When Gary Molina was a child, he had no idea that the traditional baked goods he was eating every day would make him a living decades later.
Molina Family Bakery was founded in 2011. For the first few years, Gary Molina worked out of his home and sold his Italian breads and sweets at the Athens Farmers Market on East State Street. In 2015, Molina got the opportunity to use the commercial kitchen at Integration Acres in Albany. For the last four years, Molina has been operating out of that kitchen. Today, his baked goods are still sold at the Athens Farmers Market on Saturday mornings, as well as Athens favorite Donkey Coffee. His products include various breads and sweets such as cookies and cinnamon rolls.
Baking runs in Molina’s blood. Growing up, Molina was the youngest of five siblings in an Italian-American family. His mother’s side was from near Bari, a coastal city in the southeastern region of Italy, while his father’s side hailed from Piedmont, a region in the northeastern area of Italy at the foot of the Alps. His father was a baker in the U.S. Army during WWII. He baked bread using large-scale equipment for his fellow comrades as they traveled through England, France, Belgium and Germany during the 1940s.
Molina started his bakery using authentic Italian recipes that his grandmother, who was born in Italy, mother and aunts passed down to his siblings and cousins. He was inspired by the idea of honoring his family members who paved the way for him.
“The idea of baking and preparing foods using family recipes gave me a way to not only earn a living, but also to maintain the connection to family,” Molina says.
Molina is taking another step to honor his Italian heritage by applying for dual citizenship in Italy. His pride is passed down to his children, who also plan on becoming dual citizens of Italy and the U.S. Molina has always been proud of his heritage, but it has only strengthened since starting the bakery using his family recipes nine years ago. His bakery gives him a chance to share his culture with Athens residents.
“I’m always looking at Italian recipes and I always like to have something [Italian] on the table because of that heritage and our future,” Molina says. “It’s what makes what I’m doing fulfilling beyond just making a living.”
Out of all of Molina’s breads, his favorite to bake is the Pane Siciliano. The authentic southern Italian bread is made with olive oil, sesame seeds and durum semolina flour. Durum semolina flour is a yellow flour with a coarse texture and nutty, sweet flavor that is also used to make pasta. After roughly seven hours, the bread is out of the oven and ready to serve at the farmers market.
“It is not an easy bread to make because the dough is temperamental,” Molina says. “It took a little while to master, but every time it comes out well, I’m happy.”
Another popular bread that Molina bakes is the Athens Sourdough. The bread is not one of Molina’s family recipes, but it is a hit at the market. As with all sourdoughs, the yeast is naturally fermented, and Molina uses a sourdough starter that is 14 years old. It is fed daily with flour and water in order to maintain. Molina even takes the starter on trips with him to make sure it is fed. The starter has been to Minnesota, Florida and Washington D.C., among other places.
Molina takes a portion of the high-maintenance starter to create each dough. The process for that piece to ferment takes anywhere from 12 to 17 hours. Once it starts fermenting, the bread doubles in size. The entire process takes about 24 hours. “[It’s named] Athens Sourdough because it uses all natural yeast that’s cultured from the air [in Athens],” Molina says.
Molina likes to use local ingredients whenever he can. All the eggs he uses come from his own chickens. In his popular chocolate raspberry almond bars, Molina uses locally made raspberry jam from Fisher Farm, who is also a vendor at the farmers market.
In the days leading up to the Saturday morning market, Molina starts his days around 3 p.m. and bakes until roughly 5 a.m. He starts by making the sweets on Thursday. Molina bakes his yeast products such as breads and cinnamon rolls on Friday. Then, he gives them ample time to cool and set before packing them up and taking them to the market.
About 90% of Molina’s business happens at the market. He has a substantial number of regular customers whom he sees on a weekly basis. Christina Bhat and her daughter, Reiya, are frequent customers of Molina ever since they discovered it in August. The pair likes to indulge in the bakery’s tea buns because it reminds them of the time they spent living in India and Australia.
“I think that everything is really fresh [at Molina],” Christina says, “and I like to deal with people who are baking and producing locally.”
Perhaps one of the most loyal customers is Eloise Clark, an elderly Athens resident and long-time market attendee. She has been visiting Molina ever since it opened almost a decade ago. “Everything that I have ever eaten from [Molina] has been the very best,” Clark says. “He’s really a great guy to be able to bake like that.”
Molina, who greets everyone with a smile, treasures his mornings at the market. Not only does his business allow him to share his Italian heritage and passion for baking with local residents, but it also allows him to give back to the community with personal, face-to-face interactions.
“I may not know get to know everyone by name, but I know them by what they order every week,” Molina says with a laugh.