Riverview man becomes hero to many by baking and sharing loaves
In March, as Jeffrey Owens was recuperating from arthroscopic knee surgery, he decided to use his newfound spare time to bake fresh bread and share it with his fellow Riverview residents.
Owens mixes high-grade ingredients in his kitchen and bakes loaves of bread in his impressive outdoor wood-fired brick oven – an oven built with his own hands. The result has been thousands of fresh-baked loaves that have been presented free to folks lining up along Poplar Street outside his home several times a day.
Enter the coronavirus, which became a worldwide pandemic, causing people to become seriously ill or die or lose their jobs or stay home from school and be quarantined in their homes. Homebound children were in need of food. A friend told Owens he was having trouble finding bread in stores.
Owens’ bread baking expanded. Suddenly, people – alerted by Facebook posts by Owens’ wife Jennifer – were lining up in front of his driveway and down Poplar Street several times a day.
Owens’ son Austin and stepmother Carol Ann have helped get the bread from kitchen to the curb. They use a breadbasket – think church collection basket with a long wooden handle – to distribute the loaves of “daily bread” to occupants of cars and even a few on bicycles, staying beyond the mandated six-foot social distancing.
A new local hero – nicknamed “the Breadmeister” – was born.
“When the corona thing came about, I figured I’d bake more for neighbors,” Owens said. “When it shut everybody down and people panicked and bought all the bread from big box stores, I just saw the need. I’m home, I can’t work and I’m recovering.”
Word quickly spread to members of the Riverview Fire Department, who helped pass out bread to local senior living centers. Residents, called bread buddies, took a loaf for themselves and an extra loaf to deliver to neighbors. Batches of bread have been delivered to those working the front line of health care at Henry Ford Wyandotte Hospital.
The demand has been steady and growing. Before the end of March, Owens was baking 20 loaves at a time five times a day. By mid-April, and recently made and distributed his 4,000th loaf of bread.
Some bread lovers – so inspired by the Owens’ generosity – have made donations to help offset the family’s costs for salt, sugar, years, flour, oil and delivery bags, with proceeds going to the Salvation Army. (There’s even a collection kettle in the driveway.) One grateful person donated a state-of-the-art mixer to make Owens’ breadmaking process more efficient. Others bring the family baked goods – and a number came throughout March 21 to wish Austin a happy birthday.
“These weren’t just any loaves of bread,” said Mayor Andy Swift. “These were a special secret recipe baked with love in a very large brick oven in his backyard…
“It is this type of caring for others that makes me proud to be the mayor of a small town. Riverview residents have big hearts and take care of each other in time of need.”
Comments have poured in on Facebook: “Just got your bread delivered and it was still warm,” said Nancy Beaudrie. “Best bread I’ve ever had.”
“Thank you doesn’t quite seem to do it, but my family appreciates your kindness and generosity,” said Andy Wang.
“You guys rock,” added Sabrina Roote. “Thank you so much.”
Owens, a brick mason and owner of JTO Masonry Construction and Fire Heat and Eats, shrugged over his newfound fame. He said he simply wants to give to others.
“We have a commercial kitchen with food safe stainless-steel surfaces; use unbleached, non-bromated, non-enriched flour,” he said early in the process. “My business builds wood fired ovens and we have one in our backyard.”
The oven was built five years ago. Before bread became the focus of the oven, the Owens family baked plenty of pizza for gatherings at the home. Since then, the bread baking has provided therapy for his knee.
“I can’t believe how much better bread is in that oven,” he said. “It’s a wood-fired true brick oven based on designs from Italy that are centuries old. It’s a world-class competitive Italian oven.”
Why does Owens do what he does?
“It makes you feel good to do something for people,” he said. “The real reason is memories. A lady sent me a note saying she hadn’t had fresh bread in 12 years. She cried when somebody brought her a loaf of bread. That was cool.”
Owens said he hopes to keep making bread as long as there is something called “shelter in place.”
“These are unprecedented times,” Owens said. “Everybody remembers where they were when the World Trade Center came down. This (coronavirus pandemic) is like that. We will remember… Maybe thousands of people will remember getting fresh bread from that guy on Poplar Street.”