(WJET/WFXP/YourErie.com) — There was rhubarb behind the garage. Jessica Schultz was an afternoon kindergartner then, and she’d spend time with grandma in the mornings and on some weekends. Grandma sent her to pick the rhubarb. Together, they made rhubarb pies.

There was science then (science is behind everything tangible), but grandma either didn’t know about it, didn’t care about it, or didn’t explain it. But the crust was treated in a special delicate way to ensure it stayed flakey. Schultz now is an adult, and the science is real for her.

“She had a lot of opinions on the type of flours you should use, and the type of fat — some things you learn later are absolutely right,” Schultz said. “Like how to roll out the pie crust. I learned later when I was studying nutrition it’s so you don’t develop gluten and make a tough crust, and that’s why grandma had me roll it out a certain way. She didn’t know anything about gluten, but she knew how to make a good crust.

Schultz graduated from Northwest Pennsylvania Collegiate Academy — during her time there, she baked muffins and sold them at morning choir classes to raise money for college tuition. She attended Virginia Tech where she studied nutrition and agriculture. While chasing a Ph.D, Schultz ran a small baking company out of her apartment. That business took off and she leaned into it. She owned that business for seven years. She also managed “Millstone Kitchen,” a facility that allowed small businesses to produce and attempt new products with minimal investment.

In April 2020, Schultz moved back to her hometown of Erie and put her baking skills to work again. She worked at other established bakeries in town until space opened at Urbaniak Brothers (310 E. 24th St. in Erie).

“An open space with equipment already there and lots of foot traffic — It was kind of a no-brainer,” Schultz said.

Herb & Honey inside Urbaniak Brothers, 310 E. 24th St. in Erie.

She started her bakery, Herb & Honey. That was 2020 — the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. That’s when businesses were temporarily shuttered by the state for public health, then many of those businesses were unable to weather the financial hardship those closures brought. Other businesses still fell after the closures were lifted due to limited foot traffic, staffing struggles, and supply shortages. While some entrepreneurs would wince and second guess a new business venture facing those circumstances, Schultz ran forward.

“There was only one way to go — up,” Schultz said. “It became clear that the online portion of a business is really important. Not only for preorders — because we were facing potential shutdowns at the time — but also for advertising. More people were working from home, looking at their phones more, looking at the internet more.”

She had hoped to start an urban-farm-based cafe. She spent her first few months at Herb and Honey pursuing that idea, but her baked goods were so popular that it has slowed her cafe plans. And though she was out of college and back home, the education on nutrition and agriculture was firmly engrained. It has informed the way she makes her products.

“Your body is made up of what you eat. At the most basic level — the atoms. I’ve worked on several farms, and there are farmers that I’ve worked with that you know that they are made up of their land,” she said. “You’re made of what you eat. So, you definitely need to decide carefully. Sometimes food is meant for joy. Sometimes it’s meant strictly for health. Those things can intersect, and they definitely do for me.”

At Herb & Honey, Schultz aims to locally source the ingredients. Some of the grains are milled in Pittsburgh, the rhubarb, fruit and berries are local, eggs and honey come from a Waterford farm, lemon balm comes from an urban farm on East 7th Street, and many of the herbs and garlic scapes come from Schultz’s own garden. During a JET 24 interview, Schultz preferred to sit in her garden beneath a small shade tree. Rows of herbs and lettuces were planted and thriving, and a greenhouse held more plants still.

“The highest quality baked goods come from locally-produced ingredients,” Schultz said. “It’s picked at peak ripeness — it’s picked when it should be; it’s not picked under-ripe and then shipped, so all of those flavor compounds and all of that nutrition is able to fully form before it’s taken off the vine.”

“If you’re a local farmer, here especially, you’re in it because you love it. Because you know the way things should taste. You’re feeding yourself in addition to other people, so I feel like their products are just generally higher quality.”

Those ingredients are combined to make croissants (with chocolate, or capicola and swiss cheese, or basil and mozzarella, or “jalapeno popper” featuring Urbaniak bacon), pretzels and stuffed pretzels (with Federal Hill brisket, or Reuben stuffed, or ox roast and horseradish), and puff pastries. Herb & Honey also makes a lion’s mane mushroom turnover.

It works the other way, too — the baked goods at Herb & Honey don’t feature pineapple or mangoes because they don’t grow locally. And if an ingredient isn’t in season, it’s not used.

“The seasonality acts as a check on my creative anxiety,” Schultz said. “I have so many ideas and so many things I want to bake, but basil doesn’t usually come in until July. Tomatoes don’t usually come in until mid-summer. So I don’t make those products until that point when I can get the best and I can get it locally.”

The prevailing wisdom says locally made products are more expensive than what can be bought at large grocery stores, but Schultz said she’s selling wheat bread for less than the local branch of a major grocery chain. Another loaf of wheat bread at another major grocery chain included anchovies in its ingredients list.

“It’s not place based, it’s probably made by a machine, thawed and thrown in an oven. I don’t see the value in that,” she said. “I’m using regional grains, so it contributes to the regional economy. A lot of my grains are organic. There’s not going to be any harsh chemicals or pesticides sprayed on them.”

And there are health benefits to the products she bakes, she said. The breads Herb & Honey bakes are sourdough based. Not only is that healthier, Schultz said, it’s also more personal that way.

“That’s how human beings have been eating bread for 2,000 to 3,000 years… The sourdough culture is a symbiotic relationship between a natural yeast and a lactic acid — both of those vary –they’re influenced by the type of flour that are used, where it’s milled. Influenced by the baker, so some of me is in the bread, and they’re influenced by what is caught in the air,” Schultz said. “It’s a fermented product… it is predigested. A lot of the nutrients are better available for you to digest. Especially rye-based sourdoughs tend to trigger less inflammation.”

“It’s also made by somebody — it’s made by me. You can talk to me. You can ask how it’s made. I can give you the recipe. I can give you the sourdough culture. Maybe you can make it at home and give it to someone else.”

Herb & Honey isn’t a boutique bakery. It has a small physical footprint inside a local market. It’s not meant to be some exclusive product. She’s not selling hoity toity gold-flake dusted croissants. She’s simply highlighting the best ingredients in the best way she can — for health, for community and for connection.

“I hope I’m the connector,” Schultz said. “I hope that maybe somebody buys my food and they share it with somebody else and it connects people that way. I hope that by using a certain ingredient like rhubarb which is incredibly nostalgic that it connects them further to their history. I hope that by buying something that’s baked with something locally sourced that they get better connected to the land and connected to a local farmer.”

Looking ahead, Schultz said she’s hoping to hire additional employees (she currently employs two full-time and one part-time employee) in the distant future. She hopes to produce more in a bigger space. She hopes to connect with more farmers and support them. The cafe (with an outdoor gathering space) is still a goal.

In the end, it all essentially comes back to picking rhubarb for baking pies with grandma.

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“It’s me trying to cultivate a community around food — around good food,” Schultz said. “Food can be nostalgic, like the rhubarb. I love working with rhubarb. Everybody has stories about their grandma with rhubarb, or their grandpa with rhubarb. It’s one of my favorite vegetables/fruits.”