When you step inside Always Original Bakery, it’s quickly clear that real bakeries still exist. The sweet smells launch your senses into overdrive as you scan the cases of fresh, creative confections. While many so-called bakeries have opted for freeze and reheat or batter from a bucket, Jay Dawson and George Grogan are committed to the opposite approach: fresh, flavorful and funky (if that’s what you’re into).
Jay, a self-trained baker and cook, started his career in a national franchise bakery department. At first, it was a good fit. “Someone would come in and want a carrot cake. I’d shred the carrots, get the raisins and make a carrot cake,” he says. Then things changed. Freshness and creativity were overwritten by efficiency and quality control. In the world ruled by pre-made, frozen baked goods, homemade is too great a risk.
That’s when Jay, George says, began to bake more for family and friends. “I’ve always liked to cook,” says Jay. “First it was at mom and pop burger places, then pizza places. I always gravitated towards food.” Jay honed his skills early, learning from home bakers and cooks like his grandmother and great grandmother. “To not necessarily measure everything but go by a recipe. Learn what goes together and how much of this you put in,” he says. “Most of the time it works, sometimes it doesn’t. You go back, adjust and try again.” The times of trial and error aren’t mistakes. That’s when magic happens.
What Jay calls “neat surprises” are fresh-baked treats you will never find in the Not a Bakery™ world. Red hot cherry pie. Bacon granola. Strawberry milkshake cookies. Cinnamon donut loaf. Lemon blueberry cookies. “Everything is made right here, even down to the dog treats,” laughs George.
George and Jay work together with an easiness that stems from their 17-year relationship. Married 14 years, the couple have complimentary skills that give Jay freedom in the kitchen while George navigates the business side of the bakery. Combined, their mutual strengths gave them the courage to act on their friends’ suggestion and consider opening the bakery. All they needed was the right location.
“We were driving around downtown looking and checked on a few places. Most were ridiculously priced or needed too much work or they just weren’t a good fit,” says Jay. Before long they found themselves in West Columbia’s River District and they loved it. “When you think of cool, different, unique places, a lot of people think about State Street,” says George. “While it does have some wonderful little shops, so does Meeting Street.”
They discovered one of the greatest benefits of being in West Columbia after their October 2021 opening. “It’s a community here,” explains George. “Everybody wants everybody else to do well.” And every community is better, say Jay and George, with an honest-to-god neighborhood bakery.
“That’s what we want to be,” says George. “A lot of times folks don’t get it; they think of us the way they think of a big box store. We do have a lot of the same things every day, but tomorrow when you walk in there will be something fresh and different.” Big sellers like banana nut bread and coconut macaroons are always in the bakery case, but daily surprises like seasonal cookies and wildly flavored turnovers are equally important.
Something else that matters at Always Original Bakery? Taking care of people. Their go-the-extra-mile approach doesn’t end with customers. “We want to be a good employer,” says George. They are committed to paying quality wages and to providing more as the business grows. “When we started, it was sad to realize the number of food service establishments that don’t offer insurance.”
What isn’t sad is how the bakery handles food waste. Through West Columbia City councilman and now friend, David Moye, they connected with Turner Memorial AME Church, which has a food ministry. “We don’t throw good food out. Every week since we opened, Reverend Taylor or someone else from the kitchen comes by to pick it up so it can be enjoyed,” says George. “It’s the right thing to do.”
The bakery, which is planning to begin offering online ordering in the near future, also caters to special diets such as vegan and gluten sensitive. Rather than having separate options, Jay works to make bakery favorites available for everyone. “People come in and see that we have vegan cookies, and think they don’t want those,” says Jay. “But once I explain that the recipe is basically the same, the difference is just ingredients, then they get it.”
George and Jay have been on Meeting Street long enough to know that the WECO sign is a pretty big deal. “It’s what everybody knows,” says Jay. “It has memories for established residents, but it’s also cool that it’s being passed on, that it’s going to keep on going.”
The baked goods at Always Original Bakery are otherworldly, but the sweetest thing is something you can’t put a price tag on — the warm, loved feeling it gives you inside. Thanks to Jay and George, West Columbia’s neighborhood bakery is homemade perfection.