Track Down Westchester’s Underground Pay-What-You-Want Artisan Baker
Hudson Oven’s fresh-baked bread only appears one day a week — at secret, traveling locations up and down the Hudson River.
Photos by Dave Zucker
Fans of geocaching will recognize the formula: Sign up for an email list, get a set of coordinates the day-of or night-before, and hunt down the hidden prize before anyone else does. Usually the ‘prize’ is a USB drive or a toy truck or something simple squirreled away in a weatherproof plastic tub inside a log or something. Sometimes, if it’s HBO running the game, maybe the prize is a photo-op-worthy Iron Throne hidden somewhere in Queens. Rarely — if ever — has the prize been delicious, rustic Parisian sourdough.
Chase Harnett, a Rockland native who recently transplanted to Ossining, can lay claim to that innovation with “Sourdough Sundays,” a fun treasure hunt from his Hudson Oven operation. The gist is fairly simple and follows what was described above: Sign up for Hudson Oven’s mailing list and (most) every Sunday morning you get an email telling you if the bread will be available; Click the link to find out that week’s location — usually a crossroads somewhere in Westchester County — then head to that spot and hope you beat everyone else to the good stuff.
“We do mix it up quite a bit,” Harnett says. “We do always offer French country rustic sourdough — that’s always in the cabinet — but sometimes we’ll offer some scones … bags of granola, just things that we think people would like. It’s kind of like a little bakery I guess, just anything we can offer.”
The sourdough, star of the show, is hearty, chewy, dark, and delicious. We tried ours drizzled with olive oil and a sprinkling of sea salt, spread with Icelandic butter and a touch of black ash lava salt, straight-up as an office snack, and sopping up the delicious saucy goodness at the bottom of out leftovers and every version was a slam dunk.
Fascinatingly, the entire operation is mostly unattended. Harnett places the week’s bake in a rustic wooden cabinet on the side of the road — somewhere out of the way where it won’t impede the flow of traffic — and comes back at the end of the day. A dangling loaf of bread on its door and a sandwich board are the only clues that this is anything other than bulk trash on the curb.
Patrons can leave whatever they think is a fair price for their baked goods in a small lockbox behind the latched doors, or they can scan the Venmo code taped to its side next to some small business cards and “TheHudsonOven.com” stickers. Ideally, Harnett would hope to get around $8 per loaf, but says guests typically leave about $5.50 to $6. Most people do opt for either cash or Venmo, but Harnett has received everything from personal checks to IOUs and “a good amount of change that we get like people’s cup holders.”
If you’re wondering how any of this is legal, it’s because Harnett isn’t actually running this as part of his business.
“I had this commercial oven brought up with a trailer and I basically was just trying to learn how to use it to its full potential,” he says. “I was baking 40 loaves of sour dough at a time and I can’t eat all that so, you know, I just basically put it in the cabinet on the street and the words verbatim ‘Leave what you think it’s worth to support the next bake.’”
“At this point I feel like I’m starting to get pretty good at it and I think I can start putting a price on it, but it’s hard because I don’t want to stand out there with the cabinet.” Depending on how heavily trafficked the location is, everything might sell out by noon. The cabinet is weatherproofed in case of a slight drizzle or lively local fauna, and stocks convenient brown paper bags on the bottom shelf for easy carryout.
Harnett, who works full-time at the Stone Barns Center for Food and Agriculture, also rents his oven out as a mobile pizza station for weddings and other events throughout the Lower Hudson Valley. Typically, unless otherwise booked, Harnett will put the week’s sourdough out by around 10 a.m. Sunday morning (maybe 7 a.m., maybe 11; it all depends).
Worried some darned couple celebrating their love might get in the way of your weekly sourdough fix? The baker’s recommendation is pretty simple. “Take two loaves. Freeze one and then it crisps up really nice after thawing.”
“This bread actually lasts quite a long time. It will get you through to at least Thursday the next week … if you don’t eat it all by then.”