The Truck Stops Here

A renovated gas station in Virginia now serves a different kind of fuel

I spent 30 years as an art director in the publishing world—designing Preservation, as well as The Washington Post Magazine, House & Garden, and Smithsonian—before giving in to a long-burning passion: food. In 2006, I attended the Culinary Institute of America (the other CIA), where I received training in French pastries, café breads, and artisanal baking. I knew it was time to leave publishing for good and do what I had always wanted to do: open a bakery in the Virginia countryside.

Virginia's horse country, 50 miles west of the nation's capital, is dotted with sparsely populated hamlets set amid rolling hills of green pasture leading up to the Blue Ridge Mountains. It's also home to many farmers who, I imagined, could supply the local produce, dairy goods, and meats that I'd want to use in the bakery. My buddy Dwight McNeill and I had (and still have) a small farm in Orlean, a village halfway between the interstate highway out of Washington and the calming Rappahannock River. This seemed like a good place to start. All that was missing was a farm truck, and I found exactly what I wanted online: a cherry-red 1954 Ford F-100 for sale through a New York auto consignment dealer.

The truck, which arrived via flatbed the following week, served as an immediate source of inspiration: I started to call my fledgling operation the Red Truck Bakery. I baked out of our farmhouse and sold the goods on weekends at area stores. Very soon, customers started lining up before I would arrive in the red truck carrying loaves of wheat breads and farm-fresh pies.

Knowing that I had to have a bricks-and-mortar base from which to operate, I decided to renovate a mercantile structure (five years at the National Trust for Historic Preservation had left a lasting impression). I fell in love with several grocery stores, mills, and storefronts—old and abandoned—that could have worked, though I continued to weigh the cost of renovation against the potential for income in a remote setting. The process was slow, with plenty of wrong turns, dead ends, and wasted fuel.

During the next two years, Dwight, a residential architect, measured the interiors of a dozen structures worthy of consideration, among them an 1890 country store, a 1910 filling-station-turned-grocery-store, a 1920 feed store, and an 1870 Victorian house across the road from the celebrated Inn at Little Washington. I had investors interested in helping, but as the economy fell into severe recession, they pulled out, and I was left to drive the back roads alone. Meanwhile, the need for a site was becoming dire: Food writer Marian Burros of The New York Times included the Red Truck Bakery in a yearly roundup, and my website hits went from two dozen to 57,000 in one day.

I finally abandoned the idea of a rural establishment and settled instead on the town of Warrenton, the seat of Fauquier County and a place that would surely offer a captive audience of office workers, store owners, and courthouse staffers eager for good coffee and pastries. Several newer sites located in strip shopping centers could have worked, but I was only interested in an older structure, in the historic part of town.

Adjacent to the courthouse and library, at the entrance to Main Street, sat a former Esso filling station built in 1921 that I had been lusting after. A charming, time-worn structure in bad need of good painting, it had solid bones that could easily house a retail store, dining space, and commercial kitchen. It had a 1920s core with two service bays added in the 1930s, plenty of basement storage space around back, and its own parking lot—a premium in this town. I was smitten with the possibilities: Old filling station + old red truck = all sorts of marketing ideas.

Within a week I signed a lease and Dwight started renovation drawings. The structure, in the Old Town Warrenton historic district, fell under the supervision of the historic review board, and any exterior work needed approval. A new paint job was the first thing completed, with the updated look signaling to residents that something special was on the way.

As we submitted drawings for the interior renovations, a sticking point with town officials surfaced: the door and bulkhead to an original "colored bathroom." They wanted to guarantee the door's survival—even if it was hidden from view. We complied with their wishes, preserving the door near our new bakery counter but shielding it with a large cooler. We had no real problems winning town approval for our plans to turn one service bay into a communal dining room and the other service bay into an open and very visible commercial kitchen.

I wanted the gas station's history to influence the graphics and typography of the project, so an old-timey filling station sign was important to me; the architectural review board quickly approved our request for a free-standing sign near the street but hesitated over our plan to insert plastic laminate letters into the stucco-pebble-and-dash material covering the building. We ended up going with more expensive metal lettering. All signs were then approved.

As a former art director, I had always intended to design the graphics associated with the bakery, and I rendered the signage using period typefaces; the ampersand in one typeface sold me on a font designed recently by a Hollywood special-effects guy who creates old signs for contemporary films (think of detective names on wavy glass doors in 1940s flicks).

Period-appropriate furnishings made their way inside, too: large pendant lights recalled the era of the service station, even though Dwight found the fixtures at IKEA for $29 each. Four of the lights hang over a 12-foot communal table made from barn beams that survived Union Gen. Philip Sheridan's scorched-earth march through Virginia during the Civil War. The table is teamed cheekily with Modernist chairs matching the age and color of the red truck parked outside. We laid industrial tile over the plywood floor and clad the walls and shelving with beaded board. The retail space, with its apothecary-style lighting, reminds some patrons of an old country store.

I'm pleased with the homey feel of the place and love the reaction as people see it for the first time. Especially rewarding is the sight of suited lawyers sharing the table (and lunch) with kids and moms. I'd be lying if I said that I didn't take great pleasure in the new bakery's first published review: "Picture-perfect apple pie and cover-worthy quiche—when your baker's an art director, deliciousness comes by design in this fab-meets-farm food-lover's pit stop." But the best words came from a former filling station employee who stopped by for some pie: "Who knew the dump I worked in could come back to life with food this good?"        

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