On The Rise: Sunflower Oven

The science of breadmaking is, at its core, a cooperative effort.

A careful dance between four different elements - water, grain, salt, and yeast - yields an entirely new product that's sustainable, nutritious, and a centuries-old symbol of community.

Credit: Drew Dempsey/Tell Agency

Founder Robert Raymond and a collective of bakers at the new brick-and-mortar location of Sunflower Oven are taking this idea of cooperation and putting it to the heat, prioritizing people and place in their quest for human rights, health, and the perfectly-baked loaf.

"Even when it was just me making bread out of my house with no other people involved, I always knew I wanted it to be a cooperative business," Raymond said. "That comes from a lot of different areas. I studied economics in college, but I also studied environmental science and growing technologies. Cooperativism makes a lot of sense when thinking about how to build an economy that's sustainable - environmentally, socially, and ethically."

Robby Raymond
Credit: Drew Dempsey/Tell Agency

Originally from Chicago, Raymond graduated from NYU before starting his professional baking career, creating and managing several cooperative efforts as a student - two Farm-To-School programs as a FoodCorps Service Member, the NYU Bike Share, and the NYU Student Food Cooperative.

"All of the people that work here are part owners of the business, in proportion to the amount of labor that we contribute," Raymond said. "There's a whole system in place where, once a year, we get dividends of the company. It avoids many problems with traditional capitalist food-business models of underpaying employees."

People may be surprised that Raymond didn't grow up cooking, much less baking. But he was always very intrigued by where food came from. "I grew up in a single-parent household where food was convenience and necessity. A lot of times, there wasn't a lot of artistry in it. But there was always a lot of joy and love in it," Raymond said. "Food, and coming together over food, was such an important part of my mom and I's relationship."

Making bread as a hobby and working in several different kitchens, including an early stint at a bagel shop at age 15, struck the inspiration for Sunflower Oven. Raymond was particularly interested in sourdough, a bread that has a long and winding history dating back to as early as ancient Egypt.

Until around 250 years ago, natural microcosms - or "wild yeast" - were used to make sourdough lighter in texture but packed with necessary nutrients to fuel a day's work. Raymond explains that with the rise of scientific inquiry, strains of bacteria were isolated and filtered down to commercial yeast, like the ones available in any grocery store. While this "active dry yeast" can make bread quickly and effectively, the monoculture leaves out necessary, nourishing bacteria that promote holistic wellness - things like good gut health that prevents gluten sensitivity.

Sunflower Oven sandwiches
The bakery serves lunch daily
Credit: Sunflower Oven bread and makers

Along with natural yeast strains, Sunflower Oven is committed to using only flour "grown and sown" locally in the South. The team works closely with Carolina Ground, a stone mill founded by miller and author Jennifer Lapidus; she also has an economics and history background, specifically with community mills in France. "Community mills and community ovens, historically, were just as much gathering places for a town because ovens require so much raw energy to heat up," Raymond said.

Sunflower Oven's sourdough starters rise and grow naturally, the bakers moving at the pace the bread sets. The fermentation process becomes a natural preservative, allowing them to create and store condiments like sauerkraut and mustard in a cyclical, mutually-beneficial process that turns into loaves, cookies, bagels, and more. And at the end of the day, Raymond is still happy to give a loaf away on a pay-what-you-can scale.

"This project has always been more than being a bakery," Raymond said. "I've never wanted to grow in a way that made us compromise our ethics. From the beginning, we've always wanted to be an option for people who want nutritious, ethically-sourced bread. We're not trying to create an empire - that's why it's always been pay-what-you-can. And if we continue to grow, that's wonderful."

"You know, Jackson is such an interestingly-sized city. I wasn't exactly sure if there was enough critical mass of people at this point who could support a standalone storefront bakery," Raymond said. "I also wanted to have a lunch option just to get people in the door, and hopefully, they'll buy a loaf of bread on the way out or buy some cookies."

Similar to the art of making sourdough, Raymond wants patrons to stop by, slow down, and savor all the deeper meanings of breaking bread. And hopefully, leave hungry and inspired for more.

"It's so hard to go out to eat in this town and not want to take a nap afterward," he laughs. "We try to prioritize a lot of fresh foods that show people that bread does not have to weigh you down - treating it like it's fresh produce. It's packed with energy. And if you're using the right ingredients, it can be a wonderful way to sustain people."

Visit Sunflower Oven's space in Belhaven Heights, find them on Saturday mornings at the Mississippi Farmers Market, and check out their rotating menu on Instagram.

Anne Marie Hanna


Anne Marie Hanna

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