A community bakery on the edge of downtown
by Ilina Ewen | photography by Eamon Queeney
It’s the promise of flaky, layers of pastry, glistening with butter, that draws you in. But while the signature croissants may be the lure, it’s tough to choose among the array of sweet and savory options you’ll find inside Union Special Bread. Peach hand pies, snickerdoodles, tomato jam tart, kouign amann… these are just a sampling of the ever-changing selection. The lemon poppyseed coffee cake goes quickly, so snatch it when you see it. The humble egg sandwich—an egg, hash browns and romesco sauce nestled inside a fluffy bun—is messy, savory and decidedly addictive, destined to be a cult favorite. On a recent Saturday, the cafe and bake shop served up more than 200 in twelve hours, a veritable egg sandwich factory.
Pastry chef and owner Andrew Ullom describes his latest endeavor in the newly revitalized Gateway Plaza as a “community bakery on the edge of downtown.” Union Special’s roots are grounded in the history, nostalgia and work ethic of factory life that define traditional American manufacturing. The name itself is inspired by America’s oldest and last industrial sewing machine company. The machines made by Union Special are durable, built to last and hard-working—all shared attributes of the brand and the bakery.
Ullom’s values nod to his Midwest roots (he grew up in Canton, Ohio). When traditional college wasn’t a fit, he embarked on new adventures, working in restaurant kitchens to pay the bills. Something about those late nights on his feet struck a chord: Ullom decided to attend culinary school, studying classical French techniques. “I nerded out on bread and baking,” he says. What followed were stints at the Greenbrier, Washington Duke Inn and, most recently, Ashley Christensen Restaurants, where he served as head pastry chef.
The new venture was inspired by a life transition when Ullom and his wife, Jess, welcomed their first child. “Everything changes when you have a baby,” says Ullom. “I never thought about opening a restaurant until then, but I realized I desired a sense of ownership, satisfaction, flexibility and fulfillment.” That’s why at Union Special, Ullom’s just as focused on kitchen culture as he is on the final product. He’s set up his business to be employee-centric, from livable wages and tip-sharing to flexible scheduling that allows employees time to drop off kids at school or volunteer at the food bank. It’s a recipe for success that’s clearly working. Union Special has 15 full-time employees who bake, cook, develop menus, serve and everything in between to make the retail, wholesale and restaurant business thrive. “I want to give ownership to my employees who help me run the place. I want folks to be creative and have a voice in what we develop,” says Ullom.
Union Special is also committed to showcasing and supporting local businesses. “We want to work with local and regional partners as much as we can,” Ullom says. All of Union Special’s flour is sourced from Lindley Mills, a tenth-generation miller in Graham, North Carolina; buttermilk comes from Ran-Lew Dairy in Snow Camp; there’s also Slingshot Coffee, Burkett Farm and a bevy of local brewers. Simple, fresh ingredients make for high-quality breads and pastries. But Ullom believes the recipe for Union Special’s success isn’t just the butter or the brand—it’s employees, culture and community. “I believe in investing in people.”