Sitting inside Grains of Grace, Clarkesville’s newest wood-fire bakery and coffee shop, owner AJ White sits quietly at a table inside the dimly lit restaurant taking care of inventory and other administrative tasks. Before long the door opens, and a would-be customer filters into the coffee shop, saying that they’re just dropping by to check the place out.
White says his success – and his purpose for starting the bakery – is all a blessing.
The idea to start a bakery in Clarkesville is relatively fresh for White, but the purpose behind it began four years ago when he and his wife took a mission trip to New Delhi, India, and got the opportunity to work with Grace Children’s Orphanage there.
Despite making donations and taking at least one trip to India to work with the orphanage each year, White began questioning how he could become more invested and help by doing more than donating and making one or two trips each year.
“My wife and I wanted to increase our partnership with the orphanage that wasn’t confined to two weeks of corporate vacation each year by finding ways to help them meet their needs,” White said. “It’s kind of goes with the whole parable of giving a man to fish and letting him eat for a day or teaching a man how to fish and he can eat for a lifetime.”
For White, he and his wife’s first thought was to move to India. But when those doors didn’t open, White said the conversation of what they would do if they had moved to India spurred the idea of starting a bakery.
“We asked ourselves what would we do if we moved to India, and the obvious answer because of my training was to start a food business,” White said. “So we talked with a few of the girls and a bakery was something they really seemed interested in.”
With interest from the girls, White took a trip to India in March to teach some of the older girls about baking and install a brick oven like the one used at Grains of Grace.
“I did a rudimentary class with them,” White said. “I was teaching them how to make artisan sourdough bread with a sourdough starter and a generic pizza dough because these ovens double as pizza ovens. So if the girls weren’t super-interested in bread, then there’s that pizza capacity.”
White planned to return once or twice each year to teach new groups of young women how to make bread and open their own bakeries. And with the original bakery being located near the orphanage, his hope was for it to operate with a “Panera Bread model.”
“Everything would be baked fresh every day, and the reason that there’s no waste is because that food is then donated to charity,” White said. “In India, the donation would happen back to the orphanage. That was the goal. But because of COVID, that bakery hasn’t started up yet and this one has.”
Upon returning home, White saw his job at U.S. foods beginning to shift to the virtual realm due to COVID-19, and his passion for it waned while it his desire to grow his involvement with the orphanage grew. Because of this, White shifted his sights to a slightly new goal – opening a bakery here and allowing the girls to come from India to work as apprentices.
“Instead of going over twice each year to teach the baking class in India, our goal is to bring the girls here for five to six months for an apprenticeship to teach them how to run the business,” White said. “Then we return with them and help them open a bakery before sending them off on their own.”
“About three weeks out from this opening, I had a conversation with the Vice President and my boss [at U.S. Foods] and said, ‘My heart used to be in this job, but it’s in this now. I think that I could find a way to make this work, but that wouldn’t be best of U.S. Foods. You need a district manager in the position that’s as sold out for his territory managers as I am for these girls in India,’” White said.
From there, White’s bosses worked with him for the next three weeks until he moved to the bakery full time.
Over his first week in business, White’s cooking method of using a wood fire grill to make pastries have caused residents to notice the business.
Specifically, White’s beignets have been the biggest hit, and they have drawn comparisons to those from Café Du Monde in New Orleans, a place known throughout the world for its beignets.
“The beignets were really something that I wanted to eat and they made the menu,” White said. “So it has been a blessing to see them take off.”
But even with the high praise from customers, White credits his success to God and strong family and community support.
“I’ve helped with a lot of new businesses, and this one has been the smoothest of any business opening I’ve been a part of. We’ve seen overwhelming support from the community and our family,” White said. “I quit my job and financed this out of my own pocket during a pandemic. It’s all been God’s timing, but we’re doing this for a different purpose than just a normal business.”
With White’s purpose for the bakery surpassing one of a “normal business,” his sights are set on starting the process of bringing the girls over and equipping them to start their own businesses and pour into their communities in India.
“This was definitely God’s plan,” White said. “My heart is for these girls, all the money in the world doesn’t make that go away, so I asked how do I get to spend more time with them and pour into them, and this was the answer to that.”
Grains of Grace is located at 1654 Old Historic Highway 441 North in Clarkesville, and it is open Wednesday through Saturday from 6:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.