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New Gate City bakery is a real family affair

Wes Bunch • Jul 11, 2009 at 12:00 AM

GATE CITY, Va. — When Vikki Roberts and her husband, Allan, opened their new eatery — the Family Bakery — May 18, they never imagined they’d sell so many cupcakes.

In the first four weeks alone, Vikki, a former caterer and photographer, estimates that she and her husband, who is better known as “Cotton,” sold more than 2,100 of the treats in a variety of flavors to satisfied customers.

“I never dreamed it would be on this scale, I just thought it would be me making a couple of cakes and serving coffee,” Vikki said. “In our business plan, we thought it was just going to be me and Cotton and our youngest son [Hunter]. We didn’t dream we’d have five employees until the third year.”

Those five employees consist of the couple’s daughters — Bree Smith and Lindsay Roberts — their son, Aaron, and niece, Raigan Roberts.

Modeled after bakeries more likely encountered in urban areas like Boston and Atlanta, the Family Bakery specializes in made-from-scratch cupcakes, cookies, muffins, pies and smoothies, including popular flavors strawberry and blueberry-pomegranate.

“The smoothies have really blown us out of the water, too,” Cotton said. “We had to buy another blender, because we were afraid the one might tear up on us because we’re using it so much.”

Each treat comes with its own theme and name, which is usually related to music — like the “Dark Side of the Moon” chocolate cake or the “Black and White,” an Oreo truffle dipped in either white or dark chocolate that was made as a tribute to the late Michael Jackson.

“We just try to develop our own little style and use only the best ingredients to put it all together,” Vikki said. “We just try to do what others might do, and try to go over the top with it.”

The drink menu features select coffee blends by Elizabethton roaster John Bunn, as well as a wide selection of mochas, lattes and espressos.

The bakery sports two dining areas equipped with free high-speed wireless Internet. The front dining room is lined with various family portraits, reflecting the bakery’s theme, while the smaller room in back is stocked with a large flat-screen television and various sports memorabilia from local, college and professional teams.

It’s a set-up that has been inviting so far, Cotton said.

“People go back there and look at those pictures and say ‘I remember that day,’ and that’s what we want,” he said. “It brings back old memories to them, and ... we want that kind of atmosphere and feel when you come in the place“

Vikki added, “if people can come and get a cup of coffee ... you get to visit with them; whereas, you usually wouldn’t. We’ve really reconnected with a lot of people ... and I think that’s been one of the biggest blessings from this.”

Although baked goods and coffee are the main bakery’s main focus, Vikki said they are thinking about expanding the menu in the future.

“We’re going to a lunch menu, and we have other plans for the future as far as the restaurant and bakery,” Vikki said. “But it’s nothing that has to happen. It’s just dreams, and if they can happen it’s good, and if not, we’re tickled to be where we’re at.”

A family affair

Even though family is a theme that shows up in everything from the employees to the portraits lining the walls of the bakery’s front dining room, including it in the name wasn’t obvious at first, the couple said.

“We went through a bunch of names and nothing just seemed to fit,” Cotton said. “We’re really family-oriented, a real close family, and my kids were just like, ‘It should just be the Family Bakery because everyone working there is going to be family, so why don’t we just call it that?’

“The other thing we like about the family name was not just immediate family, but extended family — our church family, family that you work with, our community family, families that we had associations with when we played little league ball.”

With the name dilemma out of the way, the next task was to find a way to have everyone contribute without stepping on each other’s toes, Vikki said.

“When we started ... they all had their own ideas about what they wanted it to be,” she said. “We mostly just had to keep the focus on what we wanted it to be, and just steer them to where their individual gifts are. I think it works out great.”

Each of the children contributes in his or her own way, Vikki said. Bree handles cupcakes and Lindsay works on cookies, while Aaron maintains coffees and Hunter develops truffles.

The teamwork isn’t limited to only those family members working in the bakery, Vikki said.

“Bree’s married and Aaron’s married and our in-laws are wonderful people because they watch the grandchildren so [our children] can work here,” she said. “It’s a huge deal, because ... they always take good care of them.”

The local business community also has gone out of its way to be accommodating and lend a hand whenever needed, they said.

“I think that the business community and local community have been great,” Vikki said. “When we opened, we even got flowers from the other restaurants and businesses in town. We’ve had a blast doing it.”

A good start

When Vikki and Cotton — who retired from his job as a senior team manager at Eastman Chemical Co., in 2004 — first purchased the 1920s-era building in June 2007, turning it into a bakery wasn’t the first thing that popped into their minds.

The couple was in the process of selling their house in Gate City, where they had moved to from Kingsport in 1997, when they closed on the building, located at the corner of East Jackson and Nickel streets. “I just fell in love with this and said let’s make an offer,” Vikki said. “We still hadn’t thought of putting anything downstairs, we were just going to move upstairs.”

A short time after they bought the downtown property, however, their plans took a turn in a different direction. “The way the Lord would have it, the people that were going to purchase our house changed their mind,” Vikki said. “So then, we had already bought the building, so we had to think of something. I said I can do a bakery ... and the Lord put all of the pieces together.”

The family, both immediate and extended, spent the next year, gutting and renovating the bakery’s entire up- and downstairs. While they tried to update the building as much as possible, they also tried to keep as much of its vintage character as possible. “The building talked to us,” Vikki said. “When we took the walls down, the arches were there, and we said we’ll just leave them, and the same for goes tin that we found on the ceiling.”

They picked up decorating ideas, as well as some for menu and drink selections, by stopping at bakeries and cafes on trips out west and to cities like Boston, as well as others located in East Tennessee. Cotton, who is a deacon at the family’s church, First Baptist in Gate City, said they were able to do the renovations from skills they learned on mission trips to the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina.

Although they were able to finish the work themselves, both Cotton and Vikki gave the credit to a higher power.

“We couldn’t do any of it ourselves,” Vikki said. “He gave us the strength when we didn’t have any, he gave us the ideas when we were dry. Because of that, things fell in place so easy.”

After the bakery opened in mid-May, things began to take off quickly, with news of its offerings getting around mostly by word of mouth.

“The first couple of days, we couldn’t keep up, they were lined up out the door,” Vikki said. “The first week I couldn’t do anything, I had to get people to come to the ovens and take things outside because I couldn’t even move, [the customers] were so lined up.”

As with the remodeling, the couple again said the reason for the early, and, they hope, sustained success, can be summed up in one word — faith.

“We stepped out on faith with the whole thing, it’s been faith ever since, and the Lord’s blessed us,” Cotton said. “We really don’t know what’s the next avenue. We just take them as they come and count our blessings and give the Lord the praise and the glory.

“It’s like it evolved, like the Lord had placed us here, instead of us thinking we were coming here. We thought it was our idea, but it was his all along.”

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