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From Need To Want: Distant Mountains Bread And Coffee
Distant Mountains Bread and Coffee owners Elizabeth and Zach Greenlee, at right, are joined here by Oakdale Mayor Cher Bairos and her mother Charlyn. Photo Contributed

It all began with God.

While it may not have been realized at the time, the basis of Zach and Elizabeth Greenlee’s business Distant Mountains Bread and Coffee began while thousands of miles away from home in Togo, Africa.

Now, closing in on two years since first sharing their passions by way of a business, the couple explained it all began from a place of need, when the family spent a year in Africa with their three children. The coffee portion of the business (Zach’s love) began in 2021, with Elizabeth launching her skill (delicious bread) in the summer of 2022.

Zach, a Physician’s Assistant, was invited to serve at a Mission Hospital that was in need of his services. Each possessing a servant’s heart, in 2018 the couple packed up their family and relocated to Togo. Zach began serving in his chosen profession, while Elizabeth home schooled their children and maintained the home front.

“There was no bread,” the mom of three shared of U.S. basic necessities, “so when my kids wanted a sandwich I said okay, I guess I better figure this out.”

With an impressive background in cake baking and a love of cooking which stemmed from childhood, Elizabeth took to the challenge of baking bread to feed her family. She noted with the challenges of the African climate, sourdough was not on the menu, yet everything else was up for a try.

What she didn’t realize at the time, however, was her simple act of providing for her family would in turn provide for others.

Approached by a teacher on the campus where they resided, Elizabeth was asked if she would teach some of the African girls her skill of bread baking.

“I didn’t set off going to Africa to teach girls how to bake,” she humbly shared. “I went there and opened hands, whatever you need God, just use me.”

And “use” her he did. Beginning with teaching the teenage girls to bake baguettes, the oldest of her students sold them in the market. The bread was not just providing food for the students’ families, but now income as well.

“The smart girl that she was, she made them smaller, so she got more for her buck,” Elizabeth said of her student’s early business smarts.

As that student went off to explore what her future held, three others continued to expand their craft and business savvy.

The couple shared they are still in contact with the three entrepreneurs who now plan to open a bakery once they complete their education.

While Elizabeth’s need for feeding her family blossomed to blessing some villagers, Zach struggled with staying well caffeinated for long hospital shifts. Coffee, also not in abundance in the Bush, the PA would request care packages from home containing one thing: coffee. The idea seemed simple and with support from the homeland, in abundance the packages arrived.

The roaster shared his gratitude for the support quickly turned to shock as he became aware of the shipping costs. As chance would have it, the mission campus was surrounded by trees – coffee trees.

Coffee beans surrounded them and with that Zach found a new hobby which would be of service to his daily life. Learning from local farmers and roasters on how to process the beans, he began roasting the old way, in a pan over coals.

The coffee was the start of Distant Mountains, as the couple discussed launching the roasting business when they returned home to help fund future Mission trips for Zach. Feeling called to serve annually, as much as 10 to 12 weeks a year, the trips take from the one-income family. Profits from the coffee business, the couple decided, would help offset that.

“We just need a way to fund it,” Zach said of his continued mission work as a PA, noting little time or comfort with traditional fundraising, providing a service which could generate income seemed a valid option.

“It hasn’t helped yet,” he confessed.

The addition of Elizabeth’s skill and passion, however, has proven to be a popular one. When the couple returned to Oakdale in 2019, the baker shared she jumped right in to perfecting and expanding her craft. Now in a more desirable climate for sourdough, she began her hand at working with it.

“People were liking my bread, so I thought maybe I can do this,” Elizabeth shared of first testing her skill on family and friends. “So, I took a leap of faith and decided okay let’s go.”

With two years of quarantine to perfect her trade, the couple’s business plan was simple, an on-line subscription business for either product and sell at Farmer’s Markets. Launching the bread in June of 2022, though, proved to be too late to get their foot in the door of the local markets.

“We set out, our goal was Oakdale Farmers Market, that’s all we wanted to do,” Zach said of the former Wednesday market.

By the time they were ready, the former market didn’t have space. That, coupled with the growing popularity of booming bread cottage businesses, the duo still maintained their faith in their vision.

In early May, almost a year after launching the business, Distant Mountains Bread and Coffee sold 40 loaves of bread at the inaugural opening of the Saturday Oakdale Morning Market in less than one hour. The following week, they sold close to 85 in less amount of time.

The success of the bread has been exciting, as well as a challenge for the baker from her Cottage Bakery as every loaf is baked fresh Saturday morning.

Fortunately, she knows a roaster, which helps her during her 2 a.m. start time.

“It’s honestly cathartic to fold the dough and to shape it and to see it develop as you go along,” Elizabeth said of her passion and early morning baking sessions.

Each week the couple features a variety of breads, ranging from sourdough, focaccia, sourdough baguette and challah on occasion.

“I love challah,” Elizabeth said of the bread she’d like to add to the market. “It’s my favorite to make French toast with so that’s my goal.”

While the coffee is not part of the Market offerings it is still a niche which the family shares a passion for by way of quality and well as consciousness.

“I try everything before I sell it,” Zach said of his bean variety. “I’ve probably tried over a hundred different coffee beans over the years.”

Flavor, quality, as well as the resource are equally important to the roaster. During their stay in Africa the Greenlee’s learned a lot about the coffee market, farmers, as well as treatment and conditions of the workers. Facts which affect Zach’s decision when choosing whom to purchase his beans from.

“This is his life,” Zach said of a resource-turned-friend who helps him with connections. “Making sure farmers are getting what they deserve. So, he has been an amazing contact for me.

“He points me to coffee. He knows when it’s labeled correctly or incorrectly,” he continued. “He knows if the person it came from is legit, if it’s not, how they’re being paid.”

Recognizing just as craft beer has become a specialty niche, Zach has found the same with sharing his coffee passion with others who appreciate a fine roast.

“It’s a specialty,” he said of the business. “If somebody is used to a big-name brand and having the same thing every time, they think that’s what coffee tastes like. Then they taste something that’s freshly roasted and freshly ground and perfected. It’s like you’ve never had coffee before. It’s amazing.”

Coffee orders, as well as bread can be ordered on the couple’s website: distant Bread orders placed by 9 a.m. each Tuesday are available for pick up from their Oakdale home on Wednesday.

For those who like to rise early on a Saturday, they can also be found at the Oakdale Morning Market each Saturday from 8 a.m. to 11 a.m.

“I love it,” Zach said of the market. “It’s just so wonderful to be out with the community.”

“It’s meeting people that you would never meet,” Elizabeth added. “Getting to see the whole community come together and get good food and listen to music.”

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The three African young women whom Elizabeth Greenlee taught and mentored for their own bread business in Togo, Africa. Photo Contributed
Freshly baked bread is one of the staples for Distant Mountains Bread and Coffee, with a variety of loaves offered each Saturday at the Oakdale Morning Market. Photo Contributed