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Roadside bakery maintains honor system amid inflation and theft

The owners work long days to keep the outdoor shelves stocked with classic Maine treats.

NEWRY, Maine — A drive through Newry, Maine is food for the soul.

Untamed fields flow to jagged mountain cliffs in the sparsely populated Oxford County town.

Along one of its winding country roads, travelers find a gateway to a simpler time.

Each morning, Devon and Ryan Wheeler – parents to a toddler with another child on the way –  wake up before sunrise and bake. From scratch, they create maple cream cookies, fruit pies, jams, and the most "Maine" treat of all: whoopie pies.

The Wheeler's run Puzzle Mountain Bakery, passed down by Ryan's mother and open five days a week. Monday and Tuesday are prep days for the couple.

The pair work long, sometimes 18-hour days, in the bakery next to their home, then carry their goods 50 feet to a lean-to next to the road. 

Despite its location, tourists from Canada, Vermont, and New Hampshire frequent the Wheeler family's road. Whether through word of mouth or a glimpse of one of the business's signs, the parking spaces are rarely left empty and the shelves are rarely full for long.

It's an economy in a driveway.

"Our son doesn’t have any questions about what I do," Ryan Wheeler explained. "It’s not like, 'Oh, daddy goes off to work. I don’t know what he does.' He can come out here. He sees us making it. He sees the people up there buying it, paying for it. It’s like a closed loop and you can see the whole concept."

It’s honest work for the couple, and honesty is a theme of the business. No one mans the stand. Customers pull over, take what they want, and pay the till -- an old cast iron air tank filled with concrete, with a slit in the top. The couple printed their Venmo QR code and posted it inside the stand. It's the only evidence the stand exists in the 21st century. That's just how the Wheeler's like it.

The two feel romantic about their business model: everything baked from scratch and customers left to shop unbothered.

It proved to be a fortunate system recently. Being self-service oriented, the business was virtually COVID-proof.

"We didn’t have to change a thing," Ryan Wheeler said. "It was already socially distanced. They check themselves out."

But the bakery was not immune to other challenges. Whether due to inflation or supply chain issues, they've watched their ingredients and supplies skyrocket in cost.

"The prices of everything that we’ve bought have tripled, doubled," Devon Wheeler said.

On top of that, while the business has always faced theft, the couple said the past two years, in particular, have brought more than they've ever seen.

"If anyone was actually hungry and needed a pie, they could just come down and we’d definitely give them a pie," Ryan Wheeler exhaled. "I mean, it’s not about that."

He said kids have cleaned out the entire stand before, though. That's rare.

It's the cost of an unmanned stand; a cost the Wheeler's are willing to pay.

"We feel like, even putting cameras up there means that I don’t trust you," Ryan Wheeler said. "It’s the honor system. We trust you."

And, for every theft, someone seems to lift them up.

"We appreciate our customers that we hear that say, 'We always leave an extra dollar; we always leave an extra two dollars,'" Devon Wheeler smiled. "We’re so thankful for that."

Earlier that morning, Judy Grant stopped by the stand. She had just driven six hours from Ottawa and stretched her stiff legs as she walked to grab whoopie pies. She handed her money to Devon, who happened to be outside at the time, and told him she didn't want change.

"You brought me into this really nice place and it fed me," Grant smiled. It was her first ever experience in the state.

"Welcome to Maine!" Devon Wheeler exclaimed, before sending Grant on her way.

It was a welcome to Maine, to what used to be, and to what is still along some winding country roads.

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