Flour, Sugar and Soul

Scratch Baking Co. is the hub of South Portland’s Willard Square.

By 6 a.m. on a midsummer Saturday at Scratch Baking Co., Alexander Kobulnicky has been shaping, boiling, and baking bagels for three hours. Stationed at butcher block tables in the back of the open kitchen, he and fellow bagel baker Danny Towle work methodically and silently in the tight space, pulling dough from the proofing cabinet, portioning it in a machine called a Dutchess, gently transferring the floppy rings of dough—12 at a time—to a pot of simmering water on the stove, and finally, sliding trays of bagels into pizza ovens to bake. It’s soon clear they are too focused on the process to answer my questions, so I just observe. By the end of their shift, they will have made 1,500 of Scratch Baking Co.’s most popular item, which will be gone before noon, snapped up by customers who have already begun to line up outside.

Bagels may be at the heart of this South Portland icon, but its soul is in Willard Square, where owners Sonja Swanberg, Bob Johnson, and Allison Reid have helped shape a tightly knit community. As Scratch has flourished, so has the neighborhood— now one of the most sought-after places to live in Greater Portland— and the square itself, where Willard Scoops ice cream shop opened in 2009, followed by Whole Dog Market in 2013.

The three owners connected when Swanberg and Johnson, now married, came to Maine in 2004 to visit Reid, an old friend of Swanberg’s who was then making bagels at One Fifty Ate on Pickett Street in South Portland. The building at 416 Preble Street was for sale, and “One Fifty Ate wanted to expand and move their baking operation out so they could do dinner,” says Swanberg. “It was very organic. We thought, ‘Let’s do baking here on the square and see what happens.’” With Reid in charge of bagel and bread baking, Swanberg turning out cakes and other sweets, and Johnson manning the coffee bar, the bakery opened in June of that year as One Fifty Ate Willard Square. Two years later, Reid left One Fifty Ate and the trio renamed their business Scratch Baking Co.

In 2004, the Willard neighborhood was still up and coming. “One of the older women said, ‘You know there’s a really bad element here that you’re going to have hanging around,’” says Swanberg, laughing at the memory. “We never saw that, but it was starting to change. There were more young families moving in—it’s walkable, it’s by the beach—and we were sort of on the cusp of that.” Longtime customer Mike  Cahill, who has lived in the neighborhood since the 1980s, strolls to Scratch nearly every day at 6 a.m. for a cup of “good, strong” coffee and a snack. “When you’re listing your house now, that’s what you put: ‘Within walking distance of Scratch bakery,’” he jokes.

Dara Saffer first stopped into Scratch soon after it opened, when the oldest two of her four children, now teenagers, were small. “I’m sure they’ll have great memories, and not just what they ate, but the people who work there,” she says. “It kind of reminds me of the Sesame Street song “People in Your Neighborhood;” they’re a big part of what makes this a great place to live.’” Like Saffer and her family, Robyn and Cory Schnaible discovered the bakery not long after they bought a house nearby. “It was just such an awesome surprise; we didn’t know we were moving into this special little hub,” says Robyn. “You’re waiting in line for coffee, and Bob seems to know everyone’s name. It blows my mind.”

For Johnson, whose pre-Scratch experience includes working as a cheesemaker at Shelburne Farms and co-founding Magic Hat Brewing Company, both in Vermont, energy is as important to the bakery’s success as butter, sugar, and coffee. “We hire for culture; you always want people to get who you are,” he explains. “It’s about creating something that’s evocative. You can get a scone or a muffin anywhere, but why does someone want to come in here? It’s how we make them feel.”

A few feet away from the quiet bagel bakers, Kelsey Maruhnic and Meghan Poulin are happy to chat with me while they arrange pastries on cake stands and slice desserts for the refrigerated case. “Everyone’s pretty excited about what we do,” says Poulin as she uses a propane torch to brûlée the marshmallow topping on s’mores cake squares. “I think they like that they can watch us work and see us laughing.” Around the corner at the deli counter, Jon Turco and Patrick Libby prep for what they expect will be a big lunch crowd on this warm beach day. The bakery started offering sandwiches, salads, and soups five years ago, after Bathras Market next door—a Willard Square landmark that had been closed for more than 20 years when it reopened briefly in 2011—shuttered for good. “Everybody’s so outgoing and really positive here,” says Turco, who moved from Woodstock, Vermont, to work at Scratch. “It’s a real pleasure to cook for people like that.”

At precisely 7 a.m., Johnson turns up the music, calls out, “Let’s have a party!” and unlocks the bakery’s front door. Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You” blasts as the line, by now extending around the block, slowly winds in. Most customers have been waiting to stock up on bagels—limited to one dozen per person in the summer—but a few head straight to the sweets counter for cinnamon buns, scones, or the flaky almond bear claws, available only on Saturdays. By 7:15, the bakery is jammed and jamming.

Johnson, a one-man band at the coffee station, chats easily as he takes orders. He warmly greets Kathryn Hoyt, whose three-week old son, Wesley, is snuggled in a carrier against her chest. “We looked for a house for a year because we wanted to be in this neighborhood,” says Hoyt, who comes to Scratch several times a week, “not always for the baked goods but sometimes for a coffee or a sandwich, because it’s a fun place to be.”

Following the frenzy of the summer season, Swanberg, Johnson, Reid, and their staff have usually had time to take a breath and maybe a few days off. That won’t happen this fall, as they get set to open a second location a half-mile away on the corner of Broadway and Sawyer Street. The former Getty gas station will house Reid’s dream kitchen—a production space for bagel and bread baking—plus a toast and bagel bar with seating. At Willard Square, the bakery kitchen will be revamped and used exclusively for cakes and pastries.

“The way we’ve done everything has been great for small-scale,” says Reid. “But our day revolves around the bagel bake; the pastry team has to wait for the ovens.” Locals are counting on the expansion to ease the bagel bottleneck at Willard Square and spread the Scratch Baking love. “If they can bring the same energy to Ferry Village, that neighborhood is poised for a transition,” says Robyn Schnaible.

Swanberg insists that the bagels will remain the same, as will the cheerful vibe, at both Scratch Baking Co. locations. “Especially when the rest of the world seems so big and bad, we’ve been adamant about this being the kind of place where you can walk in and join our little party,” she says. “We’re a bakery; we want people to be happy.”


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