Highly anticipated Union Special Bread recently opened its doors, accompanied with a lengthy line of customers wrapped around the building at 8 a.m., patiently waiting to make it up to the glass pastry display, in hopes there were still goods left. “We definitely expected a pretty long line,” owner Andrew Ullom says, in response to the hour queue.
Up until April 2018, Ullom served as the executive pastry chef of Ashley Christensen’s restaurants, including Death & Taxes, Poole’s Diner, special events, and more. Union Special pop-ups satisfied the mouths of hungry locals, one blue corn cookie or Videri chocolate croissant at a time, as the community patiently waited for a brick and mortar to open.
The bakery is in Raleigh’s newly renovated Gateway Plaza shopping center, a few miles north of downtown Raleigh off Crabtree Boulevard — still inside the beltline, for those who care. “Raleigh is so lucky to have Andrew as part of our community,” says Christensen. “After years of working alongside Andrew and watching him grow as a baker and a leader, I have no doubt that Union Special Bread will be an amazing addition to our restaurant scene here.”
Still in soft opening phase, the bakery will open doors on weekends for now — Saturday and Sunday, from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m., or until sold out, which will likely happen. Ullom sold over 2,000 glutinous items during its first weekend. He’s currently plowing through 500 to 600 pounds of flour a week to keep up with demand, with an emphasis on using only North Carolina-produced milled and stone-ground flours.
Lead baker Maria Luna previously worked with Ullom at Aux Kitchen, a commissary kitchen where much magic happens for all of Christensen’s properties — pastries and breads included. “When she’s here, I don’t go in the kitchen,” he says. “I knew she had a really rad set of hands and wanted to give her the opportunity to come into my kitchen.” The kitchen’s walls are glass, giving customers behind the scenes access while waiting in line. “I’ve been anticipating Union Special Bread’s opening for so long,” says Raleigh resident Molly Beavers. “I used to live for Andrew’s almond croissant at Joule — and the pecan croissant [at Union Special] took me back to that.”
Once line dwellers make it up to the counter, a pastry tray, more like a fancy baker’s rack display case, is filled with sweet and savory treats — from the aforementioned staples to fig Danishes, snickerdoodles, savory croissants stuffed with seasonal produce, tahini and sour cherry cookies, kouign amann pastries, baguettes and basically whatever is dreamed up that week. Ullom’s croissant dough is the core of the bakery’s existence. “It’s the formula,” he says. Luna is also in the works of developing vegan cookies, including a vegan banana sugar cookie that’s out of this world.
Weekend brunch will kick off with a series of guest chefs from around the South, including Kristen Hall of The Essential (August 24 and August 25); Angela Salamanca, Marshall Davis and Dallas Howard of Ex-Voto (August 31 and September 1); and Bill Smith, formerly chef of Crook’s Corner (September 7 and September 8). A $5 ticket allows a space at brunch (menu at retail price), with proceeds of ticket sales going to a local charity of the visiting chef’s choice.
Speaking of brunch, Ullom tapped Will Davis, from recently shuttered 18 Seaboard, to develop Union Special’s ongoing brunch menu. “He’s brought a lot of fun energy to the project,” he says. “What we want to do is to do simple really well,” Ullom notes, of a few dishes in the works — like an eggs Benedict with blue cornbread and deviled ham. “We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel here, we’re going to have a turkey sandwich.” His end goal is bringing awesome pastries, breads and brunch staples that people really enjoy.
“For me and especially working with Ashley, I learned that nostalgia is a super important ingredient and we’re going to use it,” as Ullom describes a crazy good breakfast sandwich (the ADED or all day every day) with a crispy, slightly greasy hash brown slapped on the bottom bun — a nod to breakfast memories at McDonald’s. Or the classic cheese ball, a holiday staple in the South. “I’m thrilled for him and his family, and especially thrilled for all of us that get to continue enjoying his delicious food,” says Christensen.