Dream A Little Dream

Europa Crust remains in demand with its popular, handcrafted sourdough bread.

For many people, being laid off would hardly be considered inspiring. But for Jeff Laine, it was a stroke of luck giving him the chance to uncover a new passion, one that has since dazzled locals’ palates for over two-and-a-half years.

Originally a food ingredient salesman, Laine lost his job during the pandemic. It was a puzzling time, one that left him wondering what to do with his life. But one day sourdough found him, quickly becoming a fascination that led to the creation of Europa Crust in 2021.

Situated on East Main Street, the bakery specializes in handcrafted sourdough. Starting around 6 a.m. on most days, the shop comes alive and deliciously aromatic as Laine crafts rustic Italian bread, baguettes, five-grain loaves, Japanese milk rolls and Nisu (a sweet cardamon braided bread, a tribute to his Finnish heritage). But there are two other distinctive options on his curated menu.

In an ode to quintessential, tart sourdough, he offers a San Francisco option made with a century-old starter obtained directly from California. It’s an unusual way to taste history. “A lot of people start their own starter from scratch but he wanted a traditional starter that had been in the works for a while,” says Susan Laine, his wife and co-owner. “It has a lot of viability but it’s also from San Francisco, the kingpin of sourdough.”

Jeff also fell in love with the concept of a French sourdough and strived to offer his own. He eventually concocted a starter recipe from French bakery Poîlane. “It has some whole grain, whole wheat and rye – it’s a darker sourdough,” says Susan.

 

Being a sourdough baker comes with plenty of challenges, but it’s diligently caring for these starters that might be most crucial. They’re what gives Jeff’s breads their unique flavor and texture.

The two starters, fondly named Harriet (used in the San Francisco batch) and Henry (in the French), can be quite feisty and need to be carefully pampered. Jeff constantly feeds them, trimming off any excess so they don’t overflow in their bins and ensuring the two are used at their peak for optimal taste.

“They’re really a live organism. You have to feed them, put them in the sun to grow a bit,” says Susan. “Basically just tend to them as you would a plant almost.”

Depending on the weather, Jeff will keep them in the bakery’s cooler back room to slow their growth, or for quicker expansion, Harriet and Henry are given a sunbath in the bakery’s windows.

“Feeding them on schedule is important,” says Susan. “Since we’re closed on Sunday and Monday, we have someone come in on Monday and feed the starters to prepare for the bakery week.”

Europa’s rustic Italian bread.

It’s a lot of intricate work, but Jeff wouldn’t have it any other way. This Richmond baker prides himself on offering customers only the finest of fresh bread. “We bake everything fresh, there’s no preservatives,” says Susan. “Their shelf-stable life isn’t long which is good, but if you want the bread to last you need to freeze, refrigerate or eat quickly.”

Europa Crust has become a bustling business, but had you told Jeff and Susan just a few years ago that his bread would become sought-after throughout the city, they’d likely be quite surprised.

Jeff’s journey first began experimenting in the couple’s home kitchen; but with flour scattered everywhere and lack of space, it became a bit too much. “I tolerated it as long as possible,” says Susan, laughingly.

A makeshift bakery was soon formed in their garage following cottage laws so they could sell to friends and family. “We were literally making bread and driving out, throwing it into mailboxes,” says Susan. The two would beep their car horn two times to let people know their bread arrived. “We got a lot of positive feedback,” she says.

Europa’s Japanese milk rolls.

And the positivity keeps flowing, enough so that Europa Crust is looking to expand to keep up with demand. The Laines recently hired a part-time experienced baker to help out. They’re also looking to open another bakery to help produce enough goods, especially for local farmers’ markets like RVA Big Market, where they’re often sold-out in the blink of an eye.

“It’s not fair to customers. We feel horrible when there’s no bread left.” says Susan. “We can’t make enough in the shop anymore so we’re definitely at a crossroads.”

The two have scouted an undisclosed location to potentially open a second bakery at. “We’re definitely on the cusp of something big coming in,” she says. “It’s really promising.”

The jump might be risky, but the adventure is one the couple feels confident about as they continue to build on Jeff’s ambitions. “I want for him and us to see this little dream he had come to fruition,” says Susan. “It’s really a labor of love.”

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