It’s a wonder what the unseen things in life will give rise to. Who knows what the little leaven is doing within the lump of dough in the heat of the oven? Does anyone actually know? While our senses can certainly see, touch, smell, and taste the product that ends up exiting the oven, the origin of how that lump of dough was created makes a world of difference in the end product. Unfortunately (or more fortunately perhaps) that’s the natural flow of things. The end result dominates our attention while its origin must be sought out. As far as bread is concerned, it obviously wouldn’t be nearly as delectable to consume before it’s baked, but precisely how it is made and shaped makes all the difference. And like all creations, the making marks the beginning of the process.
And though we live in a time where more and more food processes are shortened and machines manufacture goods at scale, there’s still no trumping the quality of that which is organic and handmade. At Independent Baking Co, everything is made by hand with love and all the grains used are organically grown. Every loaf of bread and every pastry is first molded and shaped by the hands of skilled bakers, which can take up to 3 days. Independent’s bread is considered “slow food, and while that’s a short descriptor, the process it denotes is in fact a lengthy one.
The sourdough is naturally fermented to guarantee a healthy loaf that is easily digestible and will contribute to a healthy diet. The whole grains hail from local DaySpring Farms located in Danielsville, GA, and Heartland Mill in Marienthal, Kansas. These organic grains are milled in-house and used as soon as possible after, ensuring that the flour used in the process is still potent with all its flavor and aroma. You’ll find no trace of that stale flour taste in the loaves at this bakery.
Almost all Independent Baking Co’s viennoiserie ingredients (laminated breakfast pastries such as croissants, pain au chocolats, and danishes) are sourced locally. Condor Chocolates supply the chocolate for the cookies and biscotti, the assorted fruits and vegetables come from Woodland Gardens, Hearts of Harvest, and Ladybird Farm, and the dairy is procured from Southern Swiss Dairy in south Georgia. The one ingredient intentionally imported from overseas is French butter, which adds optimal flavor, richness, and a certain je ne sais quoi. Tastebuds don’t lie!
It takes an alarming amount of attention to detail and creative thinking/problem solving to produce a large and diverse assortment of quality bread and pastry products in only 900 sq feet at 1625 S Lumpkin St in Athens, GA. But that’s exactly what Kevin Scollo, the owner and head baker of Independent Baking Co. is doing. He remembers one of the most formative experiences from his childhood that helped mold him into the chef and baker he is today very well. His passion for baking bread developed at a young age when his grandparents would visit from Connecticut. Together, they would bake bread, pizza, and schiacciatta from scratch.
“I always loved that,” Kevin recalls, “it was always my favorite part about them visiting. Besides the fact of seeing them, obviously.”
Unbeknownst to Kevin at that time, those days he shared in the kitchen with his grandparents would awaken a passion in him that would only grow with time. After graduating high school, Kevin moved to Oberlin, Ohio to pursue a career in music. He would go on to graduate from Oberlin Conservatory of Music with a degree in Music Performance in percussion. However, sometime in the middle of this endeavor, his vision started to shift as he didn’t see himself as passionate enough about music to pursue a career in it.
“I decided to pursue a culinary career because I had been interested in that. I thought if I had not gone to music school, I would’ve gone to culinary school but I feel there is creativity in both, and my training in music played an integral part in my growth in the culinary world,” he says.
One day Kevin decided to make a call to Lolita, a restaurant in Cleveland owned by chef Michael Symon. Offering to initially work for free, he was brought on and within a few months was already working on the line. The shaping process had begun. The hard work, long hours, and familial atmosphere at Lolita provided Kevin the assurance that he was on the right path. The encouragement and tough love that Kevin received during his time at Lolita would prove to become a solid foundation for him to stand on. This helped prepare him for what was right around the corner.
After graduating from Oberlin, Kevin left Lolita and moved to the Big Apple to take his first bite of the famous New York food scene. Thanks to a connection back home, Kevin was able to land a gig at the NoMad Hotel. At the time, the NoMad was newly established and outfitted with cooks from the three Michelin star restaurant, Eleven Madison Park. It was under this umbrella of teaching that Kevin learned such professional qualities as organization, cleanliness, and finesse. His work as a chef was brought to a higher degree of excellence at the NoMad. “The City That Never Sleeps” is well known in the culinary world for its bustle, noise and kitchen scenes to match the tempo. Despite the sometimes distracting and constant buzz, Kevin’s gaze was able to fix itself on an ancient passion of his, and The NoMad’sa bakery would subsequently draw Kevin back to his roots. Not long after beginning his employment at the NoMad, Kevin made the transition from his work as a chef and took an overnight position in the bread department where he would make, shape, and bake bread. Through his time there, Kevin found his niche and decided that he wanted to make the transition towards baking a permanent one. He wanted to be a baker.
From the NoMad, Kevin found his way into one of Brooklyn’s finest bakeries, Bien Cuit. Soon after starting, he was promoted to sous-chef. Not long after, Kevin became the Head Baker of Bien Cuit’s wholesale division,which oversaw production for approximately 170 clients in the Tri-State area. It was here that Kevin would learn the management skills necessary to oversee large-scale bread production. However, the personal and professional shaping process that was taking place in New York wasn’t complete just yet.
Following Kevin’s stint with Bien Cuit, he moved on to become Head Baker at world-famous Danish chef Claus Meyer’s Great Northern Food Hall. The two years and change spent there would prove to be the finishing touch. However, the shaping experience Kevin underwent by the industrious hands of some of New York’s finest dining and baking establishments would soon be coming to an end. And like a kid suddenly realizing he’s grown too big for the pool he’s been swimming in, Kevin started to see the dawn of new beginnings approaching. It was time for him to take the next step.
“I think it’s time to consider opening something up of my own. I feel I have built a skillset and foundation to put my own stamp on the products coming out of the oven,” Kevin recalls thinking towards the tail end of his stint at the Food Hall. But where? And how?
A new chapter cannot begin until the previous chapter’s final page is turned, just as the next in the relay can’t take off until the baton is placed firmly in hand. Just as that next chapter was about to begin for an ambitious young soul in the Empire City, a chapter was nearing its end for an old soul in The Classic City. Given Kevin’s roots in Georgia, he decided he wanted to bring his skillset to his home state and build his dream.
Thom Leonard, the world-renowned baker and original owner of Independent Baking Co. was looking for a pair of trustworthy hands to place his business in as he prepared to step into his next phase in life; retirement. Thom has been a towering figure in the baking community for over thirty years and has revealed to hundreds of bakers worldwide the secrets of grain and flour. Along with his many other successful ventures, his last bakery, Independent Baking Co., proved to be a beacon in Five Points since its beginnings in 2013. Naturally, the Athens, Georgia based artisan didn’t intend to see that torch extinguish.
Fortunately for Thom, his replacement was en route. On a fateful summer’s day in August of 2019, Thom and Kevin met for the first time. Although they belong to different generations, Thom could see they were cut from the same (pastry) cloth. The world-class training Kevin received was evident to Thom, and more importantly, the two men shared the same philosophy: providing the Athens community with a healthy and delicious source of bread. The negotiations didn’t take long, and on February 4th, 2020, the sale went through and Kevin Scollo officially became the new owner of Athens’s Independent Baking Co. The ancient landmark that rests in the heart of Five Points was teeming with new life.
Although the COVID-19 pandemic wasn’t the most welcomed or anticipated guest to this new business owner, a beautiful thing ended up happening. While the darkness was reaching its way to the corners of the earth, bringing with it fears and unknowns, the light stayed on in the heart of Five Points. The heart of Athens kept beating and the citizens of this old town rallied to keep this small business afloat.
“My employees and I really felt the support from the community during the pandemic. Everyone made a point to show up for us and I will always be thankful for that,” Kevin says while looking back on that time. “That’s this community. That would not be the case everywhere. Athens is special for that.”
When asked about the future of his business, Kevin is excited to keep Independent true to its mission of providing the highest quality bread and pastries for the Athen’s community but also sees the possibilities to expand his culinary ventures in the community.
“I think that I would like to eventually expand my culinary journey in Athens in a healthy way and I’m not sure exactly what that means yet. And whether it be an expansion of what we do now or an expansion of some different concept I would want to make sure the feel of the bakery doesn’t change.”
While Kevin refines plans for what’s next in his future culinary path, the denizens of Athens can rest assured that in the dark of the early morning there will continue to be a light on in Five Points. The bread is in the oven. The doors of the Independent Baking Co will open. Ever upwards.