Chicago is insane for bakery.
In the last four years, bread boutiques, cupcake chains and pastry palaces have been popping up faster than Tiger Woods’ mistresses.Â On a recent walk through the two-month-old Chicago French Market in the Ogilvie Transportation Center, I counted 10 new baked goods-related businesses out of the 25 total vendors.
A decade ago, you’d be hard-pressed to find a killer eclair or authentic baguette in this town. “When I was an intern, the chef I worked for joked that if you wanted a modern bakery [in Chicagoland], you had two choices: Bittersweet or Gerhard’s,” says Sarah Levy, owner of Sarah’s Pastries & Candies, 70 E. Oak.
Like video killing the radio star, the supermarket toppled the ubiquitous and once mighty mom-and-pop-run bakery.
“The corner bakery used to thrive 30 or 40 years ago in Chicago,” says Rich Labriola of Labriola Baking Co., which just opened a new pasticceria, or Italian pastry shop, in their Oak Brook retail cafe. “But then the supermarkets started their own bakeries, and the corner bakeries cheapened up their products to compete with the supermarkets on price. They added a lot of preservatives and their stuff wasn’t exceptional anymore. It wasn’t worth the extra trip.”
Some part of the current baking renaissance is about connecting with this once great heritage. Paula Haney of Hoosier Mama Pie Co., 1618Å“ W. Chicago, says that when she was working on her business plan, she discovered that there were a handful of dedicated pie shops in the city as late as the 1950s, and she wanted to bring back a little of that spirit.
Says Adriana Marzullo of Zullo’s, which sells fresh apple cider Italian-style doughnut, or zeppole, at Chicago’s Green City Market and just joined the Chicago French Market: “I started reminiscing about my grandmothers and how they used to cook with me as a kid. I wanted to replicate those great memories and get back to that time in our history when you cooked with family.”
PRICES REFLECT QUALITY INGREDIENTS
These new bakers are not only in touch with their history, but they want to avoid the mistakes that felled their predecessors and thus are committed to using natural and high-quality ingredients.
Christine Cikowski, co-owner of Eat Green Foods, says of her company’s cornerstone granola bars, “I didn’t set out to make a baked good. We started sourcing stuff for our business and we found these great oats and local honey, and we’re like, hey, what can you do with this stuff?”
Natalie Zarzour, owner of Pasticceria Natalina, 5406 N. Clark in Andersonville, uses 10 different grains and flours, “so that we can get the right type of texture and mouthfeel in each of our pastries.
“I make a pastry so complex, it takes six hours to make 20 pieces,” Zarzour adds.
Flora Lazar, owner of Flora’s Confections, sells pate de fruit (French fruit paste) at Green City Market. She makes the fruit purees from scratch using fruit from Mick Klug Farms in Michigan.
“I was working on this documentary about pastry and I’m seeing all these very talented pastry chefs using factory-made fruit purees, and I start to realize skill can only take you so far,” Lazar says. “So much of flavor is about starting with great inputs.”
Committing to quality ingredients often means paying more and thus charging a relatively higher price for the finished product, which seems like a recipe for disaster in a recession.
Baked goods, however, even higher priced ones, seem to be recession-proof.
“They say in a recession people will always still drink, gamble and eat sweets,” quips Kirsten Anderson, owner of Glazed Donuts Chicago, which offers doughnut subscriptions.
Levy says she’s selling more cakes again for weddings this year rather than cupcakes. Michelle Garcia, owner of Bleeding Heart Organic Bakery in Roscoe Village and Oak Park, also has seen a jump in sales. Last January, Garcia had to take out a loan to keep her bakery afloat.
“You might not be able to take a trip to the Bahamas or drop a hundred bucks on dinner, but you can still afford a $3 cupcake,” Garcia says.
CAPTURING IMPULSE MARKET
With all the growth, it might be surprising to discover that Chicago has a lot of elements against it as a bakery town. Despite its size, Chicago has about the same amount of sweet spots as a smaller town like San Francisco.
Our inhospitable weather certainly takes a toll. Patty Rothman, owner of more cupcakes, 1 E. Delaware, says her sales double in the warmer months.
“Bakery is still a walk-by, impulse kind of market,” Rothman says.
Labriola adds, “We’ve noticed when people have to wait outside, they tend to leave. Our door used to be right next to the cash register and only a few people could stand in line before they were outside.
“We moved the door and we can get a lot more people inside now, and it’s amazing how many more wait. . . . In New York or San Francisco, people seem to wait in line all the time, but Chicagoans don’t have as much patience.”
In addition to the weather hurdles, some say consumers in Chicago still have a bit of a learning curve when it comes to understanding high-quality bakeries.
“Three or four years ago when I started selling my stuff, people didn’t know what ‘organic’ was,” says Garcia. “I spent a lot of time explaining it doesn’t mean egg-free and that we do wash our ingredients.”
“So many people are distracted by the illusion, the marketing, the frilly packaging, novelty and gimmicks,” Zarzour says. “They pay more attention to the fantasy of pastry and not the reality. Humans are attracted to sweetness and fat and that often means they eat a lot of industrial stuff and toxins. We need to spend more time discerning what’s really good.
“I’ve watched people pop one of my whole pastries in their mouth in one bite without even tasting what they’re eating.”
FINDING SUPPORT IN COMMUNITY
The robust infrastructure of thriving farmers markets and big culinary schools in Chicago and the growth of shared commercial kitchens such as Kitchen Chicago in Logan Square have really fueled the bakery boom, observers say.
Eat Green Foods, Floriole — which is opening a storefront at 1220 W. Webster soon — and Hoosier Mama all got their start at farmers markets and at Kitchen Chicago (which, ironically, as this story went to print, was at the center of a Health Department investigation regarding licensing for this type of business.)
“I couldn’t invest a lot of money if I didn’t know there weren’t some customers out there. Being able to rent space at Kitchen Chicago really eased that burden,” says Hoosier Mama’s Haney.
Jennifer Kane of Bake Chicago, 2246 W. North, got her start at the Division Street farmers market and says the markets are “a great test to see if people will actually buy your stuff.”
Levy credits her alma mater, the French Pastry School at 226 W. Jackson, with playing a big role in this resurgence.
Lazar of Flora’s Confections agrees. “You won’t see better pastry chefs coming into the country anywhere and offering these incredible three-day courses. I get a lot of stages [interns] from the school,” she says.
With all of these bakers entering the marketplace, you’d think there’d be a food fight brewing.
But Elaine Heaney, co-owner with her husband, Nathaniel Meads, of the nine-month-old Fritz Pastry, 1408 W. Diversey, sums up the general feeling among the city’s baking crop this way: “This new movement has a lot of diversity. We do a lot of pastries no one else does, and others seemed to be focused on their own niches.
“Just like the restaurant industry, bakers are a total community. We’ve had so many of our competitors come in and support us, and that’s really exciting.”
This article first appeared in the Chicago Sun Times in a different form.