When neighbors began walking past their house to catch a whiff of the first batches of rosemary crackers, baked in the modest basement of their home in Cornwallis Hills, Kevin Mason and Jennie McCray knew that they had something special. What originated as a resolve to create healthy vegan baked goods turned into the cracker business that Hillsborough has come to know and love: The Accidental Baker. Although their bakery has since moved from their basement to Boone Square, their fresh, healthy ingredients continue to draw attention. Two of their most popular crackers, the Red Pepper Firecracker and Sea Salt Flatbread, received recognition on a national scale at the 2020 Good Food Awards, a competition dedicated to honoring “tasty, authentic, and responsible” food.
“That was the first time we’ve really entered our crackers in anything,” said Mason. “We just don’t do a lot of marketing, we’re very much a grassroots business. So for us to submit the Firecracker and the Sea Salt and get two first places was pretty cool. The cracker business is very mundane, so to get some recognition by an organization that meshes with our ideals is a big deal to us. There’s some really good food being made in this county, and we’re happy to be a part of it.
Kevin and Jennie attribute their success to their commitment to quality. They take the time to age their dough and add sourdough and yeast. Yeast is their secret and their curse, as it adds structure, shelf-life, and flavor, but also makes the crackers harder to produce.
News of Orange: What would you describe as your business’s mission?
KM: We want to make good food, the right way. Most people wouldn’t try to do this themselves. They would try to farm it out to the lowest bidder at some bakery far away from here, use the cheapest ingredients they could find — this was never us. We’re a very low-waste facility. Everything about our business practices, we’re comfortable. We don’t cut corners. We set a high standard, our employees have followed along with us — we’ve had some great employees through the years. And you know, we’re proud of it. Which kind of led us to the Good Food Awards. There were 1,800 entries, and we got two first places. We had to go through a screening process; there’s a whole list of things you can’t do. You gotta do it the right way, and you gotta make it taste good. Another thing, kinda accidental because we didn’t know this when we moved here, but there’s a great flour mill twenty miles from here.
Jennie and Kevin are no strangers to the entrepreneurial world, owning a restaurant and an oyster farming business prior to The Accidental Baker.
NOC: What was it like branching out to start your own business?
KM: We’ve always had our own business. This is our third business. We started with a restaurant, way back. Then, we had a seafood business up until about twelve years ago in Virginia. Then, we moved here and started our baking business, which actually had its roots in Virginia. Jennie can tell that story because everyone wants to know where the name “The Accidental Baker” comes from.
Jennie McCray: That was just one of those epiphanies you have when you start something off as a hobby and then you realize that it’s turned into something more. So, I told myself, “Hah! I’m the Accidental Baker!” Starting a business from the ground up is more than you think it is because of all the little details … I mean, when you get into stores, you have to deal with things like packaging and logos and you don’t have money for those things. So we’ve done everything ourselves, essentially, from designing our packaging and artwork to little things like figuring out the dimensions of everything … We were really lucky because we got into a local producer’s loan program with Whole Foods. That was just going for it. At the time I was selling scones and muffins. The crackers started when a buyer from Weaver Street, who used to own Antonia’s, found our crackers and asked if she could bring them in Weaver Street.
NOC: What got you interested in baking to begin with, and what turned it from a hobby to a career?
JMC: I’m a vegetarian, and I don’t like eggs, really. I prefer baked goods without eggs. I was vegan for a while …
KM: This was back in the 80’s and 90’s, when it’s a heck of a lot harder than it even is today (to find vegan baked goods).
JMC: Everybody says, “Oh, you can’t bake a cake without eggs.” So I was determined that I was going to do it. And I did. I experimented with everything, just started creating recipes that I really like. Healthier choices, like muffins.
KM: What we were selling, we knew we would be eating it as well and Sydney (our daughter) would be eating it, so we were always very conscientious of what ingredients we were using.
JMC: We were making everything super fresh … things that you’re happy to have your kid eat.
KM: One of the things that we discovered when we were down here at the farmers market, selling the muffins and things that we thought would sell, is that the crackers really had a market and they were a shelf-stable product. We had shelf-life issues with all the baked goods, but the crackers fell in as something we could make that had nine months (of shelf life).
NOC: What’s your process for developing a new recipe?
KM: Usually it just starts with an idea, we’ll start it at the farmer’s market … The last cracker that we developed was the Firecracker, one of the Good Food winners. That was from a restaurant out on the coast who wanted to serve one of these spicy crackers to serve with his crab dip … After three months and a lot of heartburn, we came up with a red pepper cracker.
JMC: The farmers’ market is the greatest place to sample out new stuff. They have loyal customers who are always willing to try something new, and we’ll get feedback the next week.
NOC: Do you have a hands-on role in the baking process?
JMC: We operate the machine, the sheeter. It’s not easy.
KM: It’s a touch thing, it’s something you can’t teach. What separates us is that we age our dough for at least a day, meaning the yeast has been working for at least a day. We make it on a humid day.
JMC: So the dough will handle differently, it can be more tricky on the machine. You have to really finesse it when the weather is changing, even though we have good climate control.
KM: It’s tricky, but we’ve gotten pretty good at it. It’s what we do.