Heike Clark is a petite, five-foot tall, gray-haired German grandmother on a mission.
She and her husband bake about 1,000 loaves of whole-grain, plant-based bread each week at Clark's Bakery, just south of Dunlap.
"I've heard that this area is known as Death Valley in the medical community," she said. "Our goal is to bring more awareness because there's a lot of sickness in the valley. The way we eat and the way we live is very healthy, and the bread is just a vehicle to share that."
So the Clarks don't put any milk, eggs or dairy products in their breads, desserts and rolls. They grind 5,000 pounds of wheat into flour each month and don't use an ounce of white flour. They shape their loaves by hand and use ingredients like flax seed, coconut milk and honey.
Married for 24 years, James and Heike (pronounced High-Kah) don aprons and hairnets and are in the bakery every morning by 6 a.m. -- 4 a.m. on Sundays. And while they easily put in 70 hours a week, the Seventh Day Adventists always take Saturdays off.
They deliver to a half-dozen stores in Chattanooga, send their bread as far away as Miami and employ eight people. Last fall, the Tennessee Small Business Development Center recognized Clark's Bakery as a "rising star" in the region.
And it all started because of a book and Y2K.
Back in 2002, the Clarks were living in a small town in Florida, homeschooling three kids. When James was laid off from his job as a computer programmer, they read a book about home businesses and first story was about a woman who sold sandwiches and bread door-to-door.
"And this was shortly after Y2K, so we had supplies in the closet," Heike said. "We were already making our own bread and we thought, 'Here's a business we can do without much investment.' We had the grinder, we had the wheat, we had the ingredients, we had the know-how."
Their first batch was 12 loaves.
"We went door-to-door and the kids would carry the bread in little baggies," James said. "They'd keep track of all the finances for their math lessons."
The business grew slowly and steadily, until they were selling 100 loaves a week and realized they needed a commercial kitchen. So in 2004 they moved into the old Stone Cave Bakery, on a 300-acre plot of land that used to be a Seventh Day Adventist school near Dunlap.
"It was scary, because we already had a customer base," Heike said. "Coming up here, we had to kind of start all over. It took us a couple of years to get up to where it could semi-support us."
The Clarks couldn't afford advertising and relied on word-of-mouth to bring customers to their remote location. They were doing well, Heike said, until the recession trickled down and hit them hard in 2011.
"That was a very difficult year, until the summer," she said. "Then we picked up because somebody else went out of business."
Even now, cash flow can still be a challenge, James said. And the ever-shifting tides of public opinion on healthy eating can affect demand.
"It helps and hinders," he said. "Now the health craze is don't eat wheat. So many people are trying to blame what's going wrong with them on one thing they're doing. But a healthy lifestyle usually isn't just one thing. Everything accumulates."
Promoting that big-picture healthy lifestyle is still the main focus of the bakery. About a third of the Clark's business is retail, and customers who stop in the shop tend to chat about their diets, aches or remedies. One of Heike's favorite things to do is to give tours of the bakery to Girl Scout troops.
"They come in and they're just big-eyed," she said. "We can encourage them when they're young to start off eating right."
And just like those first few rough years of baking, the progress they're making is slow but steady.
"We've made an inroad," Heike said. "It's been slow, but we have."
Shelly Bradbury joined the Times Free Press as a business reporter in January 2013, after starting with the paper as a general assignment intern in July 2012. She is from Houghton, New York, and graduated from Huntington University in Huntington, Indiana, with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and minor in management. Before moving to Tennessee, Shelly previously interned with The Goshen News, The Sandusky Register and The Mint Hill Times. Outside the newsroom, Shelly enjoys ...