by Logan Gruber
“The day is reaching a crescendo,” Tahir Sandhu said as his oven timer went off once more. “We had our first phone order today.”
Sandhu and his wife, Gwen Williams, had been at their bakery, located at the rear of the Minnesota Street Market in downtown St. Joseph, since about nine in the morning. It was now 5:30 p.m. on the Monday before Thanksgiving, and both bakers were talking and working at the same time.
“We want to bake fresh bread, we want to sell fresh bread, we want to minimize our waste,” Sandhu spoke over the sound of the oven fan.
Williams and Sandhu opened their bakery, the Artisan Naan Bakery, only two weeks ago.
Naan is a leavened, oven-baked flat-bread, originally from South Asia.
The pair currently live in St. Cloud, but only moved to central Minnesota in the summer of 2013.
“We’ve never owned a bakery until now,” Williams said in an exclusive Newsleader interview, “but, we have life experiences that will serve us well.”
Williams and Sandhu had both previously been librarians and college professors. Williams is originally from Coon Rapids, Minn., while Sandhu is originally from Pakistan. They met at a university in Illinois, and married 20 years ago.
Baking it up as they go
They moved back to Minnesota to be close to Williams’ mother, but chose to come to central Minnesota because they love smaller cities and towns. Once in the area, they began baking.
“Tahir is an excellent cook…[and] I’ve always really really loved to bake,” Williams said.
Sandhu added that, “Gwen has got those baking genes in her!”
In the summer of 2014, they began to bake and sell naan at farmers’ markets in the area, including the St. Joseph Farmers’ Market, Market Monday in Sartell and Central Minnesota Market, LLC in Sauk Rapids. They baked out of their home kitchen in St. Cloud.
“Jim Degiovanni was key…Jim said [the naan] will sell at the farmers’ market,” Sandhu said.
And so they made it.
“Over the summer we developed over two dozen varieties [of naan],” Williams explained.
At the farmers’ markets they met different people, who connected them to the Minnesota Street Market. And that’s how they ended up baking cup-naan for a reporter one Monday evening.
They still bring naan to the winter farmers’ markets in all three cities.
The couple is very proud of their brick-and-mortar location though.
“This was barren space, just drywall,” Sandhu said of their bakery space in the northeast corner of the Minnesota Street Market.
When customers walk up to the window now, they’ll see stainless steel appliances and cooking surfaces, an iPad cash register, and smell fresh baked bread from across the building.
“We’ve been thrilled with the improvement in quality,” she said, referring to the ingredients and equipment they now use.
Sandhu gestured to the oven behind him, where one rack contained their cup-naan, which is to naan what cupcakes are to cake. They created it to allow people to sample some of their goods.
“It takes about four minutes to bake [a rack of naan],” Sandhu said. “If I have all the racks full, it takes about five minutes. That’s true German engineering!” he said with a laugh.
Both bakers stressed the speed of baking naan compared to other types of bread. Williams said you can walk right up to their window, or call in, and most things can be ready in just a few minutes.
“But the pies take a few hours to cook and cool,” she added.
Williams and Sandhu both have a sense of humor around them, and are playful with the word ‘naan.’
“If we are naan-believers, there could be more out there, so let’s go find them!” Sandhu said with a smile on his face. “It’s not just naan-sense, it’s for real!”
Naan is here
Both Williams and Sandhu truly love naan, and believe central Minnesota is ready for it.
“At home, this is the style of bread we eat,” Williams said. “We still have fried eggs…and burgers…but this is the kind of bread we eat.”
Williams also said a lot of stores in the area are beginning to stock naan, but the naan in those stores is from Toronto or Vancouver, Canada.
“It’s probably traveled for 3-4 days,” Williams said. “Good naan is difficult to get.”
But it looks as if naan might be here to stay in central Minnesota, as the customers keep returning to the Artisan Naan Bakery.
Erin Stout, who works at the Minnesota Street Market, lives in St. Cloud and is a junior at the College of St. Benedict, walked up to the window during the interview.
“I’m so glad you whipped it up so fast!” Stout said, in reference to a blueberry pie she had ordered.
“It’s our pleasure,” Williams said.
Stout told the Newsleader she loves the bakery, and she was here on the very first day they opened.
“But we aren’t officially opened yet,” both bakers said multiple times.
They’re holding a grand opening on Black Friday, Nov. 28, where they will be open from 11:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m. On a typical week, you can find the bakery open for business Wednesday through Monday, from 11:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m., and closed on Tuesdays. The bakers usually get in around 9:30 a.m. You might be thinking those are bankers’ hours, not bakers’ hours, but when you’re making naan, you don’t knead – need – to come in quite as early.
Sandhu said it takes about one hour to make the dough, and about 30 minutes to crank out enough naan to start the day. And they always make the dough fresh.
If you’d like to try it yourself, stop by the back of the Minnesota Street Market, call ahead at 320-557-0053 or search ‘Artisan Naan Bakery’ on Facebook where you can also place an order.