Teresa Finney never planned on becoming a professional baker, but at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020, she found herself out of a job as a retail merchandiser for a grocery chain. Finney began developing recipes, something she’s done as a freelancer for various national food publications. Growing up in a large Mexican-American family in the San Fransisco Bay Area instilled in her a sense of baking as an act of love. With a need to stay connected to family and her passion for baking, Finney launched Atlanta micro-bakery At Heart Panaderia earlier this year.
“I had a heart-to-heart with myself and was like, ‘okay, I don’t have a job right now, the world is going to shit, what am I going to do with myself?’” Finney says of founding the micro-bakery. “I knew that I love to bake.”
Feeling homesick for her grandfather, who she says has a big sweet tooth, Finney decided to bake conchas — brioche-like rolls covered in a cookie crust that resemble sea shells. Once she began baking these Mexican sweet breads, Finney says she fell in love again with the bread-making process and with pan dulce.
“It helped me to feel more connected to my family that I hadn’t seen in a long time,” says Finney.
In August, Finney announced her first pop-up on Instagram to be held a month later in the parking lot by the swimming pool at Candler Park. On the afternoon of September 18, the first people arrived to pick up their concha preorders from the trunk of her car.
Eschewing traditional concha flavors, like chocolate and vanilla, and using ingredients sourced from local food producers, including Banner Butter, Xocolatl Small Batch Chocolate, and flour from Dayspring Farms, Finney’s first batch of conchas were flavored with pistachio and raspberry.
“It’s hard to get the pistachio flavor into bread, so I decided to put it in the cookie crust instead, and I felt like that was kind of like an ‘ah-ha’ moment, because you can get really creative with the flavors,” she says.
But managing a micro-bakery and the ensuing pop-ups isn’t without challenges. There are early mornings (Finney wakes at 3 a.m. to begin baking) and hours of standing on your feet. Beyond just baking, there’s also coordinating and setting up locations for the pop-ups.
Making conchas is a time-consuming process that takes about two days, from start to finish, Finney says. While working with small batches is more manageable for a solo baker, it’s still a lot of work. Finney joined Leaven, a collaborative commercial kitchen founded by Hodgepodge Coffeehouse owner Krystle Rodriguez. Being part of Leaven allowed Finney to launch her business with little to no capital and cut through the red tap of licensing and insuring At Heart Panaderia as a cottage bakery run from her home. It also provides her with a sense of community within Atlanta’s food industry, something Finney says she’s longed for since moving here.
Micro-bakeries have became popular during the pandemic, with people baking from home under individual state cottage laws or in shared kitchen spaces. Like Finney, many bakers look to the convenience of platforms like Instagram to reach customers to announce pop-ups and local delivery dates.
While a brick-and-mortar shop is typically the next step for pop-up bakers in growing their businesses, Finney says the expense and amount of work involved in owning and running a bakeshop has turned her off from the idea of opening a physical store in Atlanta.
Finney feels like she’s now found her groove with At Heart Panaderia. She plans to continue baking her popular conchas, expanding into more creative flavors, and hopes to add cakes to the menu soon, too, using ingredients typically found in pan dulce, like piloncillo (a sweetener). Finney is also playing with other bread recipes, including sourdough.
“For the next few weeks, I’m going to be testing sourdough so that I can stop using commercial yeast,” she says. “Sourdough just gives the bread a different flavor and it tastes so much better to me.”
Baking conchas over the last year has given Finney an income and helped her feel connected to the family she misses so much back home in California. Finney admits when she first made her conchas, she wasn’t sure if the sweet breads came out right. Her grandmother offered her reassurance from afar.
“Every time I make them, it’s just a way to honor my family, because it’s been a really long time since I was home,” says Finney. “I always text my grandma a picture, though, and she’s so cute, she’s so supportive.”
Finney continues to hone her concha-baking skills and is focusing on seeking new locations to host her At Heart Panaderia pop-ups in Atlanta.
“It’s so cliche, but I love baking.”
Lia Picard is an Atlanta-based freelance writer covering a broad range of food and culture topics with a particular fondness for highlighting people who grow, cook, and serve food. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Food & Wine, Atlanta magazine, Eater Atlanta, and Thrillist. When she’s not writing, Lia is introducing her toddler to Atlanta’s best treats.
- All Atlanta pop-up coverage [EATL]