WATERVILLE — When Stephanie LaCroix toured the old Fire Department substation on Western Avenue five years ago as the possible home for the bakery she wanted to open, it felt a little bit like fate.

LaCroix, 49, moved to Waterville when she met her husband, Roland LaCroix, seven years ago. She was somewhat at a crossroads in her career at the time. After working as a special education teacher at a high school in the Bangor area for a while, she burned out as an educator. In Waterville, she didn’t see too many opportunities for her, either. She said her husband nudged her to pursue opening up some kind of bakery, or maybe a food truck, so they started to look around.

The old Engine 5 substation was the second venue the couple viewed. It was a lot of space at a great price, LaCroix said. But what made this particular space feel “meant to be” was Roland’s family connection to the building. His father, also Roland, served as captain at Engine 5, and his grandfather, Lucien, the chief. He had memories of spending time in the firehouse as a child in the 1970s, visiting his father and grandfather. LaCroix said in the early ’70s, the department decided it wanted to have substations scattered throughout the city. Engine 5 opened and was the last substation to close in 1980 because of budget cuts.

Stephanie thought it was a natural fit and has made the building’s history as a firehouse a central part of her business.

Now that old substation has been transformed into a full-fledged bakery — appropriately dubbed Engine 5 Bakehouse — with a fresh coat of white paint accented by a border of fire engine red. In the front of the shop, glass cases contain a variety of pies, cupcakes, cookies, scones and whatever other sweet treats LaCroix feels like making on any given day. But those aren’t the only things on display in the bakery.

LaCroix’s father-in-law’s retirement axe hangs on the wall above his retirement helmet. Those relics are joined by old photographs, fire alarms and even a chariotlike hose cart that firefighters had to pull to a fire, among other memorabilia from the decade from 1970 to 1980, when Engine 5 was operational. She plans to turn that portion of the shop into an exhibit in order to honor her family’s history and provide a way for residents to learn about the city’s firefighting past.

“I thought it would be a great place to educate people about the history,” she said Thursday at the bakery. “I’ve had several retired firemen come visit and have had several donations already.”

LaCroix’s own connection to baking isn’t as steeped in family history as her husband’s connection to the firehouse.

“I can’t really tell you a cutesy store about baking with grandma or my mom,” she said. “It was just kind of a hobby I picked up as an adult.”

She started baking for her coworkers and friends, and their positive reviews encouraged her to continue.

It became a serious career option when she purchased the old firehouse. That’s when she quit her jobs and started working at a few bakeries in the area to get a feel for the commercial end of the business.

She admits the process leading, eventually, to opening was a slow one. Over the last five years, she’s worked and saved up money to finance the business. Other than the small loan she recently received from Coastal Enterprises, Inc., LaCroix has self-financed the bakery. So she’s taken her time to make sure she was ready when she did open the doors.

“I think most people gave up on me after awhile,” she said as she filled pies with strawberries. “They were like, ‘Are you still doing that bakery thing?'”

The bakery had a soft opening in late June, which LaCroix said never really has felt like a soft opening.

“We’re gradually increasing (our production) every day because the demand is very high. I mean, immediately it was more than I expected,” she said. “We are adapting our recipes to make triple and quadruple batches at a time. But we’re pretty much selling out every day — of everything.”

It’s been hard to keep her cases full with the small staff of four part-time perople she employs. She can’t afford to hire too many more people yet, but she said it will be necessary in order to keep up with demand.

“I think if I had more in stock, I would sell more,” she said. “I guess it’s a good problem to have.”

LaCroix rolled out pie crusts as she talked about her business. She laid them atop her assembled pies, delicately crimped the edges and carved letters into the top as way to provide a vent for the cooking fruit and as a way to distinguish the different types of pies.

“I messed that up,” she said after carving the wrong letters. “I was doing peach raspberry yesterday, but today it’s peach and strawberry.”

LaCroix said she’s been arriving at the shop around 4 a.m. every day to start baking. In the morning she starts selling breakfast items, including scones, muffins, biscuits and coffeecake for when she opens the doors at 8 a.m.

“I was going to do a whole selection of muffins, but I have yet to go beyond blueberry,” she said. “We just started doing cinnamon rolls. We’ll probably do those only once or twice a week.

“Coffeecake has been surprising,” she said, picking up the pies to put in the oven. “I can’t keep that in stock.”

In the future she plans to offer savory items such as chicken pot pies in addition to sweets. She also wants to dedicate an entire case to gluten-free and dairy-free options. Plus, she wants to start a line of bread.

Lately she’s been getting a lot of requests for doughnuts, which she finds both strange and amusing, adding, “I could name a million bakeries that don’t have doughnuts.” She might try baked doughnuts down the line, but she’s not going to cave in now to the demand for the fried pastries.

On Thursday, she got to try a new recipe for the first time since opening her doors.

“I’m calling them rhubarb bars,” she said. She said they’ll be around for a limited time, as she has a limited amount of rhubarb, but expect them to be a hit.

Creating new concoctions — and seeing someone’s reaction when they take a bite — is really what LaCroix enjoys most about her new gig.

“I like making different things and seeing people’s reaction to it,” she said. “I live to introduce new ingredients to people.”

The community can expect a big grand opening when LaCroix thinks she is ready.

Some things — baked goods included — just shouldn’t be rushed.

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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