A bakery is booming in this small Aroostook town

2 months ago

WASHBURN, Maine — Joe Carroll has been fascinated with baking his entire life. He’s found his niche with his own home bakery.

In the few months since he opened Joh’s Doughs/Baguettes, Bagels and More from his Washburn home, he’s already outgrowing his kitchen.

New businesses are rare in this small Aroostook County town of 1,527. Washburn is home to the Penobscot McCrum potato processing plant, but retail options are few. Besides the Dollar General store, Main Street’s only shops are a market, an auto service business, a convenience store and a laundry center. Carroll’s bakery adds a new dimension to the town’s business offerings.  

“It’s really picked up momentum in the last few months,” Carroll said. “The community support has been warm and welcoming, and I’m so grateful for that.”

Business has spread through word of mouth and social media. On a whim, he recently pushed for 500 followers on Facebook. He achieved that amount in two days, and more than 1,000 within a week, he said.  

Baking is his side gig. He is a full-time ophthalmology assistant at Northern Light Eye Care in Presque Isle and hits the kitchen on weekends.

On a typical morning he makes and sells about six dozen bagels, six to seven dozen doughnuts and numerous loaves of bread, he said. He bakes pizzas on Saturdays, which sell out quickly.  

He also takes special orders. On Friday morning he was baking several dozen poppy seed and fennel bagels for a customer from Millinocket, who comes to Washburn about once a month to pick them up. 

Washburn baker Joe Carroll scores a piece of sourdough. Scoring lets steam out of the loaf during baking. (Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald)

He did not specify a dollar amount, but said business has grown to the point where he can consistently meet his financial goals. In fact, he’s so busy he plans to expand with a larger oven and more cooling racks. 

The growth of Joh’s Doughs reflects a trend particularly since the pandemic toward more small, local businesses and the popularity of wholesome food, he said. He pointed out that The County has seen several independent coffee shops, bakeries and food trucks open in recent years.

Carroll grew up in Houlton, where there were always homemade foods and bread around. His mother taught him how to make bread, as she learned from her mother, he said. 

He has worked in food service for about 30 years. He has a business degree from Northern Maine Community College.

One of his patients sparked the idea to start his own bakery, he said. They were talking about baguettes with bruschetta. On the way home that day he bought a baguette, but found it disappointing. He decided to try making his own, which he learned is a constant process.

“You’re never finished learning about baguettes,” he said. “There’s a lot of experimenting with sourdough and fermentation.”

He started baking breads for family and friends in May 2023 and received his Maine home food and mobile vendor licenses in August.

There are more than 7,500 licensed food businesses statewide, according to the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. Applicants must submit food samples for testing and have an on-site inspection. 

The mobile vendor license allows Carroll to deliver food to customers and sell at public events, like farmers markets and festivals. Though family members have suggested he start a food truck, he isn’t thinking that far ahead, he said. 

Joe Carroll, owner of Joh’s Doughs in Washburn, prepares sourdough for baking as bread and bagels cool nearby. (Paula Brewer | The Star-Herald)

His passion is sourdough. He spent a lot of time researching its history, including in ancient times when villages had a communal oven and residents would bring their own dough to bake for the week, he said.

Making sourdough starter involves mixing flour and water and letting it ferment naturally. The process takes several days. Once the base is bubbling a bit and has the right color and consistency, he refrigerates it to use as needed.

“It’s a game of time and waiting and patience,” he said. “There’s a lot of precision to it. To think you can make something so delicious out of just two ingredients and some salt is fascinating.”

He makes baguettes, round loaves and bagels from sourdough, baking them on stone slabs in the oven.  

It’s a long process but worth the effort. Shortcuts are a disservice to the baker and to the food, he said. 

Carroll and his wife, Stacey, have a blended family of five kids. Their eldest son, Connor, is in the Navy. 

Customers come from Aroostook County and beyond, and some share recipes with him, he said. Someone whose grandmother had a bakery years ago in neighboring Crouseville shared a doughnut recipe. Another had spent time in France and sent him a positive review, along with some recipes from her travels. 

He loves the sharing and the stories people tell about what their mothers and grandmothers used to make. That’s what homemade food should be all about, he said: people sharing memories and happy times. 

“It’s not all about you at the end of the day,” he said. “It’s cool to be a part of people’s lives that way.”