A day at Denver's cult-favorite Bakery Four in Highland

It was one of the coldest mornings in what had been a mild November. Two cars sat idling on 32nd Avenue in North Denver’s Highland neighborhood.

There was still an hour yet before Bakery Four opened its doors at 8. The cars’ occupants were staying warm.

“I think the earliest we’ve ever had someone outside is 6:30,” said baker-owner Shawn Bergin, peering out the steam-frosted storefront window.

Since Bergin opened his tiny bakery in May, the queue of customers begins in earnest around 7:30 on most Friday, Saturday and Sunday mornings. The span from starting work to opening the door to that first diligent customer is about 38 hours. The 300 hundred or so pastries (chocolate, plain and jambon croissants); the morning buns and their cardamom cousins; and the 24 dark-crusted country loaves are typically gone by 8:45.

Over a couple of weekends, Bergin plied his craft with generous transparency for this story, which in no way sullied the lovely mystery of why his baked goods taste so good.

RELATED: How to build a cult following for your small Denver bakery

Bread’s profile had been elevated mightily during the pandemic’s initial lockdowns. Social media suggested that a nationwide obsession with sourdough starter had created its own pain-demic.

For a November roundtable, the local arts-culture organization Tilt West bit into this phenomenon: “The Semiotics of Stay-at-Home” was facilitated by Rebecca Vaughn, the former artistic director of Platte Forum who’s currently making art and baking bread in northern Missouri.

But the home-baking craze has put nary a dent in Bergin’s business, which has thrived in what for too many small businesses has been a brutal downturn. (He’s even shared starter dough with people.)

Somewhere in between making pizzas in the New York college town of Binghamton and carting a wagon of pastries from his house in Highland to the SloHi Coffee near Tennyson and 29th for a pop-up, Bergin has learned a good deal about business. With the help and encouragement of his wife, Alex Urdanick, it seems to be serving him well.

Bergin, 32, hails from Vestal, N.Y., not far from Binghampton.

“I grew up really, really poor,” he said. “I grew up in a trailer park and I think that when you grow up with nothing you have no gauge of what it means to actually lose anything because you don’t have a lot to begin with. So risk for me is, like, ‘I’m just going to take a shot. If it doesn’t work out, then there’s always something else.’ ”

To gear up for the three-day weekend sales frenzy, Bergin stops by the shop each Wednesday at 6 p.m. to feed and refresh the starter. Twelve hours later, he returns and feeds a branch of the starter for leavening, then heads to the nearby 24-hour Fitness while it ferments.

Around 8:30 a.m. on Thursdays, he starts the croissant dough: mixing and wrapping, refrigerating. That done, he mixes the country dough. By 2 p.m. he’s laminated, shaped and cold-retarded the croissants and heads home.

On Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights, he hits the sack by 7 p.m. in order to get to the bakery in the wee hours, to get ready for the 8 a.m. opening. His routine, as witnessed on a recent Sunday:

2:45 a.m. Bergin arrives at the bakery.

3 a.m. He’s already ground the cinnamon for the morning buns and is combining the sugar, flour and orange zest for the filling. He’s typically a savory guy, but the morning buns, with their light dusting of granulated sugar, are his favorite item to make — “and eat,” he says.

3:25 a.m. The croissants are in the proofer. Bergin rolls up his sleeves to roll out dough for the morning buns into long strips. He spoons the filling the length of the dough, cuts and places the rounds in a muffin pan, then thwaps the excess dough to give it that chef’s toque effect.

Next up are cardamom buns. After that, the ham-and-cheese croissants. “These sell out fast,” he says, cutting the dough and putting thick slices of ham and then gruyere on each triangle. The cheese comes from either St. Killian’s Cheese around the corner on Lowell or the Truffle Cheese Shop, depending on timing. The ham is from chef Justin Brunson’s River Bear Meats (riverbearmeats.com).

“People come into the shop and say, ‘What a great business model,’ ” Bergin says, then adds, “I have no idea what I’m doing.”

It’s something he says a few times, and the more time you are around him, the more it sounds like straight-up modesty and not faux humility.

4:21 a.m. He pours himself a coveted cup of coffee, then begins sifting a small amount of flour over the bottoms of the country loaves. He slashes the tops and slides them into the oven. When the loaf is at its best, that slit peels away, curls and makes what’s called an “ear.” Bergin recalls a loaf so perfectly blistered, its ear so satisfyingly pronounced: “It was beautiful. I wanted to cut into it.”

He didn’t. After all these months, he’s only taken one ham-and-cheese croissant. It’s not about eating into his profits. Those lines, his customers, they matter.

5 a.m. During a pause, Bergin checks his Instagram and looks up. “I’m starting to get messages from people in quarantine about delivery,” he says.

5:47 a.m. The morning buns emerge from the pastry oven. The place is perfumed with butter, sugar, flour. Bergin’s belief in quality seems hardwired into his choices in ingredients: the CairnSprings Mills flour, the Valrhona chocolate, the baking sheets and muffin pans.

“I use Chicago Metallic pans. They’re more expensive but last forever,” he says. “Spend more money (now) or pay more in the end,” he adds, paraphrasing his dad. When Bergin quotes his father  (a tile contractor with his own company in Lynchburg, Va.), he sounds sweetly like those Progressive insurance commercials about a young person turning into his or her parents.

5:53 a.m. Bergin quaffs a Diet Pepsi and begins cracking eggs for the egg wash he’ll brush on the croissants. He rubs his shoulder. It’s hard work — even with a commercial mixer, even with the dough sheeter, a prized purchase. But Bergin also tore his rotator cuff when he was a baseball pitcher in his 20s. This early morning, he’s got the Bravo reality series “Southern Charm” playing on his laptop as he preps the ham and cheese, which may seem a little too apt.

“It’s our favorite show; we love Bravo,” Bergin says. Shawn and his wife, Alex, met at Vestal Middle School; they began dating in high school.

6:42 a.m. Alex arrives, dons gloves to dust the morning buns with sugar and then preps the counter. With a fleet crease-crease-crease, fold-fold-fold rhythm, Shawn has already built a few stacks of cardboard boxes stamped with BAKERY FOUR. He checks the loaves in the oven. Is the slash curling? Is the crust blistering? The sheet-pan rack is filling up with croissants, morning buns, cardamom buns. Bergin notices the car parked outside, where it’s 25 degrees, waiting for the shop to open.

7:55 a.m. A knock at the door heralds the manager of Cork and Coffee across the avenue. In the small-biz version of neighborliness, Bergin encourages her to cut the line.

8 a.m. It’s time to begin moving people in and out of the shop. Granted, socially distant protocol adds to the length of the line, but the queue still makes for a sight with its covered strollers and antsy dogs, with strangers gabbing, friends meeting up or singletons staring at their phones.

A young couple at the tail end (thus far) of the line — which turned south at the corner and stretched midway down Meade Street — were shy about being quoted.  “We’re not fanatics like they are,” the guy says, nodding toward the people in line ahead.

Of course not. Yet, here they stood, far back in line on a frosty morn hoping to buy a little of everything.

Oh, no, never fanatics.

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