Sunday Reflections: We Opened a Pastry Shop and So Can You...

As the shop appeared when we first bought it and began to tear down walls... 

August 2, 2005:  Ray and I opened a pastry shop.

We were splendidly clueless.  We hadn't even hired staff.

Wait, I hired an assistant to join me for the first morning bake.  We called her Cool Whip.  She found me.  I hadn't advertised for kitchen help.  She was a line cook at the Wayside Diner, a Vermont institution, and a recent graduate of Cordon Bleu.  She wanted to bake, not fling hash.  She'd read an article on our pastry shop opening in Montpelier.  She knocked on the back door while I was noodling around, perfecting a new flavor of macaron in anticipation of our opening.  I laughed when she suggested I'd need reinforcements.  But I humored her, said she could pop in on opening morning and scoop some dough.

Can you see me?  With a dog on my lap and a notebook in my hand...making my plans for a life and a pastry shop.  "All this must go!"

I can tell you exactly what Miss April's thinking:  "Just look at my mama.  She's so clueless."

Because I had a plan!  I wrote it down on paper!    By HAND!

In my delusion, when I sat in a romantic baker's haze before we opened for business, I'd scribble down recipes for fantasy pastries to fill the case.  I  fashioned schedules for myself to optimize time on my new venture:

Wake at 3:30.
Finish bake by 11am.
Write until 3pm.
Start prep by 5pm and be at the shop to clean up and shut down. Relax.  Have a glass of wine.

Enjoy Vermont!

I DID get to use my fishing wash dishes.

Not written but simply implied on my list is that I'd man the front of the store when Ray wasn't about.  And for this task, I'd even compiled a bucket list of novels I wanted to read.  My vision included lovely lapses in business where I'd kick back and savor the written word to be gently stirred from literary reverie by a patron who'd announce themselves with the civilized jingle of the antique bell we'd fasten to our front door.

The weekend Pastry Warrior in LA with her handy helper, HRH the Dowager Empress Pandora.

I was living my dream.  I'd chosen, quite bravely I thought, to up and grab the reigns of my small existence and honor my TRUE SELF (Carpe ME-em).  Where I was once a weekend pastry warrior, working my way to mastering Viennoiserie, the slow art of sourdough, the fine details of sponge & butter cakes, the quick whisk of an anglaise & custards; fantasizing my way through corporate Monday - Friday about what I'd create in sugar, butter and flour on the weekend while lamenting my unhappiness when I wasn't in close proximity to a mixer and oven, I was now a full time PASTRY CHEF!  I'd declared to the College of the Known Universe (my friends, family and colleagues) that my major was Pastry (with a double minor in strong coffee and fine wines at a reasonable price).

A most beloved customer at the counter, Larry, celebrating our 1 year anniversary.

Ergo, the hard part was behind me. We had left a corporate life for a buttery existence.   The universe was backing me:   I was accepted for an advanced degree in pastry arts at NECI; they'd agreed that I was a skilled baker and could forgo the introductory pastry classes.  And then my rustic French macarons took off, a little side business I'd started to make some extra dough (heh), and I was left without time to go to school.  I was already baking 24/7 to keep up with the demand of a real live baking business!  Again, the universe was speaking to me:  "Gesine," the Universe said, "who needs an education in running a large scale pastry operation?  Read the vague, utterly ludicrous 'signs' I'm allegedly sending you.  You are meant to dive right into a major baking operation with bubkis for experience!"

Who needs experience when you have a dream???  AND A SIGN!!!

Based on this specious omen, it was a no-brainer that  Ray and I should buy a retail space.  On a run, Ray had noticed a boarded up commercial building just outside town.  It was a mess.  It had changed ownership 4 times in under a year.  There was an antique enamaled meat display that had been renovated by local vermin into an all inclusive resort.  Business loans were being handed out fast and loose!  IT WAS A SIGN!

Prior to our storefront opening, I sold small pastries from a farmer's market booth.  This was the first and last time I ever manned a counter.

Of course, we had a deluded confidence that we could restore it (I think it goes without saying that we had deluded confidence, period).  We'd already turned our lives upside down, how hard could sanding some floors and putting in new ovens be?  Let these photos do the talking:

At first, Ray and I took on the demolition ourselves.  A bonding, new life DIY project!  But wait, what's that?  Rotten floor boards?

The entire expanse of the shop, gutted from tip to tail.  With professionals doing the work.  "But can't we save what's left of the wood flooring  The tin ceiling?  ANYTHING?"

So this is where I want my super sized 3 bay sink!  Once we have a floor and a few finished walls, that is. What's that?  How much will replacing the joists cost?  Well then, This is where I want my econo sized, super saver 3 bay sink! 

Ultimately, this is what my schedule really looked like.

Wake at 3:30.

Bake.  All morning.  All day.  Part of the evening.

Bed by 8:30pm.

I not only hired Cool Whip to help in the morning bake, she quit her job as a line cook and joined me full time.  By the end of week one, we had 5 full time people on staff.  It was glorious.  It was busy.  It was messy.  It was sweet.  It was exhilarating and life affirming.  It was bloody exhausting.

Beginning transformations: Big windows in the front to replace the old, pokey ones.

Add a bit of color and gold leaf!

Voila!  Not so instant pastry shop!
Still happy after your first week open has kicked you in the tush?  Absolutely!
This is the front of the shop where we managed to salvage 1/4 of the original hardwood floors and the tin ceiling.  We put in a wall to separate the store front from the bakery and installed a two-way mirror so I could see out into the shop from my floury perch and the customers could fix their hair.
Ovens, fridge and freezer.  Industrial lighting.  Health code friendly floors.  It's a happy pastry space.  (I painted the trim!)

Seven years ago, at 9:30 am on a Sunday morning much like today's in its frisky briskness, I'd have been in my bakery for five hours by now.  This morning I woke at 7:45am.

Letting my hair down to savor a few hours away from the ovens.
Here's a video of the shop in action after the early morning rush.  Warning:  There's music with the video.  Mute if you tend towards spit takes of coffee when you're startled by unexpected tunes.

Now I write baking cookbooks.  I teach.  I run.  I write.  I spend time guiding home bakers who remind me of me...before I was the Real Baker Me!, lovely people who aren't afraid of trying scary things like "lamination", "bulk fermentation", "hard crack caramelization", "mastering the creation of 'pied' on finicky Parisian macaron", "sponge cake surgery"...the list of pastry they're eager to tackle is without end and I'm here to teach them.

My last class.  Look at those attentive and zealous pilgrims of pastry!  (pic taken by Elaine McCabe)

Teaching and talking, mixing and imparting sweet wisdom...(pic taken by Bill Stahr)

and making sure I get a few laughs along the way. (pic taken by Elaine McCabe)

The only difference being that they're smart enough to seek baking counsel from a professional before they dump their livelihoods for full-time pastry bliss.

There are times when I miss our retail shop.  The volume of dough.  The local patrons who transform into true friends.  The very fine forearm muscles I developed from daily workouts with large batch croissant dough.  The family that develops from working with sweet people from 3am to 7pm.  The silky quiet of a small Vermont town, dark as pitch and fast asleep as I whisked, caramelized and laminated to nourish my neighbors.  These were golden moments.  I still bake every day.  I also sleep.  I write.  I run.  I can visit with friends and family a few times a year.  I can travel to promote books.  But best of all, I teach.  I get to be the guide I never had starting out as a starry eyed baker and I wrote a memoir about the journey for those who want to learn even more.

Bottom line (or bottom crust?) is I made the right decision.  I was born a baker.  I get giddy when I hand knead a dough, when I watch the alchemy of buttercream transforming from a mess of hot sugar, egg whites and butter into a fluffy luxury.  If you're still reading this, you feel the same way too.  I'm here to tell you it's a beautiful life.  If I opened a pastry shop so can you...and  you have my journey to consult to keep you from doing the dumb stuff.

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