By Ruffin Prevost
Eleanor Fluckiger’s favorite items at The Bread Doctor are the peanut butter cookies, English muffins, strawberry shortcakes and pizzas, a savory treat only offered every couple of months as a lunch special.
She’s not alone in her passion for pastries. Five-star reviews abound on Yelp, TripAdvisor and Google for the family-run bakery in Torrington, a town of just over 6,000 people situated on the North Platte River in southeastern Wyoming, 10 minutes from the Nebraska border.
But Eleanor, 25, has an advantage over the bakery’s many enthusiastic customers. She works at The Bread Doctor — owned and operated by her parents Ezdan and Lisa Fluckiger —where she helps prepare the food and rings up customers at the cash register.
Eleanor, one of the Fluckigers’ four adult children, is a key ingredient in the formula that makes the bakery a success, combining large measures of faith and family that have brought people together both in the local community and from far-flung and unexpected locations.
That includes Marda Stoliar, 81, a baking instructor from Bend, Ore., who trained Ezdan and helped launch and build his business. Stoliar’s relationship with the Fluckigers is the subject of “Marda’s Gift,” a short film that has won awards on the festival circuit, and was recently featured on Wyoming PBS.
“I really sort of feel like I’m part of the family,” Stoliar said by phone earlier this week, while joining the Fluckigers at their bakery in the days leading up to Easter Sunday. Stoliar usually stays with them for a week or two before Easter and nearly a month around Christmas.
Ezdan, 56, a physician who has practiced family medicine and worked in the local emergency room, found Stoliar through a Google search 10 years ago. He was facing professional burnout and looking to build a secure future for Eleanor, then 15, who graduated from high school in 2016 and has Down syndrome.
He traveled to Oregon for four weeks of one-on-one instruction in 2013 with Stoliar, who only works with a single apprentice at a time. She taught Ezdan how to bake European style pastries and shared her “formulas,” or what others might call recipes.
Stoliar said part of Ezdan’s success as a baker is that he approaches baking from a scientific perspective, and he “really understands the chemical structure of things.”
“He really understands details, and he doesn’t forget any part of any formula,” she said.
Ezdan said that before medical school, “Lisa and I were both chemistry majors, and we met in chemistry class. Lisa got better grades on the tests, so I wanted to study with her. It worked out well.”
The Fluckigers’ personal chemistry with Stoliar also worked out well, as did her baking formulas.
Ezdan continued working as a physician (as he still does part time today). The Fluckigers spent a year operating a home baking business while also renovating a 90-year-old downtown building that would become The Bread Doctor, which is typically open Thursday-Sunday, and also offers sandwiches, soups, chicken pot pies and other lunch specials.
After the retail bakery launched in 2015, Stoliar would occasionally travel to Torrington to consult with the Fluckigers, helping fine-tune processes or develop new products. Over the years, a mutual friendship has grown, with Stoliar offering ongoing baking expertise and exchanging “lots of hugs” with Eleanor on each visit.
“They are my family,” Stoliar said of the relationship now. “I really don’t have a family outside of them.”
But after a long career teaching over 400 baking students since 1985, Stoliar has no shortage of friends and admirers. That includes Sheila Rittenberg, executive producer of “Marda’s Gift,” who has known Stoliar for nearly two decades.
“It struck me that this one woman from this one small town has really a terrific influence through this network of students around the world,” she said.
Rittenberg, 72, said Stoliar has taught baking to doctors and lawyers looking to change careers, as well as many others from all walks of life. She praised Stoliar for being able to “light a fire and tap into the passion” of her students, as well as teach them the practical skills and knowledge they need to succeed.
Rittenberg retired in 2019 after a career fundraising for nonprofits, including Oregon Public Broadcasting. That’s when she decided to make a film about Stoliar. Working with director Kate McMahon and producer Daria Matza, the team focused on Stoliar’s relationship with the Fluckigers because “they are very genuine and engaging people,” Rittenberg said.
After some initial shooting in Torrington, the COVID-19 pandemic interrupted production, delaying it for a year. In an effort to regain momentum, Rittenberg launched a Kickstarter campaign that raised over $12,000 and allowed the team to complete the 16-minute film.
It has since been awarded Best Female Director and Best Inspirational Documentary at the Morgana Film Festival, as well as Best Oregon Film at the Oregon Short Film Festival.
Stoliar and the Fluckigers traveled to nearby Scott’s Bluff, Neb. earlier this week for a theater screening of “Marda’s Gift,” and plans are in the works to show it at the local theater in Torrington, Rittenberg said.
A leap of faith
The film’s success is “something we’re all feeling pretty great about,” Rittenberg said, especially because it shines a light on Stoliar’s legacy.
“Her impact is realized through teaching the art of baking. And you wouldn’t think that baking is change-making. But so many of these students come to Marda because they want to change lanes in life,” she said, “including people like Ezdan.”
“They are taking a leap of faith that they can realize their dream, and she helps them get there,” Rittenberg said.
A “leap of faith” is exactly how Ezdan described his efforts to open a retail bakery after testing the waters with his home-based business.
And as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, faith has helped the Fluckigers tackle the myriad obstacles that every small business faces.
“Faith played a role with giving us the ideas and the motivation to get the project started, and also faith played quite a big role in troubleshooting and problem solving as we went,” Ezdan said. “The tenants of our faith, and our faith in Jesus Christ specifically, has served as a basis for how we have tried to solve problems and approach challenges at the bakery.”
Despite those initial challenges, as well as the ongoing struggles of running a family business in a small town, The Bread Doctor has been a financial success. It’s also provided a place where Eleanor can be productive and interact with the many customers who have embraced the business and the people behind it.
That includes other neurodivergent employees who have autism and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder or who are otherwise “on the spectrum of some sort,” Ezdan said.
“We don’t shy away from folks with disabilities,” he said. “We don’t recruit them specifically, but we give them opportunity if it comes along.”
Ezdan credits Stoliar’s training and formulas as a big part of The Bread Doctor’s success, but said that finding the right niche is key to building any business.
Learning about and catering to what the community wants has been more important than baking what he likes to eat or is best at making, Ezdan said.
“My one bit of advice is if you’re going to start a small business, make sure what you’re doing is needed or desired,” he said, “not just by yourself because it’s your hobby, but by the people around you.
Original story by Ruffin Prevost, reprinted with permission from Wyoming Truth.