Lauren Brown can barely remember a time when she wasn’t involved in the hospitality industry. Today, Brown owns Neighbor’s Mill Bakery & Café alongside her husband, Clifton Brown, but years earlier, she was learning the ropes at the original Neighbor’s Mill, which her parents opened in Harrison, Arkansas, in 2000.
Before that, Brown’s family owned a Dairy Queen franchise in Arkansas. “I ate a lot of blizzards and chicken baskets when I was a kid,” she says, laughing. Despite the success of the franchise, Brown’s father always had a heart for the bread business – which is why he purchased a small grain mill in the 1970s, waiting for the perfect time to open the first Neighbor’s Mill.
Now, Lauren is carrying on the family legacy. The Browns began construction on Springfield’s first Neighbor’s Mill location in 2015. Just a few years later, the second Springfield location is in the works with a tentative opening date at the end of this month. In the meantime, we chatted with Brown about local beer, carrying on the family legacy and the house-milled grain that has Springfield foodies raving about Neighbor’s Mill.
The restaurant is set to open next spring in the Sagamore Hill Development.
Do you have a secret weapon spice/ingredient/technique? Our secret weapon is probably our excellent team of bakers. They’re really passionate and hardworking. Something else that sets us apart is the fact that we mill our own grains on-site. We have our own grain mill in the back of the building, so we don’t buy pre-milled flour. Instead, we buy wheat berries, spelt and rye berries and actually mill them ourselves and put that directly into our breads. Freshly-milled flour makes a really big difference.
What's your perfect day of eating in Springfield? We’d have to start by sleeping in and making some coffee at our house. Then, we’d probably go to Farmers Gastropub for brunch – we do some wholesale baking for them, and [chef] Andy [Hampshire] and his team are really awesome. We also go to Springfield Brewing Co. a lot, so we would go there for dinner and have a beer. We’re actually members of their Mug Club, and I usually get their Mex-Y-Cali copper ale. Their buffalo mac 'n' cheese is crazy; it’s so good, and it’s such a huge plate. After that – again, we’re big beer people – so we’d probably go to a brewery like 4 by 4 or Tie & Timber and finish up the day sitting outside with our dog.
What’s your favorite comfort food? It’s a casserole, which is so weird and very 80s of me. There’s a casserole my mom would always make – I want to say it was shredded chicken, cream of mushroom soup, crushed up tortilla chips and cheese. It’s not anything special, but everything my mom makes always feels special and nostalgic.
What is your first food memory? Before my parents owned the Dairy Queen, they had a pre-Civil War cabin that they rehabbed and treated as a bed and breakfast. My mom would get up every morning and bake something at our house, then she would drive to the cabin and knock on the door and deliver breakfast for the guests. She would make these amazing things – we called them puff pancakes, but they were basically German pancakes [colloquially known as Dutch babies] that you bake in a cast-iron skillet in the oven. She’d top it with powdered sugar and lemon juice. Even now, we’ll have puff pancakes on special occasions like Christmas Day.
What inspires your menus? How do you approach R&D at your restaurant, and what inspires that process? Our bread truly inspires the rest of our menu. The bread is the star of the show, the foundation of what we do. We’ll basically look at a specific variety of bread and pair it with a dish – determining whether it would make a good sandwich bread, whether it would be good with a salad. The bread comes first, and the menu follows. Overall, our baking team is very creative, so a lot of our menu items are the result of our bakers experimenting.
What are your future plans? The new location is slated to open at the end of this month. The café menu will be mostly the same, but it’s going to be a lot smaller. We’re learning as we go and treating it like a satellite location – basically, we’re going to be baking most of our breads at our current location because we have a lot more space. However, we will do our pastries, muffins, cookies and other baked goods on-site at that new location. We’re also moving croissant production to the second location. Ultimately, the new location will have more grab-and-go offerings – like salads that we’ll prep fresh every morning – to cater to people on that side of town who don’t want to deal with the lunch line.
Neighbor’s Mill Bakery & Café, neighborsmill.com