PAWTUCKET — A marriage of carefully crafted breads and pastries combined with high quality coffee has led to much success for the husband-and-wife team of Lynn and Jim Williams. Just don't call their Seven Stars Bakery a “coffee shop.”
“Jim bristles when he hears that,” jokes Lynn. Although the two veteran bakers are quick to point out that they didn't want to be “just a bakery” either, and having coffee and morning newspapers available to accompany their baked goods helps bring customers in and keeps them coming back.
Seven Stars first opened in 2001, an “adventure” that the couple started when they were “boyfriend and girlfriend,” as is noted on their website. Lynn, originally from western Massachusetts, had attended the Culinary Institute of New York, where she took courses in baking and pastry making. Along the way, she met Jim, a native of Southern California, who had worked in various West Coast bakeries.
Lynn Williams said that she knew of Rhode Island because her grandparents had a summer house here and her parents retired in the state. The couple found a location at 820 Hope St. and set out by themselves, with the help of just a small staff, to bake and sell bread and pastry made in a more natural, old-European style than what most Rhode Islanders were accustomed to.
In the earliest days, Jim would work during the night making the breads and Lynn would come in during the early morning hours to finish off the pastries and open the store. “We worked like this for a long time,” she said.
At Seven Stars, the baking process involves an age-old method of long fermentation for breads and pastries. This means that after the dough is mixed, it is given a pre-determined time at a controlled temperature to develop flavor and strength. It's a process that can take hours or even days, but fermentation coaxes flavor from the wheat, they explain.
Seven Stars uses basic ingredients and never any preservatives. Most of the breads are made with unbleached, untreated flour that, unlike white flour, keeps most of its natural nutrients. Their whole wheat flour, rye flour and all of their whole grains are organic.
Seven Stars pastries are made with whole fresh eggs, high butterfat butter and all natural ingredients. Croissants and Danish are made by a process called “lamination” where butter is folded into a piece of fermented dough. A painstaking process of rolling and folding chilled butter into dough creates the layers of light, flaky pasty that customers love.
Likewise, all of the cookies, scones and muffins are made from scratch, and, again, it's the high quality butter than makes the difference, the Williamses say. Jim Williams notes that when making pastries, many bakeries rely on “Danish roll-in fat,” which is an inexpensive lard. It's what leaves a filmy texture behind on the tongue.
Lynn notes that all of Seven Stars' cookies and pastries contain only “real” ingredients such as pure vanilla, nuts, chocolate, salt, brown sugar, etc. “If it wasn't made in nature, we don't use it. No lab coats,” she says.
Jim noted that on the West Coast and throughout other parts of the U.S., this natural, more organic style of baking was already being embraced. He said that in the mid-1980s, the Acme bakery on the West Coast and Bread Alone in Upstate New York opened and “paved the way” for baking in the tradition of what Seven Stars does now.
Bread-making, notes Lynn, went through “the industrial period,” where machines quickly and cheaply churned out the fluffy, white sandwich-style bread that was the norm in households for decades. “But the food environment has changed in the last 20 years. There has been a return to a call for more traditionally made foods,” she said.
The couple found that the Hope Street location, on Providence's East Side, brought in the “transplants” from other parts of the country who appreciated what Seven Stars was trying to do. Their business flourished. “Mostly by word of mouth,” Lynn pointed out.
Seven Stars began selling its breads to restaurants and grocery stores, including the Whole Foods chain and East Side Marketplace. The company outgrew its baking capacity on Hope Street and opened an off-site baking facility in the Hope Artiste Village mill building in Pawtucket. In more recent years, the Williamses added Seven Stars Bakery shops on Broadway in Providence and at the Rumford Center in East Providence. The company now employs 60 people.
One key link was an early collaboration with New Harvest Coffee Roasters, an artisan coffee company that also happens to be located in the Hope Artiste mill complex. The Williamses said they appreciated New Harvest Coffee Roasters owner Rik Kleinfeldt's passion for quality and in crafting a great tasting cup of coffee. They have passed that coffee-making training on to their own staff.
The Williamses, who now have two children, say they still enjoy what they do. Perhaps not the painstaking process involved in bread-making, but in watching their business continue to grow and in overseeing quality assurance.
Lynn said that she recently stopped in to the Rumford Seven Stars Bakery location and spent some time “helping on the line a little bit.” “I enjoyed talking to the customers. It's a nice, neighborhood-y feel over there,” she said.
Follow Donna Kirwan on Twitter@KirwanDonna