The Woman Behind Oxford’s Favorite Bakery – Bottletree Bakery

Photo Courtesy of Kelsie Ruff - Southern Foodway Alliance
Photo Courtesy of Kelsie Ruff – Southern Foodway Alliance

After coming down to Oxford, Mississippi, from Portland, Oregon, in 1987, Cynthia Gerlach had no idea that 29 years later she would own one of Oxford’s most successful businesses, Bottletree Bakery.

Gerlach came to Ole Miss with every intention of getting her degree in physics, until she met Bill Ferris and became interested in Southern studies. After attending a function at Ferris’ home, she became intrigued with folk art and other aspects of Southern culture. Gerlach quickly changed her major and revived her degree in Southern studies. After growing up in Portland, she decided to continue her education on the South and received her master’s degree in Southern Studies as well.

“Normally people don’t go to the same school for their master’s, but the fact that I didn’t know what grits or kudzu were when I got here from Oregon, it seemed like the right thing to do,” Gerlach said.

After school, Gerlach worked with the Oxford tourism center for ten months and began to see the need for a Southern-style bakery around town. The space that Bottletree occupies became available, and in a matter of weeks, Gerlach at the age of 25 was the proud owner of Bottletree Bakery. She took from what she learned in school to develop the ideas behind the food and the name of the bakery.

“It just kind of happened like magic, like what the bottle tree represents. It’s a good luck charm, it’s an iconic symbol to me of Southern folk art, and the bakery shows my appreciation and respect for that.”

The bottle tree, rooted in African-American culture, was used a good luck charm, a charm that has assisted Gerlach in keeping her business going strong.

“People used to affix bottles to trees to keep away evil spirits,” Gerlach said. “The blue milk of magnesia bottle was often used. The practice is rooted in African American culture, and the rattling of the bottles meant that the spirit was trapped in the bottle and you’d know you’re safe. So it was also used as good luck charm.”

Developing the theme being “around” the bottle tree, Gerlach noted that is the reasoning behind the bread, pastries and much of the decor being round. Included in the decor is the countertops, stools and mirrors that come from the Bonton Café, which closed in 1972. Also paying homage to Gerlach’s love of folk art is the dozens of art pieces that fill the walls of the bakery, and when it comes to what gets put up she ensures that it’s authentic.

“The ideas for the art comes from things I studied in school, and all of the pieces are from my personal collection,” Gerlach said. “For a piece of art, I make an effort to go the painter’s hometown to establish friendships and relationships to make sure we can accurately represent them.”

The atmosphere of Bottletree is unlike any other restaurant, and Gerlach wouldn’t want it to be any other way.

“I didn’t realize when I opened, but the aesthetic of the bakery is an extension of my house, living room. People come in here, and they can stay for hours, move tables around and do things they wouldn’t do in any other restaurant. Employees with experience in other restaurants always say ‘people behave here like they do in no other restaurant’ and all I can say is ‘yes they do,’” Gerlach said. “There’s a kind of family, back to the community house environment here that I love.”

While the decor is a great addition to the bakery at its core, the food is what Gerlach believes sets them apart.

“Everything is made from scratch; nothing is taken out of a freezer. What sets us apart is our ability to ensure that nothing we make is taken off of a truck or put in a freezer. We make everything with love, and I think it really shows in the product we put out.”

Making things from scratch has been a part of Bottletree’s operation since day one, and Gerlach has worked to ensure that they stay consistent.

“Everything is measured and scaled; so the pastry your eating today should be the exact same thing you ate 21 years ago. I’m very proud of the level of consistency,” she said.

As far as Gerlach’s favorite menu items she noted that while they are all good, her favorite is the ciabatta bread with olive oil, and any of the pastries made with brioche. It’s not just the food that Gerlach enjoys putting out, the Bottletree coffee blend made with beans sent from Portland has won “Best Cup of Coffee” in Portland for four years.

While she never intended on opening a bakery, Gerlach remembers her chores as a child involving waking up early every Sunday to make scones and Blueberry muffins with her mother. When she wasn’t helping with the baking, she was learning the ins and outs of owning a small business.

“I grew up working in my parent’s pharmacy; so I knew what it took to have your own business and how hard it is, and that it’s not a glamorous lifestyle, especially for small businesses.”

A girl from Portland, Oregon, came to Oxford with no idea of where life would take her. All these years later, she is just happy to give back to the town that has given her so much.

“Oxford gave me so much when I was younger, to come out of my shell, grow up and find my way out of physics to do this. It’s really nice to give something back to this community, and that’s something that I feel Bottletree Bakery has really done and will always do.” 

Check out photos and videos from Bottletree Bakery below:

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Steven Gagliano is a writer for HottyToddy.com. He can be reached at steven.gagliano@hottytoddy.com

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