Throughout the year, when the weather is nice, my dad likes to visit downtown Hendersonville on Saturday mornings. He grabs a cup of coffee and an apple turnover from McFarlan’s Bakery on Main Street and sits at one of the tables on the sidewalk to read the paper and enjoy the quiet before the throngs of people arrive.
He travels a lot for work, spending months at a time overseas, and this is one of the things that make him feel at home. Sometimes my mom, my sister, or I will join him. (I’m always up for a good cheese Danish.) But the McFarlan’s experience that we all look forward to, year after year, is the gingerbread men.
Getting that white paper box filled with four smiling cookies has become something of a Christmas tradition in my family. Sometimes we go to McFarlan’s together and eat them outside the bakery, like my dad likes to do. Other times, we find them peeking out of our stockings on Christmas morning. And occasionally, we eat them unceremoniously as soon as my mom gets them through the door of my parents’ house. But always, we eat them together — and always, they are delicious.
McFarlan’s has been a mainstay on Main Street since 1930. Co-owner Michael Cole’s father bought the business from Earl McFarlan in 1952 — the same year that Michael was born. Michael grew up working in the bakery, washing dishes and scrubbing floors at first, then scraping dough or buttercream out of bowls, and eventually learning to make cookies and pies from real bakers — “the old-timers that really knew how to bake,” he says.
After Michael’s father sold the business to one of his employees, Arthur Rubin, in 1974, the bakery changed hands once more before Michael and his wife, Kathy, purchased it 26 years ago. And while the owners have changed, most of the recipes — or formulas, as Michael calls them — and the methods of making them have stayed the same. “What we do here, you just don’t find hardly anywhere anymore,” he says. “At a scratch bakery, you have to know what you’re doing. You have to put the baking powder, the baking soda, the sugar, the eggs, the flour, all of those ingredients together and get it perfect every time to make one product — and we have 164 different products, all made from scratch.”
One of those products is, of course, the gingerbread men. The secret formula goes all the way back to the 1930s, and only Michael and one other person know it. In fact, he says, “the things you eat up front — probably 90 percent of them taste just like they did back in the ’30s and ’40s. Some things you just can’t improve on.”
Like those gingerbread men.
They’re nothing fancy: Each has a simple red-icing smile, with black eyes and three little black buttons going down its midsection. I go for the legs first. Then the arms. Then the body, and finally the head, where the higher concentration of icing leaves a smile on my face — even if it’s not on the gingerbread man anymore.
Soft and sweet, with just the right amount of ginger and molasses, they’re exactly what a gingerbread man should taste like — Christmas. And while McFarlan’s makes their gingerbread men year-round, many families — like mine — have turned a trip to the bakery into a tradition during this time of year. But be warned: The little guys sell out fast. “It’s hard to keep ’em,” Michael says. “Everybody likes a gingerbread man — the real thing. It’s sort of nostalgic.”
While the gingerbread men are arguably the most popular Christmas treat, McFarlan’s also sells ginger-molasses cookies (“We can’t keep those either!” Michael says), Christmas stollens, and cookies hand-decorated with trees, stars, bells, reindeer, and Santa faces. Customers flock to McFarlan’s to stock up on cookies and brownies for Christmas parties, or just to get a sweet treat to celebrate the season. Throughout the year — not just at Christmastime — a line winds out the door and down the block. Michael estimates they might get between 1,000 and 2,000 customers on a busy Saturday.
Still, there’s something special about the Christmas season. Staff and customers alike get excited about the decorations, the food, and the fact that Christmas is on its way. Everyone comes in happy and leaves even happier. “It gives me great pleasure to see people get great pleasure out of what we make here,” Michael says. And for the many families who, like mine, have made McFarlan’s part of their Christmas celebration, it’s a comfort to know that those treats are made — and eaten — with love.
309 North Main Street
Hendersonville, NC 28792