Food & Drink

Here’s the first look inside Union Special Bread, Raleigh’s new all-day bakery cafe

The orange and yellow and red bands arching across the wall at the soon-to-open bakery Union Special Bread are not a sunrise. They’re a croissant. But owner Andrew Ullom said it works on a couple of levels, much like Union Special itself.

Union Special Bread will finally open its doors this month in the newly renovated Gateway Plaza, rolling out a retail counter of breads and pastries, then breakfast, lunch and brunch service and eventually dinner. There’s also a six-figure wholesale operation Union Special already has up and running with restaurants around the Triangle.

The Crabtree Boulevard cafe is just off of Capital Boulevard and is in the final days of construction. The dining room will soon have seats for 44 people, with communal tables and large, wrap-around windows looking out onto a patio. The only decorative flourish for now is a line of 15 tin lunch pails on the wall, nodding to the labor union inspiration behind Union Special’s name, and the fact that lunch is always the best part of a hard day’s work.

Walking through the future dining room, Ullom notices one of the pails askew, either moved by the air conditioning or some human intervention. Not knowing which sticks like a thorn in the order-loving folds of his baker’s brain.

“The thing I like about baking is everything is based on the previous step,” Ullom said. “If you mess up one step, you may not know about it until you pull baguettes the next day that you forgot to add the yeast. That step-by-step situation, controlling everything within something that’s so wild is a fun challenge.”

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The miche loaf at Union Special Bread in Raleigh on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019. The bakery is preparing for its grand opening. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Ullom spent nearly seven years baking breads and desserts with Ashley Christensen’s AC Restaurants group, leaving in the spring of 2018 to get to work on Union Special. He previewed pastries and breads for months of weekly pop-up counters at Videri Chocolate, breaking hearts with routine sell-outs of loaves and cookies and setting off a quick frenzy over a spicy cheese croissant.

Bakers are often nostalgic and there’s a lot of whimsy planned for Union Special, but also a lot of experiments. The big seller, Ullom said, will be an egg sandwich topped with a fried hashbrown, calling back to his childhood trips to McDonald’s where he would do the same. But Ullom’s looks to outpace the inspiration, with soft scrambled eggs, fontina cheese, a romesco sauce with pumpkin and sunflower seeds. But that hashbrown will be eerily familiar.

“Maybe I should put a counter up; we might sell a million,” Ullom said.

Look for breakfast pastries skewing toward the savory, with variations of croissants and danishes, plus biscuits and brioche. When the restaurant side ramps up, expect bowls of grits and catfish, a BLT and a spent grain waffle. Brunch means a mimosa cart and a Michelada, the spicy beer cocktail, made with tomato water and some secrets. When the soft serve machine fires up, look for sweet corn ice cream and maybe a butterbean flavor.

“We’ll have some pretty cool options as far as pastry is concerned,” Ullom said. “A bear claw doesn’t necessarily need to be sweet. We’re thinking purple potato and caramelized apple.”

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Union Special Bread head baker Maria Luna works in the kitchen on Wednesday, Aug. 7, 2019, as the bakery prepares for its grand opening. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

As Union Special readies for its launch this weekend, it’s starting with a sold-out ticketed preview Saturday morning and then selling anything that’s left at 2 p.m. On Sunday retail starts back up at 8 a.m. until the stock is sold out, with retail sales continuing on the weekends until the cafe is complete.

A $5 ticketed brunch series will start the weekend of Aug. 24, with a lineup of guest chefs. The first will feature Kristen Hall from The Essential in Birmingham, Ala., followed by a collaboration with Ex Voto Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 and then Southern food legend Bill Smith on Sept. 7-8. Proceeds from the ticket sales will be donated to local charities.

For more information on Union Special and to look out for brunch tickets, visit unionspecialbread.com and the bakery’s social media pages. The restaurant’s number is 984-200-3094.

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Drew Jackson writes about restaurants and dining for The News & Observer and The Herald-Sun, covering the food scene in the Triangle and North Carolina.
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