Sylva mainstay, Annie’s Naturally Bakery, to close this week

Annie’s Naturally Bakery, the beloved coffee, bakery and gathering place in Sylva that helped launch a Main Street renaissance of sorts here when it opened more than a decade ago, will close Thursday.

The closure comes as a surprise to many in this Jackson County community, who said they simply can’t imagine visiting downtown Sylva without stopping at Annie’s.

“This gave the community a place to gather where we felt welcomed,” said Susan Anspacher, who was at Annie’s Naturally Bakery on Monday staving off the day’s autumn chill with a hot bowl of southwestern bean and chicken soup. “I think it takes an inner strength and beauty to be able to do that.”

SEE ALSO: Whitman’s closing leaves downtown Waynesville ‘hungry for a bakery’

Annie Ritota, who owns the namesake bakery with husband Joe, grew teary frequently while describing the painful process the couple worked through before deciding to close the retail portion of their business. The Ritotas last year moved the wholesale side of their bakery business to Asheville.

The two businesses previously “shared” costs — the wholesale side helped subsidize overhead at their Main Street store. Ingles grocery stores across Western North Carolina and North Georgia sell Annie’s bread, as do many restaurants in the region.

“We separated the numbers, and realized that it was going to be harder for the retail to make it on its own,” Ritota said.

Yes, the faltering economy played a part in making sourdough out of yeast bread, and triggered a slowdown in summer tourist traffic.

“But if we had the energy and time, we could turn this around,” Ritota said. “This is more so that Joe and I can have a life together again. Joe is in Asheville, driving an hour there everyday, and I’m here mostly.”

Kim Roberts-Fer, who lives in Waynesville and works in Sylva, is being hit with a double whammy — Whitman’s bakey on Main Street in Waynesville is coincidentally closing down as well as Annie’s in Sylva.

“We so love a good bakery,” Roberts-Fer said.

There will be a void in the towns now, she said.

“There is something so nostalgic about a bakery,” Roberts-Fer said.

When she married her husband, the couple went to Italy for a honeymoon, “and there were bakeries there to give you that certain feel of relaxation and comfort,” Roberts-Fer said.

The Ritotas moved the wholesale side of Annie’s business to Asheville because the 75 or so accounts they were handling at the time were mostly in that region, not in the state’s westernmost counties, and too much money was being lost in buying gasoline and through wear-and-tear on the delivery vehicles. Wholesale demand for their breads also had outgrown their kitchen space in downtown Sylva.

Subsequent rapid growth on the wholesale end since that shift to Asheville has taken energy from the retail portion of Annie’s, Ritota said.

The Ritotas started Annie’s Naturally Bakery in 1998 in their garage in Franklin. They rented space on Main Street in September 2001, and the retail side of Annie’s was born.

Annie Ritota grew up in Bristol, Va., and comes from a family of cooks. Later, she learned the restaurant business in her brother’s restaurant and studied vegetarian and healthy cooking while living in Colorado. She opened a vegetarian, health food restaurant in Greenville, S.C. in 1985, where she met Joe, a fourth-generation Italian baker.

Once together, Joe Ritota wanted to move to a small town, which brought the couple to Franklin and then Sylva.

When Annie’s Naturally Bakery opened, the community flocked through the doors, and never wavered over the years in their support of the bakery, Ritota said.

“The local clientele remained,” she said, adding that she hopes someone will buy the business and continue it as a bakery.

That’s Paige Roberson, the new executive director of the Downtown Sylva Association’s hope, too.

“The ideal thing would be to have the space providing the same services to the downtown and county,” Roberson said, who then stepped out of her official DSA costume and added her own personal lament for the loss of Annie’s. “I absolutely hate that it’s going out. It was such a neat place, and had such great baked goods and coffee.”

Catt Tyndall is hoping for the sudden appearance of a fairy godmother to take over the bakery and keep Annie’s Naturally Bakery running. She’s worked for two years this week at the downtown shop.

“Where are people going to get their cannoli? And their pumpkin cookies — they are like crack. To not have that anymore, I just hate it,” Tyndall said.

Up to nine employees will lose their jobs with the shutdown, Annie Ritota said, her eyes filling with tears once again. Most are college students, or have such strong ties to the community, that commuting to Asheville isn’t feasible, she said.

Tyndall plans to start school at Western Carolina University in January, explaining the job loss prompted her to go back to WCU and finish her education.

Asked if it’s as cool to work at Annie’s as it appears, Tyndall responded: “it’s probably even cooler — everyone who works here brings their own bit of character to it.”

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