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Amanda Johnson owns the Our Town Bakery located in Hillsboro, N.D. She opened the bakery when her husband was called to be pastor of Our Savior's Lutheran Church in 2011. David Samson/Forum News Service

Hillsboro bakery offers people gathering spot, homemade food

HILLSBORO, N.D. - Conversation and croissants fill the lull between the morning and lunch crowds at Our Town Bakery in Hillsboro.

The group of moms and children who arrive around 9:30 a.m. each Friday buy croissants and scones (for the moms) and hand-dropped double-chocolate doughnuts (for the kids) before relaxing in the cozy bakery.

It's a weekly ritual of conversation and play.

"The food, the atmosphere, the people - you can't go wrong," says Hillsboro resident Dalayna McKnight. "Every morning the kids ask if we're going to 'the bakery.' "

"The bakery" on North Main Street here is owned by 33-year-old Amanda Johnson, and it's been open a year and a half.

Regular customers trickle in throughout the morning for their sweet fix, and Amanda greets each by name.

The culinary school graduate and her husband, the Rev. Joe Johnson, moved here in 2011 with their two young children after Joe became the pastor at Our Savior's Lutheran Church. After moving eight times in four years, Amanda didn't expect to live in North Dakota.

When her husband interviewed at the church, someone remarked that the town needed a baker. At that moment, Amanda knew Hillsboro was exactly where she was meant to be.

"We didn't decide to go to North Dakota, but coming here, it was very clear this is where we should be," she says.

Amanda and Joe scouted the town for a good spot for her bakery and eventually chose an old building on the town's main street. It was set to be demolished but the Hillsboro Community Partnership saved it and the building next door.

"It was condemned; it was horrible. There was a tree growing out of the roof," Amanda says. "They (the community partnership) did a great job fixing what they call 'the smile of downtown.' Now they don't have a missing tooth in the smile of downtown."

Once the building was structurally sound, Amanda and Joe were left with a shell to fashion into a bakery.

Joe did most of the work, adding flooring, walls, heat and plumbing, and again, the community stepped in to help.

"We'd be out unloading massive piles of flooring or dry wall and people would stop randomly and help us," Amanda says. "Our 85-year-old parishioners would stop by and ask if we need help, and soon they were back with shovels taking the sand from sandblasting the walls. From the very beginning, there have been open arms and a lot of acceptance of what we wanted to do and what our vision was."

Amanda's from-scratch food and baked goods have earned a reputation here and beyond for being "just like Grandma's."

"Everybody says, 'Oh it reminds me of the way my grandma made this,'" she says. "We make everything from scratch right here, so it's the way they (grandmas) made it, and that's a big deal to us."

A certain demographic seems especially appreciative of Amanda's homemade doughnuts.

"I love seeing all the farmers come in in the mornings for their cake doughnuts," says barista and cashier Sara Myers.

Exposed brick walls, wood floors and a white pressed tin ceiling lend a modern, urban-industrial look to the old space. Local art lines the walls, and patrons sit at tables refurbished by the Johnsons and their friends.

Commuters from Fargo and Grand Forks, along with people from neighboring towns like Mayville and Halstad, Minn., stop at Our Town Bakery for a taste of Amanda's caramel rolls, giant fried doughnuts, foot-long maple twists and homemade lunches.

"There's something about a bakery that is a fun thing to go to on a whim. It's a destination thing," she says.

An espresso bar and homemade croissants are just as at home in the bakery as old-fashioned cake doughnuts and pots of coffee. The mix of traditional small-town café offerings and more unique options appeal to both young and older generations.

"You have to offer many, many things because of that (a mix of younger and older people)," Amanda says. "It's not as if everyone's going to come in and get cappuccino. That's OK. In a small town, you can't be just one thing. You have to be many, many things in order to make it."

Amanda started what she calls "coffee house concerts" last fall to increase community camaraderie and offer an alternative to going to a bar.

The dinner-and-a-show events feature local music and a multi-course meal. The most recent coffee house concert meal, which sold out, included a salad course, Parmesan chicken meat pie (inspired by Johnson's grandmother's meat-filled pasties), sausage lasagna and tiramisu cupcakes.

"It's not stuffy or super fancy, just really awesome scratch-made food," Amanda says.

The idea for the concert dinners stemmed from an experience Amanda and Joe had in Nashville, Tenn., when they'd just started dating.

On the couple's third or fourth date, they went to a tiny grocery store in the country that hosted writers' rounds, events where songwriters share their work. Some of the writers had written songs for famous musicians.

"You sit next to the mayonnaise and ketchup and eat your peach cobbler while you watch this amazing writer," she says. "It was just fun and quaint and quirky. We try to do sort of the same thing here - serve a casual meal, have an awesome night of music and camaraderie with friends. I think people appreciate that there's something like that offered in a small town."

The bakery is constantly adapting to meet the town's needs, but no matter what changes, Amanda promises to continue greeting people by name and baking "just like Grandma."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525

Our Town Bakery

3 N. Main St., Hillsboro, N.D.

(701) 636-2156

Hours: 7:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 8:30 a.m. to noon Saturday

What to eat: Lunch features homemade soups, salad, cold sandwiches, hot sandwiches and meat pies.

Sweets include from-scratch doughnuts, pastries, pies and more.

Gluten-free offerings include monster cookies, toffee and truffles. Other gluten-free baked goods can be made on request.