STARKVILLE • T.J. Manna has been baking for only six years, but already she’s made a name for herself in Starkville.
A Massachusetts native who has lived everywhere from Oregon and Colorado to New York and South Carolina, Manna moved to Starkville in 2013 because she needed change in her life.
“I got a job baking at DeRego’s for three years, then I moved to City Bagel and then to 929 Cafe,” said Manna, 44. “I have been in a kitchen my whole life, but didn’t get into baking until I moved here.”
This summer, she got a call from Robbie Coblentz, a television producer who was interested in opening a bakery. Coblentz was familiar with Manna’s skills because she and his son, Mark, had worked together on a television show for Mississippi Public Broadcasting.
“Robbie’s been following my baking for a while,” Manna said. “He fell in love with my croissants. That really did it for him. Croissants were why he wanted me, but he also knew what else I did.”
In early August, Coblentz and his wife, Bonnie, who works in agriculture communications for Mississippi State University, opened Proof Bakery on West Main Street in downtown Starkville, with Manna as the head pastry chef and bakery manager.
Two others help Manna daily in the bakery. Gerard Woods makes bagels and some of the other breads, and Emily Penton works the front of the house, taking orders and waiting on customers. Mark Coblentz and his brother, David, work in the bakery three or four hours on the weekends.
“T.J. is amazing and we wouldn’t have done this without her,” Robbie Coblentz said. “The response has been unbelievable. We’ve sold out the past three Saturdays. It’s just a cool place with a great vibe.”
Proof is a full-service bakery offering breads, custom cakes, pastries, cookies and baked goods to walk-in customers as well as a catering menu and tailgating items.
“I have my own style,” Manna said. “My whole thing with baking is I want to make everyone happy. We’re about producing quality things that are beautiful and make people feel good. Why else would you do it?”
The menu at Proof changes daily. Croissant-making is a three-day process, so you’ll find them only on Wednesday and Saturday.
Four or more varieties of bagels are offered every day. Flavors include apple Gouda; lime sugar thyme; green onion Parmesan; plain; salted; chocolate chip; and an everything bagel with flax seeds, garlic and onion powder, sunflower seeds and chia.
A different bee biscuit appears every day, and popular flavors are bacon Cheddar; Parmesan rosemary; plain; and Gouda.
“We do a lot of breads,” Manna said. “Honey whole wheat, focaccia, baguettes, Italian knots, bratwurst and hamburger buns. The new popular thing is whole grain squishy bread. It’s a braided whole grain white bread that’s squishy.”
The cookie of the day might be low-sugar oatmeal, a glazed tea biscuit or a chocolate chip chia cookie that’s gluten-free.
“I like to do gluten-free and vegan options so those people can come in here and eat, too,” Manna said. “I love making food for people and know they’re going to love it and have an experience. I don’t want to produce food that makes people feel bad after they eat it.”
Also on the daily menu is either a muffin or a duffin, which is a doughnut-shaped muffin. Customer favorites include blueberry lemon; raspberry lemon curd; and blackberry duffins, as well as banana nut muffins.
“This is a place to go to talk with people and just have an all-around pleasant experience,” Manna said. “People come in happy and leave giggling.”
“I think we have quality products made with care and love,” Robbie Coblentz said. “The sincerity behind it – we do it because we see it as a unique thing. Everybody’s talking about Proof for so many reasons.”