Steeped in Tradition
For a man who spends most of his waking hours baking—anything from savory artisan breads and simple rolls to flaky croissants and airy yet rich mousse cakes—it’s no surprise that Frank VanVolkinburg did what he did on a first date four decades ago.
He baked bread.
However, with forty years of hindsight and life experiences now tucked securely under his chef’s coat, the man who is making world-class pastries out of the sleepy Schuyler County, New York, village of Montour Falls has another way to look at it: “What kind of nerd makes bread on a first date?” he says with a quiet chuckle.
“I baked a loaf of white bread thinking that would be really impressive,” he continues. “It’s like, maybe I should have taken her out to dinner in a fancy car or something. That would have been impressive. I don’t even remember how it came out. I remember we ate it.”
True to form, though, just like a lot of the treats that Frank pulls out of the oven these days, it obviously came out lovely. That “bread date” was with Joyce, the woman to whom he has now been married to for forty years.
VanVolkinburg was recounting the story recently while looking back on his career over a cup of hot, freshly-ground dark roast coffee at 401 Espresso, his café and pastry shop at 401 W. Main Street. He opened it in October 2017 just across the street from the Village Bakery, which he opened in 2012 (and which their daughter Emily now runs). Frank and Joyce also have a son, Daniel, who is an electronics engineer in Syracuse.
“I always wanted to bake,” says Frank, who graduated from Charles O. Dickerson High School in Trumansburg but whose path has taken more twists and twirls than a gooey cinnamon roll, with stops in Elmira and Hector in New York, Atlanta and Brunswick in Georgia, Detroit, Skaneateles, and then Syracuse before ending up in Montour Falls to be closer to Joyce’s family.
He was working in development for the oil and gas company BP in Atlanta and learning about baking and food service through night classes via Clayton State University. After BP laid him off, he spotted an ad for a baking position at Grateful Bread in Smyrna, Georgia. It was January 2, 2006.
“I went and talked to the owner,” Frank says. “I had to talk my way in there because I didn’t really have any experience, but I got the job. I said, ‘I’m familiar with all this stuff, I’ve just not done it. But I’m here, I’ve got hands, and I’m ready to work.’”
The company employed mostly Mexicans, as Frank recalls, and he used those hands of his to assist in the production of all kinds of breads—rolls, hamburger buns, Kaiser rolls, torpedo and sub rolls, and bagels.“They were really good bakers and really great people, so I learned a lot there,” he remembers fondly. “They were very fast and they took a lot of pride in what they did, so I had to catch up.”
His next stop was at a huge bakehouse for the supermarket chain Whole Foods in Roswell, Georgia, that had separate bread, cake, and pastry departments, and a whopping eighty-five bakers. “It was quite a place, the best place I ever worked,” says Frank, remembering one stretch when he was in charge making pumpkin pie filling and only pumpkin pie filling—churning out seven tons of the stuff.
Armed with that background and more, when he and Joyce landed in Montour Falls, he opened first the Village Bakery, and now 401 Espresso. “This place was vacant last summer and the landlord wanted somebody in here to make this work. He approached us and said, ‘Hey, are you interested?’ I don’t know if it was impulsive or not, but we said yes, and decided we’d like to put our pastries over here while getting a deli going out of the front over there (at the Village Bakery).”
A self-professed non-savvy marketer, Frank says it is his daughter who makes sure the social media is up to date for their off-the-beaten-path enterprises, primarily the Facebook page and Instagram. She also came up with the name 401 Espresso. “I’m not that clever, but I really liked it when she first said it,” he says.
Part of the café’s allure, too, is that it is in the historic, 164-year-old Montour House, built with locally made brick originally as a hotel for canal and migrant workers, settlers, and would-be blacksmiths. A bagel’s throw from the 165-foot Shequaga Falls, it also has housed a bank, a post office, and a social club. The back room of 401 Espresso—an elegant parlor, really—is anchored on the far end by a replace between lofty windows. Stylishly appointed with a half dozen tables and upholstered chairs and local art on the walls, it has already hosted several parties and business events, including a tiny wedding and a couple of receptions.
Frank fills the coffee shop each day with made-from-scratch delicacies, all baked in ovens across the street, that include his personal favorite—croissants—to all kinds of fruit tarts, tea cakes, Danish, those mousse cakes, sweet rolls, and more.
And speaking of being located in a quiet village of about 1,700, Frank says, “Really what we have to be is a destination. Montour Falls is out of the way. We’re not exactly on the wine trail. You have to really provide a reason for people to come, so if there’s coffee everywhere, you have to make sure that your coffee, your espresso, is excellent, not just good.
“We have this little tag line. We’d like you to come here and have your moment of perfect indulgence. Have that espresso drink with a croissant, take twenty minutes and sit on the patio and look at the falls. Watch the world go by, just for a few minutes, and treat yourself. I mean, everybody deserves that.”
Touché. And not at all bad coming from a man who’s a little bit marketing challenged and even something of a self-proclaimed nerd.