Sustainablity done right: Blue Scorcher Bakery Cafe

Astoria, Oregon

Happy hour is a community affair at Astoria's Cannery Pier Hotel. Guests and locals alike are invited to complimentary wine and nibbles at this waterside spot.  I did my best Rachel Ray $40 a Day impression: glass of chardonnay in hand, I siddled up to a woman in tights. "Whats your favorite place to eat in town?" Locals are terrific ambassadors and my hot tip came from an art instructor at the community college. Blue Scorcher Bakery was at the top of her list.

I had a free morning the following day, and made a beeline for the bakery. It was a random stop, completely unscheduled. Little did I know, I'd be reeling for months after this visit.

Housed in a former car dealership, Blue Scorcher Bakery anchors Astoria's historic Fort George Building. Towering showroom windows flood the space with light. Softened by rough-hewn wood floors and whipped butter yellow walls, an old school coffee house vibe permeates the space. Parents with young kids nosh alongside flannel-clad students. A mix of artists and artisans are equally at home, two-fisting fat whole-grain sandwiches and gluten-free cookies.

A look in the pastry case--complete with the usual suspects--cookies, cupcakes and croissants, were intriguing offerings like barley scones and "immunity booster cookies".

Something was very different about this place and I wanted to know more.

I was introduced to Iris, who shed some light on the Blue Scorcher philosophy.  Anywhere else, Blue Scorcher's core values of "joyful work, delicious food, and strong community" might elicit belly laughs at their lofty granola-cruncher idealism, but here, those values are woven into core business principles.

Rooted in sustainability, those values factor into a multitude of everyday decisions:

- "We're trying to produce real food for people." How does that play out? "Our goal is to serve nothing that's genetically-modified. When you look into genetically-modified foods, the goal is not to support better food, but the chemical manufacturers who produce fertilizers and herbicides....Clearly there's a reason to choose organic."

- 95% of all their ingredients are organic. The primary exception? Brown sugar, thanks to a snag in the supply chain. While organic brown sugar is available for the retail trade, it's not available in bulk. Weighing the vs. the amount plastic generated by the retail packaging, here, non-organic trumps plastic.

- Sourcing produce? Local farmers get first priority. "If you believe in a local food economy, you need to support it. If every calorie comes from 1,000 miles away, you're very vulnerable."

- When local farmers don't meet their supply needs, they tap Portland-based Organically Grown Company, a certified organic supplier. "They're great. When we get our order sheet from OGC, each product has the farms listed. For example, if the choice is between product from Oregon or California, we'll always pick the closest location." Iris notes, "And when something comes in super beautiful, we can look up the farm and thank them."

- "We don't use any plastic in our packaging." Instead, Blue Scorcher opts for biodegradable alternatives such as paper bags or cellophane, a cellulose derivative made from wood pulp. "We try to stay as minimal as possible." The exception? "In the bakery, Saran Wrap is something we can't get away from." While they've tried wrapping dough in other alternatives--from cloth to parchment, they're still on the hunt for a viable alternative to Saran Wrap.

-  Compost bins are prominently placed in both the kitchen and cafe. "All our food waste goes to pigs--or to make compost for local farms."

- Minimizing their environmental impact has had an applaudable outcome: As a business, they generate a mere 1/2 a bag of garbage, daily.

- Many restaurants sidestep implementing a sustainability program, citing expense outweighs the benefit. Iris weighs in, "We are a business that firmly believes in a triple bottom line. We're trying to create food that's excellent, high quality, and pay ourselves a living wage--so we don't qualify for food stamps."
 Our definition of success is broader than money. We as a business are succeeding when we create prosperity for ourselves that ripples out the the community and when we are able to do business in alignment with our ethics and values. It's not sustainable when you're working crazy hours for very little money. It's not sustainable if you're getting everything prepackaged and wrapped in plastic.

- The pastry case reflects a diverse range of products, including gluten-free, nut-free, and dairy-free options. "Our biggest expense is is labor because we're making small batches, but we want to honor people's food restrictions. The hardest part about living with food restrictions--whether it's for health reasons or personal reasons--is how that plays out in your life. You are isolated, or set apart. As a business, providing these items reflects our value in community. We want to make sure that when we say, 'Yeah, you can eat that,' that you really can." 

- Blue Scorcher is rooted in sustainable practices, which can become highly politicized. How do you handle that? "Our main objective is to provide a welcoming community space. We can't fulfill that objective if we get political. We keep that separate." Iris paused for a moment. "You know that saying, 'If I can't dance, I don't want to be a part of your revolution?' "We try to laugh a lot...and know that it's possible to live in accordance to our ethics."

Blue Scorcher Bakery
1493 Duane Street
Astoria, OR 97103

I was a guest of Travel Astoria-Warrenton for this trip. Nearly all of my expenses were covered. And yes, I'd go back to Astoria in a heartbeat. 

Regional Specialties: Astoria, Oregon's Smoked Salmon

As a kid, my father was a traveling salesman. He'd log countless highway miles cruising across his vast Midwest territory, flanked by corn and soybean crops as far at the eye could see. A crackling CB radio kept him company as the hours drifted into days.

Left at home with two rebellious kids, my mom took on the the lion's share of our upbringing. Discipline was not her strong suit, and our transgressions were often capped with the threat, "Just wait until you father comes home!" As the days and weeks wore on, the threat faded from memory and we all looked forward to his return.

The moment my father's car pulled into the driveway, he was greeted with Santa Claus-style fanfare. His homecoming went hand-in-hand with a geography lesson as he unveiled a stash of regional delicacies: inch-and-a-half thick pork chops from Iowa; bratwurst and authentic cheddar cheese from Wisconsin;  and Malkin's jam (now Canada's Pure Jam) from Canada.

These deeply ingrained taste memories connected us to unique regional offerings and specialty producers. Whenever we made the trek to visit family 5 1/2 hours north to Michigan, beloved restaurants--US 31 BBQ, Pronto Pups, and Fricano's Pizza--shared equal billing with family visits. Between multiple orders of the thin crusted pizzas at Fricano's, my dad used to joke with the waitresses, "We drove 400 miles for this pizza!" 

So you see, my love for regional specialties runs deep.

Earlier this year, I was invited on a trip to Astoria, Oregon. Our stay was packed with visits to small business owners--a coffee roaster,  an artisan salt producer, a natural soda maker, artisan bakers, fish processors, and microbreweries. Deep in the Astoria artisan food scene, a flood of childhood memories came whooshing back to me.

With my past firmly rooted in the small town Midwest, and my present entrenched in the Pacific Northwest, Astoria is the best of both worlds.

Astoria sits strategically on the mighty Columbia River, near the mouth of the Pacific Ocean. This is a key migratory route for spawning salmon and albacore tuna, and at it's peak, the town boasted a population of just 12,000 people, and 30 fish canneries. As the fish stocks declined, so went the canneries. Bumblebee Seafood was the last to leave, relocating their headquarters in 1974, and closing their Astoria cannery in 1980.

Fortunately, Astoria is in the midst of a modern day revival. That reinvention has brought new attention to artisan, hand-packed canned fish, and I was sent home with a treasure trove of goodies.

For most Americans, canned fish consumption is limited to tuna, but in Europe, canned fish is deeply ingrained in the cultural traditions of Italy, Spain, and Portugal. Think tapas. Canned fish makes for quick and easy snacks--oil packed salmon, mixed with cream cheese, pepper, and a squirt of lemon makes for a terrific bruschetta spread. Another favorite: take wild-caught albacore tuna mixed with olive oil, capers, lemon, and a bit of onion and voila! A quick and easy appetizer in minutes.

Update: I've recently tapped into the Skipanon Smoked Albacore Tuna and heartily recommend that as well.

I popped a can of Josephson's Smoked Sockeye and found glistening flesh with a slight smoke, and an unctuous oil that bordered on creamy. The flesh was a wee bit too salty for eating out of hand, but I made an impromptu appetizer out of it. Draining off a bit of the oil, I dumped the smoked salmon in my mini food processor. Blitzed with a couple ounces of cream cheese and a grind of black pepper and voila!

While I'm hoarding my remaining stash of smoked salmon and albacore tuna, I'm already plotting my next purchase. Of the three brands I've tried, Josephson's is at the top of my list, and fortunately, it's available online. My dad's birthday is coming up and for a man who prizes regional specialties,  it's the perfect gift!

Simple Smoked Salmon Spread
This salmon spread is perfect for impromptu entertaining. Decadent and oh-so-simple, the secret is sourcing amazing smoked salmon.

1 - 6 ounce can smoked salmon, drained
4  ounces creamed cheese
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
Lemon, to taste
Kosher salt, to taste

Toss smoked salmon and cream cheese in a Cuisinart, buzz until salmon and cream cheese are incorporated.  Add freshly ground pepper. Buzz again. Taste. Depending on the salmon you use, it may need a hit of lemon and/or salt. Serve with crackers or crusty, toasted bruschetta.