Brenda Harford was never a baker, but all of the ingredients were there to turn her into one, including an old family recipe.
“I was not into baking,” said Harford who opened Whole-ly Rollers as a home-based business in 2009. “Now it’s a piece of cake.”
Harford, who was born and raised in Chesapeake, was quite content working in the education field.
A 1983 graduate of Great Bridge High School, Harford earned her bachelor’s degree in business education from Lenoir-Rhyne College (now university) in 1987 and her master’s in urban education from Norfolk State University in the late 1990s.
She worked as a school counselor, assistant principal and then principal at Southeastern Cooperative Educational Programs.
Along the way, she also dusted off her late grandmother’s recipe for yeast rolls and baked them for every special occasion – whether for family, friends or associates.
That later played into the Christian-based business’s tag line … rising to your occasion. The name, Whole-ly is also a play on words showcasing the religious and wholesome undertones.
“Every aspect of the recipe has to be perfect or it won’t rise,” Harford said of Annie Mae Langley’s recipe. “Everyone tried but could not perfect it. I played with it and came up with a modern day recipe.”
Before long, Harford was hearing feedback about how tasty the rolls were.
She began to sell them on the side. She baked them, sold them, baked more and sold more.
Word quickly spread about the all-natural, baked fresh daily rolls and she began selling them at the Five Points Community Farm Market in Norfolk. Before long, she was also selling them at the Olde Towne Farmer’s Market in Portsmouth, as well as the Dam Neck and Old Beach farmers markets in Virginia Beach.
Then she prayed and decided to make Whole-ly Rollers her full-time job.
She added more items to her baking repertoire including another family favorite for sweet potato pie, and cinnamon buns, bread pudding and cookies.
In January 2016, after some more prayers, Harford decided it was time to open a brick-and-mortar store at 200 N. Battlefield Blvd.
Harford’s twin sister, Linda Thompson, who works full-time as an accountant for the Coast Guard, also handles marketing for Whole-ly Rollers and continues to secure more businesses that want to sell the rolls.
“My grandmother always told us that families are supposed to stick together,” said Thompson, who said she can easily sell 120 packs of rolls in a three-hour period at local markets.
With the high demand for Harford’s rolls, comes the need to bake more.
She said they usually make enough dough for 200 dozen rolls each day. That number doubles around the holidays.
“We’ve already outgrown this location,” Harford said. She said they are in discussions to open a bakery market in October in the former Five Points Community Farm Market location on Church Street.
Norfolk’s only year-round market closed at the end of June after approximately 10 years.
Lana Wolcott, owner of the 7,500-square-foot building for the past 20 years, is delighted about the possibility.
“There’s nothing better than the good smell of hot, yummy rolls that will bring people flocking to the neighborhood,” Wolcott said.
For Harford, who got her start at the market, it would bring things full circle.
She said she’d like to follow the same model as the farmer’s market did, but only open it up to a variety of bakers and purveyors of other sweet treats such as ice cream and Italian ice.
“I’ve prayed about it and know this is the space I should be in,” Harford said, noting the Chesapeake location would remain open.
Harford said her grandmother – who everyone lovingly called mother – would be overjoyed.
“She couldn’t have imagined how far her recipe has gone and how much money it has made me,” Harford said.