If you’re not looking closely, it’s easy to miss Blacksmith’s Breads, a cafe and bakery nestled between a colorful clothing boutique and clandestine gym on Beech Street in Long Beach. Maybe you are more preoccupied with finding one of the coveted parking spots along the way or distracted by a barefoot surfer crossing the street into Moku Surf Shop to re-up their supply of surf wax to notice the rusted anvil atop the stone-covered storefront that is Blacksmith’s.
But their subdued exterior hasn’t slowed the lines flowing through the tiny West End bakery since they opened in December 2017—and that’s a testament to the owners’ careful, measured approach to building a business.
Blacksmith’s Breads was born from the wreckage Hurricane Sandy left in her wake. When the storm forced mountains of sand and debris into the streets of Long Beach, Raymond Smith and Michael Blackburn, co-owners and Blacksmith’s namesakes, found themselves jobless because the restaurant they worked in, Caffe Laguna, was now underwater. Smith took time away from Long Beach, working in kitchens on the North Fork. But the nightly stress of cooking for 300 guests—or the trauma of Sandy—took its toll on Smith and he turned to baking bread.
There is no irony that bread baking is how Smith relieved his stress, just as so many Americans did while shuttered indoors as a pandemic waged war across the globe. People assume bread requires precise measurements, in the same way baking a cake does; and while the methodical process begs for a calm, steady focus, Smith invites some leniency into the mix. A self-described pinch-of-this, dash-of-that guy, he explains: “Bread is a little more forgiving. If it gets a little wet, you can sprinkle some flour in there without weight and you’re going to be okay.”
Without realizing, his words are a metaphor for Blacksmith’s—and Long Beach as a whole. Together, the community rebuilt after Sandy and, in the end, they were okay. Upon returning to Long Beach, Smith learned Blackburn also spent his time learning to bake bread. Rather than diving headfirst into opening a bakery, the pair worked with their friend and former boss Alexis Trolf at his newly opened Lost and Found, using the hours after dinner service to shape and bake their bread for pop-up sales. Smith said they were “some of the worst breads ever made” and even still, the community lined up to buy it without complaint or criticism.
During their two years of bread pop-ups, they built a name for themselves while fine tuning their recipes, focusing on naturally-leavened loaves made from stone-ground flours from Farmer Ground and Champlain Valley Milling. Knowing how fickle the food industry can be, Smith and Blackburn felt this was the safest way to test out their business. “It was guided by the community. If their support wasn’t there, we would have just kept making bread as a hobby and stayed savory cooks.” But the community stood by them, making a brick-and-mortar (and anvil) location the right next step.
Years ago, when I still worked in restaurants (and didn’t just write about them), one of our managers began signing all of his emails with three simple but important words: At Your Service. The sign-off wasn’t for customers—they were already receiving a level of service as carefully crafted as the food we served. No, these words were only for our team. Our most important stakeholders. By serving them, he knew they would offer the same care to our guests and community.
When I first met Smith in August 2019, those three words crashed over me like a wave. I bought one of their coveted morning buns and a Honey Bee Latte and climbed onto a stool opposite the open kitchen, peering through the window separating me from the team. There was a man in partial drag prepping the kitchen for the lunch rush. Moments later, this lanky and (surprisingly) subdued character was introduced to me as Black (the only name friends and locals attribute to Blackburn).
Before he paused for a quick hello, I couldn’t tear away my gaze from the team, vibing with the hum of mixers and music. Absent was that nervous energy that drops from your heart to the pit of your stomach when the boss enters the room. “Our business plan was always set up to be an employer-employee operated place,” Smith offered. “This wasn’t like, you know, a dump-a-bunch-of-money-and-be-on-your-boat-all-day venture.” Having dedicated owners working side-by-side with the team is what keeps Blacksmith’s going — and likely what got them through the most challenging periods of the pandemic.
The space, which now offers limited indoor seating, was already built to adapt. Before signing the lease, 870 West Beech Street sat vacant since Sandy. With her clouds still lingering as construction moved forward, Smith and Blackburn decided to put all their equipment on wheels, ready for higher ground should another hurricane strike. However, 2020 dealt a very different type of disaster to which Blacksmith’s adapted with impressive ease. In mid-March, the bakery closed its doors to customers and Smith took to Instagram with a thoughtful explanation of why and how Blacksmith’s was still here to serve.
“To the serious business owner, the business is our child, they are the means to a family of our own,” Smith shared in his video. “They provide work for local residents, they give us purpose. Sleepless nights are par for the course and now working during a global pandemic is too.” He emphasized that Blacksmith’s was here to stay but doing so meant scaling back their offerings and hours of operation to protect not only the quality of their food but the health of their team. Over the next few months, Blacksmith’s experimented with new service models: bread deliveries, online ordering, and outdoor pick-up windows.
And while Smith and Black toiled over how to provide jobs and pay the bills, they also found ways to give back. They expanded their bread deliveries to three low-income apartment buildings, where the majority of residents are older or less mobile. “I don’t really want people who shouldn’t be out and about trying to get simple things [like bread],” said Smith in early April 2020. Their team donated loaves of bread to these residences and continued their regular donations to local soup kitchens.
As restrictions eased, the Blacksmith’s team continued to adapt and create. Wanting to make use of their space after the bakery and cafe closed for the day, Smith and Blackburn introduced street-style tacos, using tortillas from Tortilleria Nixtamal in Queens, and adding a split for al-pastor tacos to the newly expanded kitchen. Even now with Covid-19 restrictions eased and Blacksmith’s going back to a regular schedule, taco nights aren’t leaving any time soon.
The pandemic wasn’t the only crisis to contend with in 2020. After the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis brought people into streets across the country to decry police violence and seek justice for all the Black lives lost, many local businesses remained quiet. But Smith, who is bi-racial, didn’t shy away from the gravity of this moment and spoke to a community as diverse and divided as the rest of the country.
In an Instagram post, he didn’t mince words: “If you can’t stomach… the truth of our country’s injustices and how the system has been set up to keep people of color down, then let me make this clear. Your money is not wanted nor is it needed here… We have the full support of great members of this community.” Financial uncertainty plagued nearly every business amid the pandemic and Blacksmith’s was no exception. But it’s not just about the bottom line for Smith and his team. At the core of their business is community support, which one cannot fully deserve if they’re not being honest about their experience.
In his March 2020 video, Smith said, “Sometimes you have to look to the past to figure out how to handle the present.” So it’s no surprise that Smith and Blackburn took time to consider the future of their business, which now includes a third co-owner, Brittany Improte. She and Smith worked together at Flour Shoppe Cafe in Rockville Centre, where she taught him more about pastry and he kneaded bread making into her repertoire. Improte instantly became an integral part of Blacksmith’s yet-to-be announced expansion plans — for a bigger bakery perhaps? Or multiple cafes? Or even a taqueria? The details live with Smith, Blackburn, and Improte for now, but in the two years I’ve spent getting to know the Blacksmith’s team, I’m certain that their next move will be born from hindsight and with a genuine desire to be ‘At Your Service.’