A lot of people think about changing careers, daydream about doing something they’ve always longed to do, but very few have the guts to actually take the plunge. Brian Noyes — chef, cookbook author, and founder of Red Truck Bakery — is one of the few bold individuals who did. After more than 25 years directing the art departments of some of the nation’s top publications (The Washington Post Magazine, Smithsonian, Preservation), the Northern California native put down his pencil and picked up a rolling pin. At middle age, it was time to live out his fantasy of owning a charming, community-driven, top-quality rural bakery.
What’s even more remarkable about this endeavor? When one in five bakeries fails, Red Truck was (and 15 years later, continues to be) a smashing success; there are two thriving locations, including the original one in a renovated Esso filling station in Old Town Warrenton with the classic red Ford pickup Noyes bought from Tommy Hilfiger parked out front. Online orders of crowd favorites like housemade granola and rum cake are through the roof. It’s such a success that, with demand escalating, Noyes announced last fall that he’d sold the business to his longtime friends Neal and Star Wavra, who run Field & Main restaurant across the street from the bakery’s Marshall headquarters.
“It was important to me that the new owner have the resources to take the bakery to the next level, and Neal is putting together an investment team that can shoulder the added expenses and responsibility of launching an off-site commissary kitchen and shipping facility,” Noyes says. “We need to grow the shipping operation to keep up with demand.”
Biting into a fluffy, fresh, generously sized cranberry orange and walnut muffin that may easily be the best pastry you’ve ever tasted, it’s easy to see how a bakery headquartered in a town of under 1,500 people received national acclaim and an ardent fan base. Noyes, who doesn’t have a publicist, says he never needed outside help to promote his brand. If something is good, word of mouth spreads fast — and once former President Barack Obama got a taste of Noyes’ sweet potato bourbon pecan pie, well, that was the end of anonymity.
How did a fifth-generation Californian come to open a rural Virginia bakery with menu items that sound like the best dish at a Southern potluck? Think Kentucky bourbon pecan pie, Virginia peanut pie, honeysuckle and sweet tea bundt cake. While Noyes wasn’t born in the South, he spent a lot of time in small-town North Carolina, thanks to his paternal grandmother, Willmana Noyes. The elder Noyes instilled in her eager grandson a love of cooking and an appreciation of Southern cuisine and customs.
He treasured his visits to Hendersonville as a child, where she’d take him straight from the airport to meat-and-three diners and teach him how to cook staples like her beloved summer squash casserole. The Appalachian experience was a far cry from the abalone sandwiches and fruit smoothies of young Noyes’ Northern California life.
“I think the first thing she taught me was buttermilk biscuits, because the buttermilk had arrived in a big vat that morning,” Noyes says. Food and cooking in the South, he noticed, was fun and freewheeling. “They turn it into a party. It’s not fussy and formal. It’s so family-oriented. I learned that with my grandmother. She wagged her finger at me in the kitchen and said, ‘You know, it’s not just about cooking food, but it’s about creating comfort for people.’ You know, I never forgot that.”
When Noyes relocated to the DC area for work, he created comfort for his friends by hosting dinner parties with his now-husband, architect Dwight McNeill. For those lucky guests, Noyes would experiment in the kitchen with the creative, rustic cooking he loved, drawing influences from his travels (including numerous road trips across the South) as well as his childhood. Those aforementioned cranberry muffins, for example, were inspired by the Portugese bakeries he’d visit while cycling around Provincetown on a vacation to Cape Cod, Massachusetts, making note that, if he were to open a bakery one day, cranberry orange elements would come into play.
Now, those muffins are made daily and shipped all over the country.
Word Travels Fast
Noyes really began baking in earnest after he and McNeill purchased on old farmhouse in Orlean as a second home in 2006. Still working in magazines, baking became a weekend gig; Noyes got a county permit to sell goodies like mincemeat pie and fruitcake out of his farmhouse and then from that cherry red truck. Word got around, and soon New York Times food writer Marian Burros got wind of it and published a rave review. The resulting uptick in interest spurred Noyes to bite the bullet and give the people what they wanted, quitting his day job at Smithsonian Magazine and searching for his first brick-and-mortar location.
“I knew I didn’t want to be in some storefront in a strip center next to a nail salon out on the bypass,” Noyes says. “I wanted an old, quaint, charming, mercantile building out there somewhere that could become a food destination.”
His holistic approach to the business, his marketing mind, and his art director’s eye led him to that old gas station in Warrenton. It wasn’t long after signing that lease that the Great Recession hit and “business started plummeting.” A sidebar mention in Southern Living grew interest again. Later, a Facebook mention on Pi Day by none other than Obama had the catapulting impact you’d imagine. Obama praised the pie and Noyes, for his “quintessentially American refusal to let others down” during challenging economic times.
Flash forward to 2023 and Noyes, who loves the “schmoozing” aspect of his profession, is nevertheless starting to enjoy a slower pace of life. With two cookbooks under his belt, he’s now working on a third as well as a memoir. He’s still recovering from a crosswalk collision with a cyclist in 2021 that had him in the ICU with a concussion. He had interest from potential buyers over the years but had been waiting for the right time and the right owners. He wanted them to have roots in the region and truly care about it. Enter the Wavras.
“My wife and I got to Virginia in 2008, and Brian was one of the first like-minded business owners we met,” Neal Wavra says. The baby shower for the couple’s first child was held at the Warrenton bakery. Wavra says he casually told Noyes one time that he liked the croissants with ham and cheese and after that, “he typically shows up with ham and cheese croissants whenever we get together. He’s thoughtful that way.”
The entrepreneurs collaborate for what they call a “farm-to-village” concept, working and playing off each other. “We always joke about that,” Wavra says. “The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker.” Wavra hopes adding the bakeries under his hospitality umbrella will help him source and utilize products in a more meaningful way. He gives an example: “The ground meat that I can’t serve in the restaurant could potentially work its way into a sausage that is served on a biscuit for breakfast at the bakery.” It makes sense that the Wavras and Noyes would connect: “Don’t waste anything” is one of Noyes’ top pieces of kitchen advice.
Wavra says of his friend, “I think he created something very special … He’s a storyteller. Every dish, everything that he’s made is really about the story around that dish as opposed to just making the dish.”
As the tale of Red Truck Bakery continues, we’re eager to see where the next chapter leads — and we just hope cranberry orange and walnut muffins are included.
Feature image by Brian Noyes