by Susan Marquez
This article first appeared in the October/November 2023 issue of eat. drink. MISSISSIPPI
Robert Raymond says that growing up in Chicago, he wasn’t exposed to a lot of home cooking. “We joke that my mom was a master of the microwave,” he laughs. Starting at the age of 15, he worked in area restaurants before going to college in New York, where he spent time working in a bakery. “As a college student, I was interested in learning to cook for myself.”
An opportunity to work for FoodCorps, a grantee of AmeriCorps, brought Raymond to Mississippi in 2015 when he was 24 years old. “I had never been to Mississippi before, and I learned to love it,” he says. “There were nine people in my ‘class,’ and seven were not from here. Of those, four of us chose to stay.” Raymond says that FoodCorps was a good fit for him, because in his work in the food industry and during college, he became interested in how food moves our economy.
Jackson turned out to be a fantastic new home for Raymond, who made many new friends here. He loved cooking and baking and began trying his hand at sourdough bread. “I had a lot of fails,” he admitted. But he continued trying, and mastered bread baking. “I liked the challenge of it,” he remembers. “I really wanted to understand why bread exists.” Other bakers joined him, and for six years now, they have been turning out bread and other baked goods under the Sunflower Oven name.
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Sunflower Oven’s bread was sold at weekly popups in a local bar before moving to the Mississippi Farmers Market. “We had the whole baking operation in my house. We had enough equipment to generate a good supply of bread. As a matter of fact, most of my house was dedicated to baking bread. We kept going and going,” recalls Raymond. “We weathered Covid, which was challenging, and by late 2021 we were in a good place.”
In late August 2022, Sunflower Oven opened in a storefront in Belhaven Heights in Jackson. “We had the opportunity to pursue a storefront space, and it turned out to be a great decision,” says Raymond. “We also decided early on to structure the business as a cooperative bakery, which means that everyone who works at the bakery is a part owner. That was something that was really important to us,” he says. “We really value labor, and making sure people have a long-term interest in not only the success of the bakery, but in the success of Jackson.”
Sunflower Oven only bakes sourdough bread. “Any kind of bread can be baked with a sourdough starter,” Raymond explains. “We also made a commitment to only use stone-ground flour. There are more health benefits when all the grains in the flour are accessible. We give priority to the flavor of the grain, from wheat to rye to spelt.” Raymond has also unwittingly become an educator. “It’s been a learning experience for many people who did not grow up eating this kind of bread. When eating Sunflower Ovens bread, people naturally sense that it is going to treat their bodies right.”
Raymond says he could have chosen to purchase bread flour from a big producer in bulk, but he approaches flour as many would fresh produce. “We only want to use high quality, nutritious grain, and we use it within three months of being milled.” The flour used at Sunflower Oven comes from Carolina Ground, a small mill in North Carolina. “We wanted to keep it local, or at least Southern. It didn’t make sense to transport flour from across the country.”
Sunflower Oven also offers breakfast and lunch, and Raymond says most of the ingredients are sourced from farmers they’ve met at the farmers market or in the immediate area. “We focus on using Mississippi products as often as possible.” Menu items center around their breads.
While someone is baking there seven days a week, the bakery is open to the public Sunday through Wednesday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. You can also find them on Saturday at the Mississippi Farmers Market on High Street. “We sell wholesale to area restaurants,” says Raymond. “We have had a lot of growth very fast, and we still have a lot of room to grow. It’s encouraging to see how many people are still learning about us.”