S.W. Wade St. in Estacada.



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