Matt Thomas and I were sitting in the shade outside World Cup coffee shop in downtown Taos on a recent picturesque spring day deep in conversation, when he suddenly went silent, his deep blue eyes going inward.
We’d been discussing how his experience and philosophy as an Architect had unexpectedly transitioned into his current role as Owner/Baker of Matt’s Gluten-Free Bakery when he got quiet.
He went on to say how he’d already been struggling with his role as an Architect and Architecture in general, when he added in pokerfaced fashion, “It seemed to me that a big part of being an Architect was sitting at a desk…and that never really resonated with me. My father’s Lebanese, and I spent about two years in Lebanon, where Urban Agriculture is very advanced. I loved it… to immerse yourself in a culture that’s so real…”
Thomas went silent for a moment again, regarding the thickening mid-afternoon traffic of Paseo Pueblo del Sur careen thoughtlessly by before adding, “Taos is the first place I’ve been in since then that’s been like that. Here, you’re given permission to wear as many hats as you want,” he says, now wearing a broad grin and pausing to sip his tea.
“So the transition from Architect to gluten-free Baker didn’t seem so improbable.”
The incubator for his success was the Taos County Economic Development Corp’s 5,000 square foot commercial kitchen, an invaluable community resource that includes dry storage, a large walk-in cooler, walk-in freezer, convection ovens, fryers, and an assortment of production tools.
The TCEDC does everything by the book, addressing state and national guidelines while offering well-needed nuts and bolts training in food production and distribution requirements. “I found myself doing things I’d never thought I’d be doing…designing labels that meet FDA packaging requirements…codifying recipes…crazy things like that,” Thomas adds, now animated and quick to smile.
“The TCEDC provides an environment for sound business practices. I don’t know where I’d be without them,” Thomas summarizes, adding after a moment of reflection, “There was a steep learning curve for me, and they were there every step of the way.”
His initial struggles, however, have led to the point he’s at now; with Matt’s Bakery items in retail outlets in Silver City, Gallup, Santa Fe and Las Cruces, with other sites added almost weekly.
I ask if he’s concerned about too much growth too quickly. “Not really,” he coolly replies, “I’ve got a retail background from my family and can pretty much envision the growth,” he confidently states, adding, “I’m at the point where I’m ready to introduce up to five different flavors of quinoa cookies, and that’s very exciting.”
About a year ago I was at World Cup grabbing a quick Americano on a particularly hectic weekday morning, when out of the corner of my eye I spied a moist and rich-looking personal-size chocolate cake adorning the bakery display. Closer inspection revealed said cake also consisted of sour cherries and sea salt.
Tempted by such a solid display of umami in the ripening hours of the day, I purchased a Matt’s Sour Cherry Chocolate Cake and sat down in the amber glow of another picturesque Taos morning, losing myself in cake heaven as locals trickled in and out of the closet-sized space.
The cake did more than fill me up and satiate my sweet tooth; it held the promise of the next generation of New Mexico-produced food where nutrition and taste aren’t alienated for the sake of cost. In its place, producers like Matt Thomas are popping up, bringing the rising national ethos of nutritious, quality-driven fare to a region rife with an array of health problems affiliated with diet and nutrition.
Several days after our first meeting at World Cup, I found myself in the TCEDC kitchen on a hazy blue morning as Matt and an assistant faced off against a mound of quinoa cookie dough, armed with ice-cream scoopers and their sheer determination to finish the 5,000 cookies they’re to produce before their kitchen time is up.
The pace is frantic, so I hang in the shadows and snap some photos as Matt alternates between scooping dough and pulling trays out of the oven. It’s evident he and his assistant have done this before, as they silently scoop cookie after cookie onto a tray in a precise manner, finishing just as the previous batch is done cooking.
It’s an alluring dance, a well-honed process that seems to have traces of Matt’s Architecture background infused in it in the orderly rows and impeccable timing.
The production end operating smoothly has given Thomas room to envision the businesses growth process, an area where he’s put his analytical mind to work and has given him perhaps his boldest idea.
“New Mexico is one of the only places where you can grow Quinoa outside its indigenous South America,” Thomas tells me with a glint in his eye. “I’ve been talking to local farmers and the next step will be producing our own organic quinoa.”
Such a move would bring Thomas closer to the vision of Urban Agriculture he holds dear; where land-stewardship and the fruits of local agriculture are the fabric of society and also the common thread where divergent views come together at the table: a blueprint for sustainable growth in the region.