Sweet surprise: Union Springs cook bakes up an unplanned success
Story and photos by Jennifer Kornegay
Some say anything tastes better served on fine china and scooped up with a silver fork or spoon. At FPH Bakery in downtown Union Springs, you’ll find both fancy flatware and elegant plates in use, but the cakes, pies, soups, sandwiches and salads served here don’t need the aesthetic boost.
Judging by the packed dining room and a bakery counter that almost empties every day, owner and baker Amber Anderson could probably send out her kitchen creations on paper towels, and folks would still rave.
Anderson opened French Pressed Home (FPH) Bakery in February 2017, and its quick rise to success came as a sweet surprise, especially since owning a bakery and café was never really in her plans. Always interested in cooking, she taught herself to bake and a few years ago, made a few cakes at a friend’s request. The friend liked them and spread the word.
Soon, Anderson was taking orders for her cakes weekly and then moved into wedding cakes. Demand for her desserts ballooned into more than she could handle, and with twin boys also in need of her time, she was close to calling it quits. “I realized I had to expand or fold,” she says. “So I grew and opened the bakery.”
She’s been thrilled by the support of her community, a hometown she and her family adopted only a few years ago. “The people here have been so great,” she says. “I knew they would be. I fell in love with this area and its people the first time I came.”
Born, raised and living in San Diego, Calif., until 2013, Anderson and her family made their way South after the recession in 2008 decimated her husband’s contracting business and left them looking for a fresh start. “I didn’t know where we wanted to go, but I knew it was time to leave California,” she says. “I never really thought about the South, but I was looking at houses all over online, and the affordability of properties down here piqued my interest.”
At the time, Anderson was running a vintage goods business and blogging about it (her blog’s name was French Pressed Home) while dreaming of running a bed and breakfast, and a historic house in Union Springs caught her eye. “I came down to look at the house, and I liked it, but I also liked the town,” she says.
She didn’t get that first house and realized it wasn’t the right time for her to pursue a B&B, but she and her husband were still smitten with Union Springs, so they stayed (and bought a new house in the old town). The move shocks some.
“People ask me all the time about how different it must be here compared to San Diego, but it’s really not,” she says. “The San Diego I grew up in in the 1970s had this real neighborhood feel and culture, kinda like a small town. That’s not how it is today, but that’s how it was for a lot of my time there.” Union Springs’ leisurely pace and genuine people reminded her of that childhood and instantly pulled her in.
Now, she’s bringing others to the town. Lunchtime at FPH stays busy; locals come in for a box lunch (a sandwich, chips and choice of dessert) or maybe a bowl of chili or chicken and rice soup with a cup of coffee. Early afternoon sees a steady stream of people sating a sugar fix, getting a sweet snack or an entire cake or pie to go.
Others drive over from Montgomery, Auburn and Troy. Many come for a bite of her claim to fame: salted caramel cake, her riff on a Southern staple that eschews the traditional cooked icing for rich buttercream with her homemade “secret recipe” caramel (with a hint of salt) stirred in. “The usual caramel icing down here is actually hard to get right,” she says. “I decided not to even try and compete with everybody’s Nana.”
And while Anderson’s baked goods – buttery croissants, fudgy brownies, fancifully festooned cupcakes, cookies, pies and more – take the front seat, driving a lot of the bakery’s traffic, a savory dish is not far behind in popularity. Whether it’s between two pieces of bread or mounded on the aforementioned pretty plates with pickles and crackers on the side, FPH’s chicken salad is giving the pastries and other confections a run for their money. Combining both fine, soft shreds and meatier chunks of roasted chicken, sliced red grapes, chopped pecans, pureed celery, a dash of steak seasoning and poppy seeds with a just enough silky mayo to hold things together, it’s creamy, crunchy, tart, peppery and salty all at once.
Housed in an old building on the edge of downtown that Anderson’s husband Bruce carefully renovated, FPH has a convivial atmosphere that’s a draw too. She used her blog’s name for the bakery, and it fits. “I love all things French, baking is associated with France, and I do want this place to feel like a home, to be comfortable,” she says.
Friendly staff, Anderson included, roll out the welcome, and exposed brick lit by glittering chandeliers provides some old-world flair. The china and silver are charming but not pretentious: All mismatched, they’re from the collection Anderson amassed in her previous business. Delights like cakes topped with bright berries and delicate napoleons glistening with drizzled chocolate perch on pedestals of varying heights on a worn wooden counter, “icing” on the spot’s appeal and hospitality.
The vibe is all Anderson, but she’s also embracing the property’s past. “It was a restaurant called Holmes Cafe, run by two brothers, for 55 years, and there were a lot of happy eating memories made here,” Anderson says. She’s hoping to continue the legacy.
She’s also hoping her presence downtown helps other businesses and encourages new ones to locate in the city’s center too. “I love this place and want to do all I can to promote this community and be a part of the positive change already happening,” she says. “It’s exciting to see new business open in this area.”
She’s equally excited by her first year’s accomplishments and looking forward to a prosperous 2018, but putting satisfied smiles on her customer’s faces is the sweet reward that turns her lips up. “This is hard work, but it’s really fun too, and for me, it’s not about making a ton of money,” she says. “It’s about making people leave here happier than they were when they came in.”
While you’re there
The town of Union Springs is a popular day trip for groups. If you visit, be sure to check out the Josephine Art Center, 126 Prairie St. N., where you can visit the local historical museum, view Alabama artwork, create your own work of art, host a private party, book an historic tour of Bullock County, or even check out a ghost tour! More at artatjosephine.com, email firstname.lastname@example.org or (334)703-0098.