Meet the German Physicist Behind the Artisanal Bakery Coming to Augusta
One might not expect a physicist publishing research like “Energy-Efficient, High-Color-Rendering LED Lamps Using Oxyfluoride and Fluoride Phosphors” to be equally fascinated by the baking of bread.
But every Saturday at 5:30 a.m., a German physicist named Uwe Happek loads up his van with freshly baked bread, croissants, streusel and the like, and drives 90 miles from Comer, Ga., to the Augusta market. He sets up shop in the midst of two rows of vendors selling organic vegetables, local art, and of course, more baked goods.
For passersby, Happek’s display of artisanal sourdough and chocolate-filled croissants are just one more booth in a long strip that stretches from Reynolds Street to the Augusta Riverwalk. But for Happek, it’s the most recent stop on a decades-long journey, one that took him from Germany to New York, to Comer, and now to the Augusta Market every weekend. Soon, their mark on the Garden City will be more permanent.
Happek and his wife, Angela Cooper, enjoy the days they’ve spent on the Riverwalk as locals peruse their selections of pumpernickel and pecan raisin bread. Eventually, they decided to open a bakery here. They’ll change the name of their Comer bakery, The Comerian, to 8th Street Bakery.
“As a scientist, I got interested in the sourdough, the way you feed the starter,” Happek said. “Bread is a living thing.”
Happek said it’s the norm for the biology and chemistry of bread to pique the interest of scientists in those realms. The same holds true among beer enthusiasts, whose forays into home-brewing and micro-brewing are often rooted in experimentation among colleagues in medical fields, as doctor and owner of Savannah River Brewing Company Steve Ellison can attest.
After studying physics at Cornell, Happek landed a job as a professor at the University of Georgia, where he continues to do research on energy-efficient lighting materials. He’s dedicated much of his life’s work to understanding, to put it simply, why certain materials work better than others.
“For me, it’s engrained that you have to get better every day,” Happek said. “Sometimes things don’t always work out, but what I love is to find out why.”
Happek first started getting regular exposure to the baking process when his wife picked it up as a hobby while pursuing a career that would put her cognitive science and math degrees to good use.
That proved difficult, but Cooper’s interest and skills in baking continued to flourish. She eventually became an assistant to another Athens baker who sold his goods at the Athens Farmers Market.
As Cooper honed her skills and expanded her repertoire, she decided to start her own bakery – The Comerian. By that point, the craft was no less fascinating to Happek. And, of course, he’s come to appreciate the physics of it all.
“It’s not only dependent on what’s in the bread, but how fast you mix it,” Happek said.
The proof is in the streusel. It’s clear in the reactions among Augusta market visitors that it doesn’t take a bread baker to tell the difference between a croissant from The Comerian tent and one from the nearest Starbucks. Happek likens it to the difference between French cheese and Velveeta.
“Hey man, that croissant was dope,” said one man as he walked by.
Of course, there’s always room to grow. The reality that he will he will never bake the perfect loaf of bread is exactly what keeps Happek innovating. Last year in Athens, he and Cooper started experimenting with ancient grains like kamut and spelt, both of them seeing a growing appeal among people seeking out new products at local markets.
“This comes from being a scientist,” Happek said. “You have to be better than the rest.”
For a baker, Happek says, “time is an important ingredient.” There is no substitute for it. When Happek puts bread in the oven on Wednesday, it isn’t fully ready until Sunday. Oven temperatures rise and fall throughout the weekly cycle. It’s a craft that bread bakers often think of in terms of managing the curve on a graph of heat and time, and perfecting it is a lifelong pursuit.
As Happeks’ display at the Augusta Market has become consistent, so has Happek’s fondness of Augustans. It’s not because of the sales. He and his wife bring in twice as much in sales from the Athens Farmers Market on Saturdays as they do on the banks of the Savannah River.
In a growing downtown scene, Happek and Cooper are getting a head start. They’re glad they decided to buy a storefront in Augusta when they did; Happek says the value of the building they bought on 8thstreet, between Broad Street and Ellis, has already doubled since they bought it last November.
Still, they have their work cut out for them. Happek still wants to knock out the 8th Street building’s low ceilings, just one element of a full-blown renovation. The Comerian’s founders are also still looking for a skilled baker who can run the bakery in Augusta. Happek and Cooper will probably spend most of their time in Comer and Athens.
“People starting businesses here always say, ‘We’re excited to come to Augusta,’” Happek said. “Well, we like it here already!”
Happek thinks there’s “more to Augusta than James Brown and The Masters,” and the diverse population of downtown Augusta is a fresh sight for Happek, who says he hasn’t seen the same in Athens.
For Cooper, it’s a nostalgic reminder of her hometown of Savannah.
“Angela lived in Savannah, and Augusta reminds her of Savannah 20 years ago,” Happek said.
It seems Happek and Cooper have found the right timing, a practice they’ve been honing ever since they launched The Comerian.
“We’re like a lemonade stand gone wild,” Happek said.