The Tattooer, the Baker, the Apple Tart Maker: Matt Herren and Debbie Sultan live big in a small towChuck's House of Sushi Chicken. Dirty Girl Laundry Mat. Canada Bob's Beer, Bait and Bordello. Setting up shop at 222 Main St. in Edwardsville, Debbie Sultan and Matt Herren covered their front window with a new “coming soon” sign every week.
“The whole town was talking. ‘You can’t sell sushi chicken!’ Schlafly actually sent people over here to sell us beer. They’re like, ‘Are you the owner of Canada Bob’s?’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, dude. I’m opening a bordello right here in Edwardsville. Come on in,’” said Herren with an indulgently rowdy laugh.
It wasn’t until he and Sultan had finished ripping up pink carpet, salvaging an antique tin ceiling and installing a quartet of ovens that the real sign appeared: 222 Artisan Bakery.
Nearly three years later, the brick-walled bakery looks brand-new. Word on the street in Edwardsville and beyond is that Herren’s breads and Sultan’s pastries achieve a special perfection. The Goshen brand coffee they roast reaps accolades too, but 222 isn’t a sit-down-and-sip-awhile destination.
“Our friend Jen owns the coffee shop [Sacred Grounds] right across the street. So we wanted to do something that wasn’t just a café, something that would differentiate us from them,” Sultan said. A few minutes later, a Sacred Grounds employee stopped in to borrow some paper cups. Herren couldn’t find any 12-ouncers, so he gave away a sleeve of bigger ones.
“Just tell people they have to buy larges,” heckled Sultan, slouching comfortably at the bakery’s one table.
“Hey, Doug,” she said to another face in the doorframe.
“Good mornin’, Doug,” said Herren, smiling through his tangling beard.
This Main Street quaintness gets quainter when, at the end of the day, Sultan walks over to the firehouse and police station to deliver the bakery leftovers. “It’s good for the police to know you,” she said with a quietly conspiratorial smile.
“Debbie probably told you I arrested her. I don’t think it’s true, I just think she’s having fun with me,” said Ben Dickmann, who served as chief of police for 25 years before becoming a city administrator. He’s known Sultan, an Edwardsville native, for years. Lately, he’s been hooked on her carrot cake.
Sultan and Herren met in Humboldt County in Northern California, where they developed a taste for good coffee and good karma. In 2002, they moved from Seattle to Edwardsville. They were married then. As of last year, they’ve solely been business partners living lives structured after a wish list.
“We made this big list on a poster board of all the things that were important to us in a city. We looked at going back to San Francisco, where I’m from, we looked at Boulder, Colo.; Madison, Wis.; and upstate New York,” Herren said.
“We wanted a downtown that had a meat market, a coffee shop and a bread baker like it used to be in the olden times when you had all these little independent businesses that supported each other,” Sultan said.
“Somewhere along the line it just struck us that any idiot can pick up the equity in their home and move to some cool place. We said, ‘Forget that! Let’s go somewhere and make it cool,’” Herren said.
Returning to Main Street after 15 years, Sultan discovered it had changed. “There were a lot of boarded-up buildings. But some of the businesses were really old, like the soda fountain. That’s a place that we grew up going to every day for cherry sodas. But when I came back a lot of them were abandoned and boarded up,” she said.
“Every time I go in the store, Matt asks about projects he knows we have ongoing,” said Dickmann over a mocha and some white bean-chicken chili he’d picked up earlier from 222. “He’s very curious about what’s happening in Edwardsville, which is the sign of a good business person.”
On Saturdays, the line outside the bakery often stretches out the door and down the sidewalk. Word of mouth, not advertising, brings the crowds out – which isn’t to say Herren hasn’t employed a marketing strategy or two. When Sultan went to France for a two-week pastry course last fall, he joined in on the trip, clipping wood clothespins onto the shirttails of unsuspecting Parisians. Each clothespin bore a simple imprint: www.goshencoffee.com.
Named after their Illinois stomping ground (also known as the Land of Goshen), Goshen Coffee started out as a part-time, garage-based roasting enterprise that predates the bakery and is now spearheaded by Herren. He has gone through five roasting machines in five years. None has met his specs except for the fifth, which he built from scratch. Herren rejected the suggestion he’s mechanically inclined. “I just sit here at night and drink beer and play with equipment,” he said, giving a tour of his approximately 2,500-square-foot warehouse. “I was able to put the roaster all together with a lot of luck. We had $20,000 in this machine, and we were like, ‘Well, it’s either gonna work and we’re gonna be OK or we have a $20,000 sculpture.’”
Luckily, the fifth time was a charm. The beans he roasts now, Herren feels, are lighter, brighter and cleaner. The improvement comes from having more control over the cooling process and heat input.
“It’ll be about 80 degrees in here in three hours. I’ve got a bunch of roasting to do,” he said, cranking up the natural gas-powered machine. Never does he suppress the roar of its Harley Davidson motor and “weird carburetor” with ear plugs.
“I’m used to it – years of going to Dead shows,” said Herren, who quit high school to roam with the fans of the charismatic jam band. He shaved his head when Jerry Garcia died. “After that, I kept my hair really short until I got cancer, and then I didn’t have hair for a year and a half. Now I know I’ve been out of cancer treatment for this long,” he said, reaching around to touch the end of his ponytail.
“We're old hippies,” said Sultan, a former nuclear chemist who continued to work full-time for the first six months after 222 opened. Now she strictly bakes uncommonly good apple tarts and the like. With mere days of pastry training on her résumé, she comes by her successes in the kitchen quite naturally. Baking simply dovetails with the scientist in her. “Everything is weighed out. Temperatures are just so. It’s all very linear and left-brain,” she said. “I can’t cook at all. I eat chicken noodle soup out of a can and cold cereal. But then I come up here and bake like mad.”
Moving around the kitchen, the self-described tomboy doesn’t seem animated by fervor so much as purpose. She speaks without haste or pretense. Still, she quickly confirmed she’s been good at everything she’s undertaken until now. “I don’t do a lot, but the things I do I want to do them and I do them well,” she said.
“I don’t want to use the p-i-g word. Usually, the guys here like ’em so much they devour them. How’s that?” said Ron Schrage, captain of the Edwardsville Fire Department, where 222 leftovers surface about twice a week. Captain Tom Dannenberg sneaks in as many of Sultan’s pastries as his diet permits. One of these days, she might use his grandfather’s old Edwardsvillian recipes. “My grandfather was the head baker at Sally Ann Bakery, which used to be at the corner of Main and Vandalia. It hasn’t been there for years,” Dannenberg said. “Two weeks ago, I was doing an inspection – it was perfect, by the way – and I was talking to Debbie about his recipes. She said, ‘Bring ’em in. I’d like to take a look at them.’”
Although it’s Herren who holds things down in the office – “Debbie probably doesn’t even know that her computer’s not working,” he said, standing beside her desk – Sultan’s life revolves around 222, and her most recent tattoos encapsulate this.
“One day [my tattooist] came over and she said, ‘I have a one-hour opening, but the only thing I’ll do is a cupcake behind your ear.’ And I said, ‘No way. Not gonna happen.’ She talked me into it and I liked it so much, I got another one on the other side.” The second tattoo, just a few months old, depicts a candle burning on both ends.
The baker's day starts at 4 a.m. Sultan and Herren take turns arriving at 8 a.m., but this schedule is new. Up until a few months ago, they always opened the bakery together. “That was one of the sacrifices that I think the business brought us. We can’t work a hundred hours a week together and go home together. It’s not our thing,” Herren said.
On the edge of the kitchen, two copies of The Joy of Cooking sit on a bookshelf. His and hers? Not exactly. Herren doesn’t bake with books much.
“At first I baked sourdough bread from all these recipes and it was just horrible. I never got anything that was really very good. And I said, ‘Well, the problem is the bread oven.’ So I spent, like, six months building a wood-fired brick bread oven in our backyard – and the bread still was really horrible,” said Herren, triggering Sultan’s alto laugh. In the end, he developed all his own recipes.
Sourdough bread tempers Herren’s nostalgia for San Francisco (a nostalgia that struck him in the cancer ward). The levain, or wild yeast, he insists on using placates both his conscience and his palate. “There are tens of thousands of yeast strains that are flying around in the air everywhere, but the American market manipulated this little package with one yeast strain. It’s not good for people,” he said. “We manipulate levain to produce long fermentation. Some really interesting dynamic flavors are present in the flour, but you just need to know how to manipulate them to get them to come out.”
Naturally, Herren and Sultan don’t bake with just any flour. The San Fran Giusto’s brand they order is organic, stone-ground and the currency of a friendship. “We send [Ruben of Giusto’s] coffee as thank-yous for doing neat stuff for us. He sent us some really interesting organic double-aught flour the last time,” Herren said. Goshen Coffee also flows at the San Francisco Baking Institute, where Herren took a short course fresh out of the hospital. (“I decided I was never going to work for anyone else again,” he said.) The coffee sent to his alma mater even has a private label. Herren does the same favor for Lyle Tuttle.
“I asked him if he remembered me and he did,” said Herren of the legendary tattoo artist. As a second-grader, Herren skipped out on after-school day care to hang around with bikers at Tuttle’s tattoo parlor. Young Herren knew nothing of Tuttle’s fame; the “crusty old character” simply showed him kindness. “He got used to me because I was going there every day and so he had a chair and he had a chain up and he made me sit on the other side and he was super cool about it,” Herren said. When he found out Tuttle was organizing a tattoo convention in St. Louis, he picked up the phone and asked, “What can I do to help?”
Herren claimed he burns bridges. Sultan said she burns a lot too.
“Did Bob send you?” Whenever the inevitable someone shows up asking for doughnuts, he or she gets the Bob question. After the inevitable “no” comes the punch line: “Then you can’t have doughnuts.”
Sultan and Herren deflect a steady trickle of other requests. No, they won’t sell day-old bread. No, they won’t supply cafés, grocers or restaurants (the one exception is Erato, a Main Street neighbor). No, they won’t roast more than 90,000 pounds of coffee a year. Yes, it has to be fair-trade organic. No, they won’t ship out of the metro area.
“If they want to use our coffee and they’re from Wisconsin, we’ll say, ‘You know, we know some great roasters up in Wisconsin.’ And we recommend trying to keep it local,” Sultan said.
“I’m not afraid to tell people to go away. I’m seriously devoted to what we do,” Herren said. Note that his heart isn’t only on his sleeve. With fists clenched, Herren’s tattooed knuckles spell out BONA FIDE.
“Speaking of which,” he asked Sultan, “are you going to keep your appointment?”
“Why don’t you go?” she replied. Easy enough. Their tattooist is right next door.
Sultan hasn’t always enjoyed living in Edwardsville. “I couldn’t wait to get out of here after high school. I hated it. I thought it was just the worst place ever. And then after being gone for 15 years, I kind of got nostalgic about it,” she said. “Now I love it, I just love it so much. You know your neighbors. You know people.”
Well enough, it can be added, to play the occasional prank.
“For years, we’ve said that for April Fool’s we’re going to fill our case with nothing but Twinkies and HoHos – and put Folgers on the coffee rack,” Herren said.