On a Friday afternoon in March at Crust Artisan Bakery, Alexis Kelleher and one of her employees were in the open kitchen of their downtown patisserie, baking away. As they worked behind the counter, customers popped in to pick up sandwiches, coffee and bread.
Three years ago, Kelleher reached out to Crust's former co-owner Alec Lopez, looking for her next baking gig. She got a job, thinking maybe she would stay at Crust for a year and then move on.
Today, she's still there, and now she owns the place.
Kelleher, 27, officially purchased Crust from Lopez and his wife Sherri Sadowski in January. She bought the Main Street bakery with the help of a $15,000 loan from the North Central Massachusetts Development Corp., the first Worcester loan from the Fitchburg-based agency.
"Since the day she came on as a baker, she had all the traits of someone who truly loved and immersed herself in position," said Sadowski.
Now, as a first-time business owner, Kelleher has her sights set on maintaining the quality Crust has cultivated, and on selling to more area restaurants.
Owning a bakery "was in the back of my mind somewhere, but I really thought it was a lot further off," she said. "When they approached me about buying Crust, I didn't think it would ... happen this quickly."
A Worcester native, Kelleher grew up working in basically every position at George's Coney Island hot dogs, which is owned by her family. But the decision to become a baker and enter the food industry herself didn't come until later.
After graduating from Wellesley College, Kelleher was looking for jobs, but nothing seemed interesting until she found a four-month baking program in Montpelier, Vt. She finished her classes and moved down to Charlottesville, Va. for an externship at a bakery to complete the program.
While down south, Kelleher said she noticed how her bakery brought restaurants together by connecting them as their bread source, and how the restaurants themselves were elevating the city.
"I saw how the bakery tied a lot of the restaurants together, and a lot of the restaurants were a big part of the city changing, which is what we're seeing in Worcester," she said. "With all of these restaurants opening up, it's kind of like shifting the culture, which makes it so there's more to do here. I think that elevating the bread game, or having a hand in that, is really cool."
Crust has been at the forefront of baking in Central Massachusetts, said Luke Vaillancourt, founder of restaurant review and promotion group Mass Foodies.
"For my wife and me personally, it was always a tough decision for Saturday/Sunday mornings – brunch at Armsby or a breakfast sandwich and coffee at Crust?" said Vaillancourt.
Kelleher moved back to Worcester three years ago, after a brief stint at a Boston bakery. It was then she reached out to Lopez, and the rest is history.
Sadowski, Kelleher's former boss, said although the decision to sell Crust wasn't easy for her and Lopez, handing it over to Kelleher was a natural choice. The couple owns Worcester's Dive Bar and Armsby Abbey restaurant.
"We knew she was managerial material, in giving her the lead baker position and becoming store manager," Sadowski said. Kelleher buying Crust "was the best thing that could happen for the business and for the community she's been part of for a few years."
Kelleher eventually plans to expand Crust's wholesale business, or to become the designated bread provider for more local restaurants. Crust already bakes all of Armsby Abbey's bread, and a lot of the bread for deadhorse hill, which is further south along Main Street. When European-style deli Kummerspeck opens in the Canal District later this year, all of its bread will be from Crust, said Kelleher.
"We have become friends and work closely together to produce some really tasty bread and pastries that we offer our guests," said Jared Forman, chef and co-owner of deadhorse hill.
Kelleher said she used to think she would own her own bakery sometime in her 30s. Now, she's a couple of years ahead of schedule.
"At the beginning of every year, I write goals for that year. There was a pretty big leap between 2016 and 2017," she said. "It happened pretty quickly, but it's good. I'm happy."