Novel Breads Co. Specializes In Literature And Loaves
Products from the sourdough microbakery can be purchased online and at a Mars shop.
When Covid-19 descended, Heather Sprague’s business began to rise.
Novel Breads Co., an online, sourdough microbakery with loaves inspired by literature, hit a nerve with folks who were hungry for baked goods and reading recommendations.
“We were slammed at farmer’s markets,” says Sprague, a resident of Connoquenessing. “At that time, people felt safer shopping outdoors.”
With all of the “dough” she made during the pandemic, in 2021 she opened a tiny shop in Mars, where she sells both the bread she bakes and the books she reads. Regular hours are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday and 1 to 5 p.m. Wednesday.
The bibliophile tackles about 40 tomes each year, consuming words like carbohydrates. Sprague also runs the Novel Breads Eaters and Readers Book Club. A dozen or so members meet regularly to discuss food-themed memoirs, novels, children’s lit and poetry and to, of course, break bread.
After a career spent caring for adults with disabilities, Sprague launched Novel Breads 5½ years ago to combine her baking hobby with her book habit.
All products are made with a naturally cultivated sourdough starter, which undergoes a long-fermentation process that adds layers of flavor and nutrition to the bread.
In two commercial kitchens separate from the storefront, Sprague bakes everything from honey brioche knots and dinner rolls to bourbon bread and English muffins. They have a shelf life of about a week, but taste best the first three days after they emerge from the oven.
“I wasn’t always into sourdough,” Sprague says. “It seemed like a lot of work. It’s like a baby; you have to feed it throughout the day. When I finally settled down here and dabbled in a food blog, that’s what got me experimenting with sourdough again.”
She’s been using her original, ever-evolving, sourdough starter for a decade. Its name is Pearl after a character in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “The Scarlet Letter.” Pearl adds medium-intensity sourness to the breads, which also includes locally sourced ingredients, including spent-grains from nearby Stick City Brewing Co.
Sprague finds recipe inspiration in books as well as from the flavors of other foods and beverages. After having a specialty cocktail at Emiliano’s Mexican Restaurant, she decided to recreate it as an Orange Martini Bread.
The menu rotates on a weekly or biweekly basis. The newest creation is a toaster pastry with guava paste filling, an idea kindled by the novel, “The Taste of Sugar,” by Marisel Vera. The publication is sold next to the homemade tarts and products such as sauces, fruit spreads and honey from regional purveyors.
The store is located in the Baumgartel Professional Building at 504 Pittsburgh St. Follow the painted footsteps down the breezeway to a side entrance. Once inside, the atmosphere is just as warm and aromatic as a freshly baked loaf of Christmas cookie bread. Sprague’s smile radiates the same kind of joy, and she’s always ready to discuss the latest page-turner.
Her mother, Laurie Eckstein, is a professional seamstress and created the interior design, filling the small space with bright yellow and orange hues; a color scheme that’s also used in her handmade bread bags.
On a blustery November day, customers took refuge in the cozy shop to peruse the publications and products.
Shirley Litzinger, of the village of Boyers in Butler County, stopped by on a whim while accompanying her husband to a doctor’s appointment in town. After 15 minutes, she approached the counter, multiple packages in her arms.
“I need to get out of here,” she says with a laugh, adding a loaf of Caribbean Banana Bread to the pile.
Peggy Shaw, of Moon, says her husband doesn’t even like bread, but he gobbles up Sprague’s offerings.
In the future, Sprague hopes to expand to a larger facility with a kitchen so she can entice new patrons with heavenly scents wafting from the windows and host classes, book clubs and community events.
Novel Breads Co. already participates in the Neighbor Loaves. The initiative was started in 2020 by the Midwest Artisan Grain Collaborative and extended locally through Chatham University to address hunger during the pandemic. When customers make an $8 minimum donation, Sprague will bake loaves and deliver them to food pantries in Evans City and Saxonburg each month.
“I want it to be a different shopping experience for people,” she says. “They’re not just getting bread, they’re getting bread with a story; bread with intent.”