20 Oct Dining Out: Labors of Love
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN SWEET LOVE, excellent food, and a pristine mountain valley meld into one story? At first, all but the sappiest words fail. This is just such a story, sans any ridiculous cornball notions about love. Sure, there’s a young couple, but this is also a story about devotion to a spectacular place, a commitment to lifestyle, and damn good food.
Stanley, Idaho, is a very small town in the heart of Idaho’s Sawtooth Mountains. More often than not, it is the coldest place in the nation. Its size (and therefore, the wildly inaccurate perception of limited entertainment possibilities), infamous winter climate, and remote location, all might discourage many travelers, but the fortunate are not deceived. Stanley literally teems with fishermen (summer and winter), boaters, hikers, hunters, cyclists, backcountry pilots, and kayakers. In other words, it is a very hot destination for the adventurous.
But, Stanley isn’t easy to get to. You have to intend to be here — or perhaps you’re just seriously lost — and this means that the local community is very far north of “normal.” Not much in Stanley is run-of-the-mill. At first glance, this point where Highway 93 meets 21 is a fascinating mix of ranchers, outdoor guides, hippie-types, and recluses. Stop into the Stanley Baking Company, this small town’s popular breakfast and lunch spot, and you’ll see grandparents just off their weekend hike chatting casually with the dreadlocked and tie-dyed 20-something who moved here to perfect her kayaking skills before heading off to Costa Rica on a scientific research grant. There’s a sweaty, dusty pack of mountain bikers howling about their “screamer” morning ride. A few middle-aged women share sketches they made on the shore of one of the nearby (but, very high) alpine lakes.
Muscles ripple no matter their age. There is an obvious and exuberant love of life on the porch of this small log cabin.
On the weekends, the above is overwhelmingly true. But, during the week, especially in the off-season, the crowd (and it still is a crowd) is fleece, flannel, Gortex and boots. Everyone knows everyone else. Conversations vary between politics, steelhead runs, wolf sightings, hunting stories, wildfire, weather and trail conditions. The Stanley Baking Company is definitely the microcosm of Stanley.
Although the original Stanley Baking Company opened in 2001, current owners, Tim and Becky Cron, have been the spirit of the place for the past four years. Traditionally, the tiny restaurant is only open from mid-May into October. “But, this year, we’re checking out the idea of staying open during the winter,” says Becky optimistically. “More people are staying in Stanley year-round now, so maybe next winter we can do it.”
The Crons first met in Ketchum, Idaho, (the town in the midst of the Sun Valley Ski Resort) when they worked at the locally famous Pioneer Saloon in 1997. “But, we’ve always loved Stanley. We came over the hill as often as we could while we were dating, and we were married here in 2001,” Becky explains. (Going “over the hill” is local vernacular for climbing over Galena Summit’s 8,701-foot elevation, a divide that separates Stanley in the Sawtooth Valley from Ketchum in the Wood River Valley.)
“We were looking for something to vest ourselves in. We wanted to create something of our own, to be our own boss, and we had a lot of experience between us in restaurants,” adds Tim. “Stanley was, and still is, a good fit for us. We felt like we were well-suited to make a go of it here.”
This is clearly an understatement in light of their lean, athletic appearance and the line snaking from the counter of their bakery, out the door and into the road. The jovial buzz inside is electric as stories are swapped amidst tantalizing aromas of sourdough pancakes, freshly baked goodies, organic coffee, and sizzling bacon. Wait staff good-naturedly jostle heaping plates of breakfast through the crowd with nary a crash. The scene is bustling, but never frantic. Becky’s eclectic collection of vintage and whimsical aprons sway from a clothesline stretched across the kitchen. Memorabilia and Idaho kitsch make the wait a time for trivia and laughter. The Crons are very savvy about gathering unique and special things for their restaurant. It is part of the appeal for their customers, a glimpse into the Crons’ personal authenticity, and to a degree, a glimpse into the heart and soul of Stanley.
“We remodeled the bakery as business grew and we needed more room,” says Tim. “And, everything we used, we recycled from somewhere else. We’re really proud of that. I heard this story on National Public Radio about a couple who vowed to live a year of their life without buying anything new. I like that idea, and it’s how we approach our bakery, too. The floor is remnants from Becky’s mom’s floor in Oregon. The booths were from a café in Murtaugh [Idaho] that was being torn down.”
“So are the soda fountain chairs on the front deck,” Becky chimes in. Their enthusiasm for this aspect of the remodel is infectious, and explains their next step —another remodel in town, this one even more ambitious.
The couple is spending this winter refurbishing the old Sawtooth Hotel. And, just like they did in the bakery, they’re doing most of the work themselves using recycled materials wherever possible. Considering this is a serious look at the fine line between realism and passionate idealism. The latter can create the former.
“Building in Stanley is different from building in any other place,” Tim admits. “Things just move a little slower here. But, that’s one of the reasons people love it, and that goes for us too.”
The couple is reticent to commit to an opening date for the hotel. They have just poured the foundation for a new kitchen, but “between weather, availability of supplies, and all the uncertainties of construction,” they have hopes to re-open the hotel in the fall of 2008.
This devotion to personal ideals draws customers like moths to flame. Nearly everything served at Stanley Baking Company is either made from scratch or bought from local suppliers. The Crons serve organic coffee from Hailey Coffee Company, a roaster located just “over the hill,” and their organic breads now come from Ketchum’s Big Wood Bread.
“We learned we just couldn’t keep up with demand for bread, and still make all the other baked goods the way we wanted to,” says Becky. “We put so much extra love into our food. Our baked goods are handmade from scratch and baked the same day. We’ve never bought jam. Seriously! Ours is all homemade and it makes such a difference.”
“That’s pretty unique in today’s world,” adds Tim. “We take a lot of pride in that.”
One glimpse at the steady stream of people still walking up the road to the bakery, and to the lingering crowd on the porch (some perched on the tailgates of their trucks) confirms that the Crons’s philosophy works. And, the intimate size of the dining room is no deterrent at all. It only takes a couple of visits before new customers hear of the great view from Pioneer Park. Not even three-tenths of a mile up the road from the bakery, the park is a wonderful picnic site. Those in the know often take their Stanley Baking Company order to go and head uphill.
“We like to think we are the locals’ gathering place,” Becky says with a smile and a caveat. “A lot of people feel like they’re regulars here even if they only make it to Stanley once a year. And, you know? We agree.”