In the six years after Big Sky Bread’s whole wheat bakery closed, Jeff and Patti Pierce received over a thousand emails with the same urgent inquiry: “Are y’all gonna make the cookies again?” You asked, and they answered. The cookies are back, y’all.
While the adventurous duo enjoyed developing their wholesale business and dabbling in restaurant ownership (anyone remember Cahaba Heights’ Steel Drum Grill?), they felt like something was missing without a retail location.
“We really loved talking to customers and getting feedback. So when we closed the retail bakery, we felt like the enjoyment wasn’t quite there where it used to be,” Jeff admits.
The Vestavia Hills couple first opened Big Sky Bread in November of 1994, next to Bromberg’s in Mountain Brook. “The day we opened, we had people lined around the building, so we knew that what we loved, other people loved too,” Jeff recalls.
Before opening the shop, Jeff, a self-proclaimed ‘all-natural fanatic,’ couldn’t get his whole grain fix in town. He’d have to stock up on the essentials when visiting a bakery near his parents’ home in Louisville. “Every time we went to Louisville, Patti already knew the first place I was headed. I loved it so much I’d get bags of loaves to bring home.”
After years of shuttling back whole grain goodies from the Louisville bakery, the couple decided it was time for Birmingham to stop loafing around. “What was wild about the whole thing was doing whole grain, all-natural back then, 24 years ago. It was 15 years before it became cool, so it was a risky venture, but we felt so confident.”
Patti, however, says she was scared to death. “It was a step out on faith that this might work, but he loved it so much and it was his passion.”
Behind the Bread
Big Sky Bread borrows its name—and sources its whole-wheat flour—from an area in northern Montana known as the Golden Triangle. According to Jeff, there’s nothing else like it in the U.S. The local farmers don’t use fertilizers or pesticides, as the cold winters take care of any insects. It’s a perfect climate for producing plump, protein-packed wheat.
There are only five ingredients in Big Sky bread: Montana wheat, water, salt, yeast, and Southeast wildflower honey. The Pierces’ mixing process takes six hours, and they’re not cutting corners. That’s what sets them apart. “It’s such a simple thing, and it’s so easy for people to copy. But nobody wants to invest in doing it the right way,” Jeff says.
For the Pierces, using cheap flour, corn syrup or pre-made mix is out of the question. Jeff won’t touch processed ingredients. He’s committed to crafting an all-natural product. So yes, that savory richness in Big Sky Bread’s “soon-to-be world famous” cookies is exactly what you think it is: fresh cream butter. “If you’re gonna be bad, be good with the ingredients,” Patti advises.
The SmoothRock Experience
Hardly resembling their former grab-and-go Mountain Brook bakery, Big Sky Bread’s new location is intended as an oasis within Liberty Park’s SmoothRock Center. “We didn’t have any sit-down at the Mountain Brook location,” Jeff says. “Here, people will hang out for a bit to be a part of the experience.”
This sophisticated tree house is the brainchild of the Pierces’ good friend and skin cancer surgeon Dr. Christopher Harmon. Patients can roam the trails that wind down to the Cahaba River, pray with chaplains before their procedures, and enjoy wholesome meals with freshly made Big Sky bread in the downstairs café run by Shindigs Catering.
Designed with patients’ emotional and spiritual states in mind, SmoothRock emanates a calming, inviting aura. “That was part of why Dr. Harmon wanted us here. He believed the art of baking, the rolling out of the bread, would be a distraction from the reasons many come here,” Patti says.
Unlike a tenant in a building, Big Sky Bread serves a purposeful, integral role in SmoothRock’s philosophy on transformation from the inside out. “We knew this wasn’t the best retail location in Birmingham, but we foresee organic growth from people becoming familiar with SmoothRock,” Jeff says.
Jeff jokingly refers to Big Sky’s new digs as the “Internet Fulfillment Center” because a large portion of their sales comes through online orders. In the years after they closed the retail bakery, the Pierces’ maintained a healthy wholesale and online business, which has catered to customers across the nation, including at Modica Market in Seaside, Florida. “People loved the bread and supported it, even when we didn’t have a storefront. It’s a tribute to the product that people continued to love and buy it,” Patti says.
‘Breadheads’ who have been purchasing Big Sky Bread at local grocery stores have no need to worry. It’s not going anywhere. For those who prefer to order online, local shipping takes only a day—and the pick-up option is worth the trip.
Big Sky Best Buys
Three-Seed Wheat Bread: Wheat with sesame, sunflower and poppy seeds makes up about 50 percent of sales.
Cinnamon Raisin Bread: Each slice is studded with SunMaid raisins and a hint of cinnamon, with 24 grams of whole grain.
Honey Wheat Bread: Kids will love the hint of sweet mixed in with whole grain goodness in this loaf.
You can buy Big Sky products at Piggly Wiggly, Western Supermarkets and Organic Harvest. Publix carries their granola.