Sep. 15—OXFORD — Cynthia Gerlach has operated the Bottletree Bakery, just off the Square in downtown Oxford, since 1995.
The business is known for its mouthwatering made-from-scratch pastries, breads and bagels, and was a success from the first day it opened.
But it's more than just a bakery. It also offers award-winning coffee, which is a little-known secret.
"Looking back, if I had named it Bottletree Bakery and Coffee Company, I would have been more recognized for my coffee," said Gerlach, 52.
She moved to Oxford from Portland, Oregon, in 1987 to study at Ole Miss. She earned her bachelor's degree in Southern Studies and sociology, and her master's in Southern Studies.
Gerlach opened the bakery, located in an old flower shop, with Martha Foose, but bought her out two years later. Foose was big into pastry, and Gerlach's passion was coffee.
"On a trip to Portland, I was trying to decide what to do with coffee at the bakery," Gerlach said. "Along the way, I figured out what espresso machine I wanted to use. By the time I got back to Oxford, I'd figured out the logistics of Bottletree coffee."
When it first opened, the bakery offered a Bottletree Bakery blend, a special blend of the day, de-caf, and espresso-based coffee beverages.
"Espresso wasn't known in Oxford in 1995," she said. "And people who did know it called it 'expresso.' I had to teach people about good coffee."
The difference between Gerlach's coffee and other coffee is the way it's roasted, she said.
"Most coffee is roasted in a gas flatbed roaster," she said. "When you roast coffee beans, they get little pits in them. With gas-roasted coffee, you get about 30% pitting, and that's what makes the coffee bitter."
Gerlach's coffee is air-roasted, in a contraption that looks like a big hot-air popcorn popper.
"It was invented by a man in Corvallis, Oregon, named Michael Sivetz," she said. "The beans go in and spin in air, but it only pits about 3% of the beans. That's what gives Bottletree coffee a smoother, less harsh finish and after-taste."
Gerlach's signature coffee, the Bottletree blend, is a mixture of Central and South American beans as well as Italian and French-roasted beans. She came up with the blend, along with Don Jensen of Portland.
"When I invented my blend, Don named it Portlandia, but not after the TV show," Gerlach said. "My coffee won Cup of the Year for three years in Portland, which is coffee country. That blows my mind, that people in Oxford don't realize that."
Gerlach said the only thing that's changed about her coffee in 26 years is the evolution of milk.
"When we opened, we had 2% and skim," she said. "Then everyone got into soy milk. Now, it's almond milk and oat milk."
She said she has several die-hard coffee customers who come in just for the brew. And college students have recently discovered her coffee on the rocks, or iced coffee.
The most popular coffee drink is the Bowl of Soul, Gerlach said, which is coffee, espresso, steamed hot chocolate with a chocolate design on top. Coffee on the rocks is a best-seller when the weather is hot.
"The coffee helps pay the bills here," she said.
The Bottletree's bakery offerings continue to draw people into the business each day, even though the hours of operation have been drastically cut.
Before COVID-19, the bakery was open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Sunday. Now, it's open Thursday and Friday from 7 a.m. to noon, and Saturday and Sunday from 8 a.m. to noon, and serves breakfast only.
"I'd love to add some new breads, but we need lunch business to do that, and right now we're not open for lunch," she said. "I don't want it to stay this way."
The pandemic closed the business temporarily, and when it reopened, it was doing to-go business only. The dining room re-opened for a while, but when COVID case numbers started going up again, Gerlach shut the dining room down again.
"We have iPads now and we can go outside and take orders and get people in and out," she said. "The to-go business has really picked up again."
The menu hasn't changed much since the bakery opened. All the pastries are made from croissant or brioche dough. Gerlach's pastry chef, Christen Bennett, is one of the best, Gerlach said.
"She has really great experience and turns out amazing products," Gerlach said. "Her blueberry muffins are back like the ones I started with."
Pastries include blueberry muffins, carrot oat-bran muffins, honey cream cheese danish, simple danish, chocolate croissant, ham and Swiss croissant, turkey and Cheddar croissant, cinnamon rolls, ginger scones, and the ever-popular humble pie, which is a shortbread crust filled with fresh fruit and topped with streusel.
The bakery also offers sausage biscuits; plain, sesame and three-seed bagels; rosemary garlic bread; sourdough white bread; ciabatta bread; and baguettes.
The walls of Bottletree Bakery are covered in Southern folk art from Gerlach's private collection.
"Every piece of art or odd wall object has a story," she said. "The bakery walls represent what I studied in school. It's all an extension of my home. My goal is to illustrate my appreciation of Southern culture."
The name Bottletree Bakery, and its iconic sign, is an extension of that.
According to The Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, bottle trees are a product of Southern Black culture. Bottle trees were made by stripping the foliage from a living tree, usually a cedar, with upward-pointing branches left intact. Bottles were then slipped over these branch ends.
Folk custom dictated that evil spirits would enter the bottle because of the bright colors and become trapped. When the wind blew and shook the tree, the spirits would be heard moaning inside the bottles.
"Taylor Bowen Ricketts from Greenwood made the original sign for the bakery, and it hung for 26 1/2 years," Gerlach said. "We've been working on an exact replica, made from bottles and bottle caps to look like bottle trees. It's supposed to go back up this week."
Gerlach said her goal when she opened the Bottletree Bakery was to have a community house that blended folks from all walks of life. One look at her customers — locals, retirees, students, professors and tourists — proves she's been successful.
"We were a hit from the beginning," she said.