Family, Faith and Fresh Baked BreadSouth Main's Community Bakery is an important cornerstone of a revitalized neighborhood

Family, Faith and Fresh Baked Bread
South Main's Community Bakery is an important cornerstone of a revitalized neighborhood

By Caleb Hennington

Digital Content Editor

In 2018, things were going pretty well for John and Juli Brandenberger. Both of them had comfy, good-paying jobs, — John at Dillard’s Corporate Office and Juli a CPA with her own accounting firm — stable day-to-day work schedules, and plenty of reasons to continue their life journey in the direction it was currently going.

By most people’s accounts, things were going amazingly well for the Brandenbergers. But, according to John and Juli, they felt like missing something truly important was missing from their lives.

“I really wanted to do something that would fully fulfill me. Nothing against Dillard’s, of course, they are a great company, but we really wanted something that would allow both of us to live out our missions as a family,” John said.

John had spent more than 20 years in the corporate retail business and was beginning to feel the effects of the many years he put into his job. Juli, although comfortable in her own job, was also starting to feel drained from her demanding job.

Something was missing, although they hadn’t quite defined what that missing piece was. Not yet, at least.

The Brandenbergers

John and Juli met in Springfield, Missouri while Juli was attending grad school at Southwest Missouri State — now named Missouri State — and John was working for Dillard’s.

“I was forming a singles group and a friend of mine recommended I include her new boss at Dillard’s. John had just transferred from the Columbia, Missouri store. We became fast friends and it quickly grew to more,” Juli said.

That was in 2003. One year later, the pair were married at First United Methodist Church Little Rock and began making a life for themselves as newlyweds in Little Rock.

Speaking with the Brandenbergers, it’s easy to see how the pair became more than friends.

John is a tall, slender man with a shaved head and long beard that would make any lumberjack jealous. Juli is also tall but a bit shorter than John, with cropped, shoulder-length hair and eyes that exude warmth and kindness, and give you the impression that you’re old friends, even if you’ve just met.

The respect the two have for each other is evident in how they answer questions about their business and personal life.

John, when answering questions about the daily operation of the business, always make a point to compliment Juli and bring it back to her as the person who’s the true brains behind the business.

“Juli is really the one in charge here. She’s the one that makes everything really work here,” John said.

Juli, perhaps a little embarrassed at her husband’s outpouring of compliments toward her in front of a stranger, gives a slight smile every time John brings it back to her.

This dynamic manifests itself in their work as the new owners of Community Bakery in Little Rock. While Juli handles the money and behind-the-scenes operations at Community, John is the face of the business, typically seen helping out customers at the bakery counter and chatting with patrons of the store.

The differences between the two seem to create a perfect working relationship. Although, working together, especially in the setting of a bakery, was never something that crossed their minds. Until they connected with longtime Community Bakery owner Joe Fox.

Community Bakery’s History in Little Rock

Although Community Bakery has changed locations many times over the years, it’s been a staple of Central Arkansas since 1947. That was the year Ralph Hinson opened up the first Community Bakery in the Rose City neighborhood of North Little Rock.

In 1952, Hinson moved Community Bakery to 14th and Main Street, in the building that now houses Raduno Brick Oven & Barroom.

Fast forward a few decades and a few owners, and the building was sold to Joe Fox in 1983. A new location in West Little Rock came along in 1986, and then the Main Street location moved down a couple of blocks to its current location in the historic Cohn Building at 12th and Main in 1993.

This was long before SoMa was the trendy, millennial-filled neighborhood that it is now. Only a few of the businesses from the old days of South Main still exist today; one of them is Midtown Billiards, which moved next door to the first Community Bakery location on Main in the 1970s.

John said that when Fox bought Community Bakery, he really had a vision of transforming the business into a true community meeting place with delicious fresh baked goods and piping hot coffee.

“I like to tell people we were SoMa long before it was SoMa,” John said.

Indeed, South Main only recently transformed into the busy tourist destination that exists there today. Looking at pictures from a few decades ago, where there were more closed businesses and empty buildings than open ones, the neighborhood is almost unrecognizable.

Juli remembers a time when South Main struggled. Her family moved to downtown Little Rock in the 1970s when she was just a girl, but she remembers that despite the struggles of that time, Community Bakery was always there.

“I grew up going to Community Bakery. We would ride our bikes down here all the time. It was an impoverished part of town but that didn’t mean it was unsafe. You know, every neighborhood goes through ups and downs and it was in a rough place during that time.”

Over the years, the neighborhood would change dramatically, but Community Bakery remained a cornerstone — literally at the corner of South Main — of the revitalized neighborhood.

When Fox announced that he was handing over ownership of Community Bakery to someone else, many wondered if the bakery would remain the same or change with the introduction of a different leader.

John and Juli Brandenberger, the new owners of Community Bakery Cafe in the South Main neighborhood of Little Rock. || Photo by Caleb Hennington

Photo by Allie Atkisson Imaging, @allieatkissonimaging

Photo by Allie Atkisson Imaging, @allieatkissonimaging

Community Bakery Cafe specializes in baked goods of all kinds, including beautiful custom cakes. Nearly every item sold by the bakery is handmade in the kitchen located in the building behind the front counter. || Photo by Allie Atkisson Imaging, @allieatkissonimaging

Running Community Bakery

When the Brandenbergers took over ownership of Community Bakery in 2018, they made sure that the recipes and the legacy that made Community Bakery so important to Little Rock remained the same.

“When we came in, people asked us over and over again if we were going to change any of the recipes. We made a point to not change anything that made Community Bakery so successful in the past. It was really important to them, and to us, that we didn’t touch those recipes because they’re so magical,” John said.

Before taking over as owner of Community Bakery, John spent a few weeks working in the bakery with Fox — for free, taking vacation time from his job at Dillard’s — and seeing how the business operated. John said that when he first started having discussions with Fox about wanting to buy a franchise or a small business in town, Community Bakery really wasn’t for sale. But after working in the bakery, the conversation morphed into the idea of the Brandenbergers buying the bakery from Fox.

Though the recipes remain the same, the Brandenbergers have tried to put an extra emphasis on the “community” aspect of Community Bakery.

One of the newest initiatives they’ve started is Coffee for the Community, by the Community, a partnership between Community Bakery and several local coffee roasters in Little Rock, including Leiva’s Coffee, Guillermo’s Gourmet Coffee, Standard Roasting Co., and Blue Sail Coffee.

The partnership brings in locally roasted coffee to the bakery to go alongside their usual selection of roasts, including a Community Bakery customer favorite, Folgers.

Other local businesses they’ve worked with include Flywheel Pies, Rebel Kettle Brewing Co., and Rock Town Distillery. Their freshly-baked breads are also used in many of the restaurants around Little Rock.

“When you’re biting into a burger at your favorite restaurant, there’s a chance that you’re eating Community Bakery bread. And a lot of people don’t know that,” Juli said.

The Brandenbergers have been able to draw on their faith as United Methodists when thinking about ways to give back to their community.

John and Juli attend First United Methodist Church in Little Rock and find a lot of inspiration in the messages that the Rev. David Freeman brings on Sunday mornings.

“David talks a lot about living a fulfilled life at First Church. We both came to the realization that we weren’t living fully fulfilled lives in our jobs and we wanted to do more. And we got to a point that we realized giving back to others was just as important as paying our own bills,” Juli said.

Their faith also manifests itself in the Brandenbergers commitment to social justice and ensuring that their employees are well-taken care of and secure.

They’ve worked to raise wages and provide better benefits for their employees. Juli noted that Community Bakery has a long history of employing people in the community who have a hard time getting jobs anywhere else, such as those with past criminal records.

“We tell people that the choices you made in your past don’t define you unless you continue to make those choices,” John said.

“That’s another part of collaborating with the community. We don’t necessarily call that our mission because that’s such an important word, but that’s another way we’ve been able to serve the community in Little Rock,” Juli added.

In other ways, the Brandenbergers agree that even though the time-commitment to their new job sometimes prevents them from being able to attend church on Sundays, the family and friends they’ve made at First Church, as well as the clergy, always make a point to encourage them whenever they see them.

“A lot of the transformation that’s happened in us has happened because of studies and small groups that we’ve been a part of with First United Methodist Church. That has shaped who we’ve become. And we feel enormous support from the people there,” Juli said. “And I don’t mean just ordering cookies from us; I mean emotional support.”

“We’ve had nothing but great experiences with First Church and plan to continue being a part of that church,” John said.

Community Bakery Cafe is located at 1200 Main St. in Little Rock. Their hours are Monday – Thursday, 6 a.m. – 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 6 a.m. – 9 p.m., and Sunday 7 a.m. – 8 p.m.

Saline County Cares Hosts Resource Fair at Benton First UMC

Saline County Cares Hosts Resource Fair at Benton First UMC

On Nov. 12, Benton First UMC, in partnership with Saline County Cares, hosted a Community Resource Fair at the church.

The fair featured more than 25 vendors, including nonprofits, businesses and government agencies. The goal of the fair is to provide resources for the low-income population in Saline County.

These resources include free flu shots, a free meal, information on where to receive medical treatment and employment help, and more.

Organizations such as the Department of Human Resources, the Churches Joint Council on Human Needs, and the Federal TRiO program were on-hand to assist people at the fair.

Order to the Disorder

Order to the Disorder

By Rev. Dr. Michelle J. Morris

CouRSe Coordinator

Hope. Peace. Joy. Love.

After some significant debate, that is what we settled on, this group of pastors who was trying to remember the order of the words associated with each of the weeks of Advent. Just for good measure, I checked the source of all knowledge these days: Wikipedia. It also lists hope, peace, joy, and love. Yes! We are all in agreement.

But then I started working on the Advent devotional offered by the Arkansas clergywomen as a gift to anyone in the Conference (find it as a study in CouRSe, our online Congregation Resourcing System; go to arumc.myabsorb.com to sign up). They have the order there as hope, love, joy, and peace. Now, I know from the discussions around this resource that one of the reasons for this order is to match the lectionary passages that go with that particular week. At least they are still working with the same four words, even if they are in a different order.

But imagine my surprise when at another gathering of pastors someone mentioned the Advent resources at Discipleship Ministries (umcdiscipleship.org) has this list: peace, hope, joy, and trust. Seriously? What happened to love? Why did trust get added in there all of a sudden? I have to admit my mind went to a rather distrustful space of wondering if they were trying to subtly call us out for our lack of trust in each other, and I recognize that I proved their point if that is where they were going. But also, where is the love? That seems like a desperately needed word these days for our church.

I really don’t need this lack of clarity about my Advent weeks this year. This is not the time to get creative and try to mess around with my traditions and my expectations. Please, just let everything stay the way it has always been.

But if Advent did that, then it wouldn’t be Advent, would it?

Advent is a season of darkness and confusion. Advent, in our Christian calendar, represents the time before the light came into the world. If you are reading through the lectionary passages for Advent this year, you will notice that the words of the prophets and the psalms come from dark places – places of loss, of destruction, of abuse and desolation. In truth, Advent points out that we don’t need things to stay the same – we need a savior who will lead us out of this place. We need a change. Desperately.

I had become too attached to the wrong thing as I wrestled with these words. I had become attached to their order. When we are in dark places, order gives us comfort. But I needed to be attached to their meaning. And their meaning actually creates disorder in this space, because hope and joy and peace and trust and love all stand in opposition to the darkness we are living in, the darkness that deceives us into thinking it brings us order, when in fact it is the source of the chaos.

So now I welcome the disruption of these words. I welcome it because such disruption is making me see what I actually need to see. I need to see that my comfort comes not from predictable liturgy but instead from passionate, surprising worship. The kind of worship that reminds me to see a newborn child not simply as a baby but instead as the source of all the universe, and the one who rights all that is wrong in the world. So bring on my Advent chaos. Ultimately, it will bring order to all that is disordered.

P.S. – Discipleship Ministries didn’t drop love altogether, but instead made it the center of Christmas Eve. Thank God!

Advent Is Where We Live

Advent Is Where We Live

By Rev. William O. "Bud" Reeves

Senior Pastor, First UMC Fort Smith

We live in a world of uncertainty. We never know what the next day—or even the next hour—will bring. Not a week goes by that I don’t have to deal with someone whose world, in a moment, has radically and forever changed. A healthy, strong retiree suffers a debilitating stroke. A father of three loses his job in a corporate downsizing. An innocent driver is injured in a tragic accident. A house fire takes the life of a child. We never know what the day will bring.

We live with uncertainty on a grand scale. The political situation in our country descends closer to chaos every day. Our fellow human beings—from children in public schools to soldiers on the fields of battle—suffer the scourge of violence. “Huddled masses yearning to breathe free” are gathered outside our borders in unconscionable conditions.

And of course, our beloved United Methodist Church seems locked on a trajectory of division. After nearly half a century of often rancorous debate, it is clear there is still an intractable disagreement over matters of human sexuality, and there are enough people who are not willing to live with that disagreement that some sort of division is inevitable. (See our Bishop’s remarks from November 8.) The Wesleyan Covenant Association has distributed drafts of their new Book of Discipline and is organizing the committee structure for a so-called “new expression of Methodism.” Several plans of separation have been proposed for consideration by General Conference in 2020.

In these uncertain days, where can we turn? What can we do? Where is the hope?

As we begin the season of Advent, we find that this spiritual season (not so much the cultural Christmas) is all about the uncertain human condition. Before Jesus was born, the people were living in the midst of violence, oppression, and poverty. They never knew what the day would bring, either. Yet they longed for the promised Messiah. They never stopped hoping. Then God came as a baby to save the world. God sent the Son to live and grow and teach and die for our salvation. The Baby is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

Our response to the Advent reality may be to follow the advice of Jesus, to “stay awake” and to “watch” for the signs of the Kingdom at hand. Through Isaiah, God said, “I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” We should keep our eyes open for the work of God in the world. It’s there for those who can see. Maybe we can join in.

Another critical response to the uncertainty of the times is, to use the metaphor of Jesus, to keep our hands to the plow and our eyes straight ahead. He said, “Whoever puts their hand to the plow and looks back is not fit for the kingdom of God.” If we spend our time and energy bemoaning the past, second-guessing individuals or groups, and letting ourselves be controlled by fear, we will never see the way God is preparing in front of us.

The most important task in these uncertain times is to do everything we can to make our local church as strong and vital as we can. Give, serve, pray, and work so that the church family you love can withstand the tides of uncertainty and change. The worst thing would be to abandon ship. Our mission has not changed. We are still here to make disciples for the transformation of the world. We are still called to teach the children, engage the youth, encourage the families, support the elderly, marry the couples, visit the sick, bury the dead, proclaim the Word, love the neighbor, and lead the lost soul to Jesus. Whatever happens in our world or country or denomination, we have to keep steady, plow the field, and look to the future.

We have not lost hope. God who came in Emmanuel is still with us. Jesus is still Lord. We live in an Advent kind of world, but this kind of world is where we can truly live. Advent acknowledges our human condition, but it also envisions our highest aspiration. We live in the midst of uncertainty, but with the undeniability of God’s ultimate victory. We face fear every day, but we do not give up our faith. In a world full of heartbreak, we dare to have hope.

This is not news. But this is Good News. In fact, it’s the best news of all. John Wesley said it memorably, as he lay dying: “Best of all, God is with us.” True. Thanks be to God.

Free Breakfast, Every SaturdayBatesville UMC Has Been Cooking Up Hot Meals for Their Community Every Weekend for 7 Years

Free Breakfast, Every Saturday
Batesville UMC Has Been Cooking Up Hot Meals for Their Community Every Weekend for 7 Years

By Sam Pierce

Featured Contributor

Every Saturday morning, Batesville United Methodist Church hosts a free breakfast for the community. They make enough eggs, bacon, sausage, gravy and the like to serve 80 people.

“And we serve all the meals on glass plates and glass coffee cups,” said organizer Mike Wilson. “We decided from the very beginning, we wanted to give them as much dignity as possible by doing that.”

Jeannie Wagoner, who has been a volunteer for the breakfast since the very beginning, said someone once told her that by serving the food on real plates with real silverware, “they felt like they were company.”

“They are our company, and we want to use our best things to serve and to bring pleasure to them,” Wagoner said. “They are so thankful. We can’t change their lifestyle or mannerisms, but we can be together for breakfast and they are guests in our church home.”

The breakfast began about seven years ago and the menu has been pretty consistent over the years. Wilson said initially the breakfast was a way to provide for the homeless and those that were really in need.

“But it has become a community gathering center where we can enjoy breakfast together,” he said. “Seventy five percent of the people there need a place to get a hot meal, but the rest are there for fellowship – but we can call both family.

“It is a time for community, prayers and singing.”

He said it was initially set up for those who really need it, and the church still serves that crowd, but it has opened up to the whole community.

“We socialize with them, we walk around and talk, and we try to get to know them,” Wagoner said. “It is the fellowship of the people and getting acquainted with them.”

Wagoner said when she first started volunteering for the ministry, some of the guests wouldn’t even make eye contact with her. She said they would take their food and sit down.

“But now, they hug us, they love us, and I think it is because they realize we are all people, we are all God’s children,” Wagoner said. “They want to extend their love to us, just like we want to extend our love to them. It is not one-sided.”

Wilson said it is phenomenal the number of prayer requests they get each week through the breakfast.

“I can’t stand to see a child hungry or someone standing on the corner begging for food,” Wilson said. “Having some kind of food ministry is a way we can reach a larger number at a time.

“… We thought having some kind of meal service was the best way we could reach the most people. We are about making disciples, but if they are starving, we have to meet their needs first.”

Wilson said he and his wife thought for years of starting a soup kitchen, but it just didn’t fit the environment in Batesville.

“We had a men’s breakfast for years, and we deduced that the day is much better if it starts with a hot breakfast,” Wilson said. “We met once and made the decision to do it, and brought it up at the council meeting and went forward from there.”

The church has set aside a set amount for the breakfast but, according to Wilson, has yet to be touched thanks to donations from the Sunday School classes and the community. “This is a special church, everyone is so giving, it just fills your heart,” Wilson said.

“One of the people we served brought me apples the other day,” Wagoner said. “When she was in the store, she bought apples for us, because she knows we serve it at breakfast.

“Some of the people that come, help clean up or sweep the floor, or clean the tables – they are a great bunch of people.”

Senior Pastor Mark McDonald said when he was appointed as pastor, one of the first things he wanted to do was visit a few ministries that the Rev. Justin Ledbetter had told him about – the Wednesday youth and children’s ministry, and the Saturday breakfast.

“I came one Saturday and Mike introduced me to some of the workers,” McDonald said. “Then, some of the workers started taking me around the room and introducing me to nearly 75 people by name.

“The members of the church knew their names and their stories … I was amazed at how the workers knew everybody personally and discovered it wasn’t that way just with a couple of workers. They have become a family in Christ.”

He said on his initial visit, he met volunteers from this congregation, as well as other congregations in the community and learned that 15 or so come every single week, including missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

“A lot of people that are involved in the church volunteer for this ministry,” said Joe Wagoner, Jeannie’s husband and volunteer. “We try to make everyone feel like they are family and we aren’t just serving them.

“I don’t know anybody that’s there for any glorification. We are there to serve.”

Jeannie said she got involved because she is very social and likes meeting people.

“I needed to be a servant in that place, and it was something I could do, and I just had to know how to cut up the fruit,” she said.

McDonald said after he arrived, he found that many of the people who come to eat breakfast consider Batesville UMC their church. He said some arrive an hour or two early and simply drink coffee and visit.

“Others help with set up or clean up,” McDonald said. “Each week, when the food is ready, different people share a devotional. Some lead singing, some tell stories and some preach the gospel.

“We’ve had people who attend worship come for breakfast, and people who come for breakfast attend Sunday worship.”

“We have a good time serving these folks and it is a blessing for people who are doing the service,” Wilson said. “I don’t care if they don’t come to our church, I just want them to go to church.”

He said for most of them, the Saturday morning breakfast is the only church they get.

“They know there is a place to have breakfast and they know there are people here that care about them,” Wilson said. “And they are going to meet their friends here too.”