Teen’s baking career on the rise

By Emily Van Zandt Published October 25, 2012 at 12:00 a.m.
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Emily Van Zandt / River Valley & Ozark Edition

Leah Newton, a 16-year-old baker, kneads dough for a new batch of her baked goods. The Russellville resident sells the items as One Nerd Bakery online and at the Tri Peaks Farmers Market in Oldtown Russellville. She plans to use the proceeds from her business to attend college and buy a car.

— It’s 7 p.m. on a Thursday, and like many teens, Leah Newton is at work, trying to raise money for college and a car.

But instead of bagging groceries or restocking shelves, 16-year-old Leah has taken over the prep kitchen at Stoby’s restaurant in Russellville. She switches on her iPod, covers her R2-D2 T-shirt with her great-grandmother’s faded cobbler’s apron and sets to work.

For the next few hours, Leah mixes, kneads and bakes breads that she sells under the name One Nerd Bakery.

In June, Leah turned her longtime passion for baking and cooking into a money-making venture, setting up shop at the Tri Peaks Community Market in Oldtown Russellville. The first day she was there, she sold out in less than two hours.

“The most I’ve made in a day was around $200,” Leah said. “It was ridiculous. But I’m always happy if I make over $30.”

Her farmers-market spread usually includes medium-sized loaves of her cinnamon-raisin bread or Amish white bread for $4. Each loaf is tucked in a hand-stamped, owl-themed bag or box. Her best-seller so far has been the Mediterranean bread she and her mother created — a buttermilk-bread base filled with a pesto Leah makes from walnuts, sun-dried tomatoes, olive oil, salt and locally grown basil. Moving around the professional kitchen with ease, Leah is surprised when people remark that bread-baking is tough.

“People think it’s hard, but it’s really easy,” Leah said. “A lot of people make the water too hot and kill the yeast, or let it rise too much.”

Leah was first introduced to the market through family friends and has recently grown diligent about the idea of eating locally as much as she can.

“I really like knowing where my food comes from,” Leah said. “It helps support the community, and you can find out if your food is free from chemicals and steroids.”

It’s also easier for Leah to make sure her foods are free of corn, to which she’s allergic.

Leah’s calm in the kitchen comes courtesy of years of practice under the watchful eye of her mother, Kathy Newton.

Now a manager at Stoby’s, Kathy went through culinary courses and internships in Florida before moving with her husband and Leah back home to Arkansas.

While home-schooling Leah and her younger brother, Kathy would let Leah help in the kitchen. Now Leah prepares a meal for the family nearly every day. Her favorite? Fish (the only meat she eats now) steamed in a parchment bag.

Though she only brings her breads to the farmers market, Leah also bakes and decorates cakes for special orders.

“She’s ahead of me in cake decorating, … except maybe in piping,” Kathy said, joking. “She has much more talent than me with fondant.”

So far, Leah’s been commissioned to do a few birthday cakes, including one topped with a hand-painted, edible Razorback logo. A few years ago, when Leah got

to choose where the family went on vacation, it was straight to Baltimore to visit Charm City Cakes, owned by Duff Goldman of the television show Ace of Cakes.

“If only I could decorate like he does,” Leah mused.

But she has time. Leah plans to take the ACT in December and enroll in courses at Arkansas Tech University in 2013. Her goal is to earn an associate degree by the time she’s 19. After that, it’s pastry school, maybe in Chicago. With the money she’s made through One Nerd Bakery, Leah has enough saved for two part-time semesters at Arkansas Tech.

“Leah has her plan, and she’s going to see it through,” Kathy said. “I can see how good it’s been for her.”

Kathy said Leah was slightly overwhelmed baking before her first day at the market. Making 60 loaves by yourself can do that. But she has her method down now, spending only one day a week on her market baking.

The end of the season for the Tri Peaks Community Market is Saturday, but Leah will take orders through the winter through the Russellville Community Market, an online marketplace for area merchants at russellville.locallygrown.net. Customers can also contact Leah through the One Nerd Bakery Facebook page for custom cake orders.

While she hopes to one day own a bakery —and you believe her when she says it — Leah is still just a teenage nerd at heart. If she weren’t baking for money, Leah would likely have looked for a job in the local library.

“On a perfect weekend, I’d probably spend the day reading, listen to music,” Leah said. “I think it would also include watching Doctor Who and knitting.”

Even teenage bakers need a break once in a while.

Staff writer Emily Van Zandt can be reached at (501) 399-3688 or evanzandt@arkansasonline.com.

Associate Features Editor Emily Van Zandt can be reached at .

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