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In Canaan, Red Wagon Bakery joins another new cafe and quickly finds a clientele

  • Owner Nellie Smith, right, works alongside her mother Laura Smith at the Red Wagon Bakery in Canaan, N.H., on Sunday, April 7, 2019. Laura Smith encouraged her daughter to open the bakery in Canaan, and she works there full-time baking and running the grill. Nellie Smith's father Procter Smith also works there when he is in town. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Owner Nellie Smith serves food to Michelle Ison, of Enfield, N.H., center, and Emilia Cushing, of Dorchester, N.H., with her 6-week-old daughter Gretta at the Red Wagon Bakery in Canaan, N.H., on Sunday, April 7, 2019. The women said the bakery is a nice halfway spot for them to meet. "It is very friendly to come in," Ison said. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • The Red Wagon Bakery fills up with customers in Canaan, N.H., on Sunday, April 7, 2019. The bakery opened for weekends only a few weeks ago and last week had its first full week. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Clara Isely, of Grafton, N.H., eats a quiche with a mocha while spending the day with her son Nate Harp, of Lebanon, N.H., at the Red Wagon Bakery in Canaan, N.H., on Sunday, April 7, 2019. "It's great having two choices. Now we have more offerings here in Canaan," Isely said of the other bakery, The 603 Bakery & Cafe, that also recently opened in town. "It's keeping us in Canaan." (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Owner Nellie Smith grabs chocolate chips cookies for a customer at the Red Wagon Bakery in Canaan, N.H., on Sunday, April 7, 2019. The cafe offers daily specials and a breakfast and lunch menu, as well as a full bakery and coffee options. (Valley News - Joseph Ressler) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 4/9/2019 10:00:27 PM
Modified: 4/9/2019 10:00:25 PM

Canaan Town Administrator Mike Samson is discerning about his hermit bars, and he’s not one to hold back on his opinions about them.

Lucky for him, Nellie Smith and her mother, Laura, are happy to accommodate his tastes. By the time the Red Wagon Bakery celebrated its grand opening last week, the pair had produced a version of the nostalgic treat that passed muster with one of their fussier customers. On Friday afternoon, Samson dropped in for a batch of hermits, declaring them just right.

That’s the way things operate at the town’s newest eatery, the convergence of a childhood dream and a community’s wish.

“We’ve been trying to learn about what people like,” said Smith, 28, who recently relocated to open the bakery and cafe in the town where she spent her summers growing up. “People come in and ask, ‘Do you have this?’ … and we’ll make it for them.”

With its vintage chic decor and display case filled with Instagram-worthy sweets, Red Wagon Bakery looks like the kind of establishment you’d find in a cosmopolitan city. Smith, who spent three years in New York City and prowled around coffee shops in London last summer, had a distinct vision of what she wanted her bakery to be when she bought the property, home of the former Dishin’ It Out diner, last fall. She has since transformed it with recycled furnishings in shades of sea-foam green and apple red and artful arrangements of books and dishware.

But that vision left plenty of room for variation in keeping with an eclectic clientele that includes Canaan natives of all stripes, commuters, work crews, college students and curious passers-by. Smith and her mother, who is part-owner and works at the bakery full time, aim to please, whether that means trying a new recipe or ingredient, fulfilling a special order, staying open late to accommodate a patron’s schedule or adjusting their inventory of baked goods.

It took three tries to get Samson’s hermit bars just right. “The first time he came, he said they were a little dry,” said Laura Smith, who splits baking duties with her daughter and runs the grill, turning out four daily specials and cooking to order from the breakfast and lunch menu. Rising to the challenge, Laura Smith baked up another batch and brought a few to the town offices for sampling. This time they were closer to Samson’s standards, but still not quite perfect.

The third batch, which Smith stored in plastic wrap, met Samson’s expectations — so much so that people have taken to calling them Mike’s hermits.

“Don’t get me wrong. I liked the hermits. I’m just trying to make sure they stay nice and moist until I take them out of my car,” Samson explained. The perfect hermit should also have a liberal amount of raisins, he added.

Nellie Smith was a young girl when she first experienced the thrill of that moment when someone takes a first bite and declares perfection. Growing up in Sheffield, Mass., she used to bake batches of cookies and wheel them in a Radio Flyer wagon down to Berkshire School, where both her parents worked. Soon she was receiving special orders from the students in the dorm her father supervised.

As school obligations crowded out baking duties, Smith continued baking for friends and family or just to fulfill a midnight craving for Key lime pie. After graduating with an English degree from Hobart and William Smith Colleges in 2015, she decided to pursue another dream, of living in New York City.

“I literally packed a bag one night and went,” said Smith, sitting in a cozy corner of the bakery last Friday afternoon. “I kind of had to think on my feet.”

Landing a nanny job in Manhattan, Smith continued to put her baking skills to good use for the children in her care.

Meanwhile, Laura Smith, who had spent her summers teaching at Cardigan Mountain School, had retired and moved full time to Canaan. Attending meetings for a development committee Samson had started in town, she got a glimpse of what people in Canaan were craving.

“Every time we did any kind of survey, everyone said, ‘We want a coffee shop,’ ” said Laura Smith, who began gently nudging her daughter back toward her childhood dream of opening her own bakery.

Last year, Nellie Smith decided it was time. She collected the money she’d been saving, purchased the diner, which had been on the market for a few years, moved into the upstairs apartment of a house her brother owns in town and got to work. After several months of renovations, the bakery opened on weekends only a few weeks ago and celebrated its grand opening last week.

The learning curve was a bit steep, Nellie Smith said, but she and her mother have settled into a routine that works for them. Open Wednesday through Sunday, they offer daily specials that include quiches, soups, salads and hearty meals, as well as a breakfast and lunch menu composed of both straightforward fare such as bagels and breakfast wraps and trendier items like grain bowls and kale salad. Likewise, the coffee options range from a $1 self-service coffee to hip concoctions like turmeric or matcha lattes.

Then, of course, there are the bakery items: a rotating cast of cakes, scones, pies, muffins, cookies, sweet breads and other goodies. Smith tries to offer at least one gluten-free option every day and attempts to stay well-stocked with favorites, such as her salted shortbread and chocolate chip cookies. On Sundays, she lures customers with cinnamon buns and cardamom buns.

“People literally line up to get them,” said Smith, who tries to use local ingredients as much as possible.

And they spread the word. Sarah Brisbee and her son James popped in for a blueberry muffin and a gluten-free almond butter cookie last Friday. “I heard a lot of local friends talking about it,” said Brisbee, of Canaan, who frequents the nearby library and playground.

For a few Canaan folks, the newest rendition of this town fixture is taking a little getting used to. “They’ll say, ‘Can I just get a normal breakfast?’ ” said Nellie Smith, who does her best to accommodate their requests if the cafe isn’t too busy.

This flexibility may turn out to be critical, as Smith contends with a coincidental reality. At virtually the same time that she was planning her bakery, another bakery was in the works just a stone’s throw away. The 603 Bakery & Cafe, which is also run by a young woman chasing her childhood dream with help from her parents, opened just a few weeks ago. Smith learned about The 603 the day she closed on her own property, and after a bit of panic, decided to just plow ahead and make things work.

“I think we offer different things to Canaan,” said Smith, who raised more than $2,500 for her bakery through a GoFundMe campaign. “We have spoken to each other and think there’s room for both of us.”

The community really wants both bakeries to succeed, Laura Smith said. (Testament to that: This writer received half a dozen emails from Canaan residents pointing out the other new Canaan bakery, after writing an article about The 603 a few weeks ago.)

As he departed with his bag of hermit bars last week, Samson made sure to state his impartiality.

“I’m splitting my time between all the establishments,” he said.

Sarah Earle can be reached at and 603-727-3268.

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