Basil, Mystery, and 25 years of Co-op Bakery History

The Moscow Food Co-op’s pesto roll has become a subject of love, lore, and a dash of mystery around here. When did we first bake up a batch of the heralded rolls? Who came up with that recipe? The quest for the Co-op pesto roll’s origin offers a peek into our bakery’s 25-year history.

The pesto roll is the bakery item that I’ve heard people express the most delight over. It’s clearly an emotional pleasure, where sounds that aren’t quite words are used to describe why people enjoy them. But because I’ve had my own favorite (our fruit strudel), I have been able to resist the temptation.

That is until one recent afternoon, when I succumbed. The basil pesto goodness, which I warmed up for maximum comfort food effect, had me at the first bite. It’s a little salt, a little sweet, and a little basil, all topped off with a light and satisfying crunch of baked mozzarella. Now I understand.

As I tried to track down who first created this temptation for the Co-op, I was referred to one person after another, each thinking someone else might know for sure. Finally, I spoke with the wise Annie Hubble, who is currently our Front End Manager. “Lucy! It’s someone named Lucy!” she said upon remembering. Then I was referred to Annie’s son, who talked to his wife, who talked to her mother, who is good friends with Lucy…and finally I was making a call to Wisconsin to talk with THE originator of the Co-op’s pesto roll: Lucy Gallardo.

It all began in March 1990. Ed Clark had started what was first called the “Upper Crust Wholegrain Bakery” shortly after the Co-op moved to its third home, at 310 West 3rd (affectionately known to many as “the old Kentucky Fried Chicken”). While Annie was making all of the soups, salads, specials, and cookies, Ed and his crew were baking the breads and rolls. Annie recalls the challenge of an upstairs bakery, which required hauling all ingredients upstairs and carefully bringing all finished creations downstairs.

The exact date the pesto roll was born is still a mystery; it was probably in ‘92 or ‘93. Lucy saw Annie using pesto in a lunch special, and thought, “Why don’t we use that in a roll?” She still remembers making those first rolls and using a high-protein “Cornell Bread” recipe that involved white and soy flours. “I can still smell it. They looked so inviting, and they sold like hot cakes,” Lucy said. “We couldn’t make enough of them.”

Lucy moved on to other baking adventures in the mid-1990s, and eventually left for Wisconsin for her husband’s new job. In 1999, the Co-op moved to a new home at 221 East 3rd, near Marketime Drug and Safari Pearl. The bakery dropped its name because “Upper Crust” was a play on the bakery’s upstairs location and the Co-op had returned to a one-floor operation.

Joseph Erhard-Hudson, who is now a lead cashier, first joined us in 2000 as a baker at the 221 East 3rd location. Like many Co-op bakers in the early years, Joseph started as a volunteer. He recalls bakery operations being a bit more free-wheeling and intuitive than today. Volunteers would pick any muffin recipe from a box of ideas on any day. The selection was fairly unpredictable (but always tasty).

Bakery operations became more standardized shortly after we moved to our current home in 2005. Manager Annie Pollard brought formal bread baking training and experience to the Co-op in 2007 to help us develop artisan breads. She also worked to retain bakers’ individual creativity while introducing methods that produced more consistency.

The pesto roll recipe was likely tweaked over the years prior to Annie Pollard’s management; then, a few years before she left in 2011, she and her team adjusted the recipe to make the roll’s dough consistently softer. The recipe has been the same ever since.

One thing that has remained constant through the bakery’s 25 years is the swarm of Moscow High School students descending upon the Co-op for lunch. For many, the pesto roll has been the draw, even when we were at “the old KFC building.” Annie Hubble recalls students grabbing pesto rolls off the trays as they came downstairs, fresh from the oven. Today, the following continues.

So, what do today’s Co-op bakers have to say about the pesto roll? Rose Olson, our Bakery Manager, says it’s still one of our best-selling bakery items and has a cult following. “There’s no way I would cut pesto rolls from production. Not in a million years!” Rose said.

Check out Rose’s fast-motion video of pesto rolls being made at moscowfood.coop/pesto