By Walter Nicholls
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007
Last month, on an out-of-the-way road in rapidly developing Bowie, Sherman and Patricia McCoy opened a tiny shop with the hope that people will love their homey pies as much as the couple like making them.
Despite the obscure location, it didn't take long for word -- or perhaps the aroma -- of Best Pie to spread. In any community, a new bakery sparks the kind of interest that a new dry cleaner or bank branch can't, for obvious reasons.
"The pies, they are fantastic," says local attorney Josh Pierre, the first customer through the door on a recent morning. He knew exactly what he wanted: a mixed-berry pie with fresh blueberries, blackberries and raspberries. "They have that homemade taste, just like you got it out of Grandma's kitchen."
As they slice apples and roll out dough, the McCoys are also part of an apparent mini-boom of independent bakeries opening around Washington after a decade of closings and chain expansions.
In downtown Falls Church, a woman who specializes in Austrian nut tortes recently anchored her wholesale business with a retail storefront. And in the weeks ahead, a former restaurant pastry chef will open a European-style shop in Vienna, and a former art director will start selling his rustic breads, coffee cakes, pies and more in The Plains. Like the hundreds of small ethnic-restaurant owners in the Washington suburbs, they looked to areas where they live, where rents are lower than in the city and parking is easier.
Attending the new ovens are bakers who believe they have something to offer that the chains and supermarkets can't deliver: passion.
"Supermarkets have taken the excitement out of fruit pies," says Sherman McCoy, 61, a former Howard University Hospital administrator. "There is no one standing up peeling peaches, no place you can get a fresh fruit pie." Beyond the shop's austere salesroom, in the well-equipped kitchen, his wife was peeling away on a recent weekday morning, her hands submerged in a 10-gallon pot filled with once-fuzzy fruit.
"People get excited to have a pie just out of the oven," says Patricia McCoy, 53. "They can look through the window and watch us make the pies. There's the aroma, the anticipation for what we sell."
She steps quickly when an oven buzzer sounds, and out come beautifully browned 10-inch apple and mixed-berry pies that sell for $23.95 each. Then it's back to peeling.
The McCoys won't say how many pies they make or sell each day, allowing only that, thus far, "things are good." Their start-up costs, which included the conversion of a former used-book store and purchase of a truckload of new stainless-steel equipment, were $200,000.
In addition to having no retail or commercial baking experience, they have no desire to sell their pies wholesale or to restaurants -- or even to sell anything else. The McCoys plan to stay small.
That's all well and good, but if you ask longtime pastry chef Ann Amernick, such passion and drive won't guarantee success. "It's a hard way to make money," says Amernick, co-owner of Palena restaurant in Cleveland Park. "I'd like to see how long they'll hold."
She knows the drill. For four years Amernick, noted for her finely detailed wedding cakes, rich caramels and perfect doughnuts, operated a bakery near the restaurant. The business was forced to close in September 2000 after the rent's gradual rise from $3,100 to $5,000 per month.
Amernick says it's not enough just to bake great goods: Success requires so much diversification that it practically means you have to open a wine bar in the shop, too. "You have to offer coffee," she says. And "if you don't have something savory, you lose some customers." But most important, Amernick says, "volume is key. People were screaming at us for more doughnuts. We couldn't make them fast enough."
Bakers who are jumping into the fray are undeterred by the notion of such challenges -- and confident that the time is right.
Natalia Kost-Lupichuk, who opened Natalia's Elegant Creations in late July in Falls Church, is banking on the fact that she already had wholesale customers in place. She broke into the baking world in summer 2003 selling her homemade pastries at the annual Ukrainian Festival in Silver Spring. Over the next 18 months, she built a successful business, baking her rich nut tortes in a licensed commercial kitchen in her parents' basement in Northern Virginia and selling to Dean & DeLuca in Georgetown and to caterers.
"But it was always in the back of my mind to have a neighborhood bakery with a cozy, warm, elegant atmosphere," says Kost-Lupichuk, who has invested $125,000 in equipment and furnishings. To keep costs down, all of the woodwork, lighting and plumbing was done by her brother, contractor Paul Kost.
She spent a year looking for the site. "I wanted a location near a corner for visibility, one that had ample parking and access to major roads," says Kost-Lupichuk, 36. A former accountant, she has a culinary degree from Boston University and studied hotel restaurant management at James Madison University.
Her intimate shop has six cute tables for two and Old World decor accented by tasseled drapes and paintings of European cafes. Impressive glass-fronted cases are filled with a wide variety of fancy desserts as well as more kid-friendly cupcakes and cookies. The biggest seller is an adorable dark-chocolate "teacup" filled with strawberry mousse that sells for $4.25. The shop also sells three types of sandwiches each day as well as specialty coffees and teas.
"There's an art to fine pastry, and you usually don't see it around Washington," says customer Lynne Gaudreau of Capitol Hill, eating a mini-fruit tart after a lunch at Natalia's with two friends on a recent Saturday. "What you do see is chunky cookies and doughnuts."
Besides cookies and doughnuts, the local baking scene also turns out a lot of chains, including a well-established one that opened a new outlet Saturday. Le Pain Quotidien, a bakery cafe with 90 stores worldwide, opened its first Washington area location in Georgetown. More are scheduled to open in Dupont Circle, Alexandria and Bethesda in the next year.
At least one prominent baker blames such chains -- and one supermarket company -- for what has been a lackluster local bakery scene. Mark Furstenberg, who brought premium breads to town in July 1990 with his Marvelous Market and later with Breadline, both of which he has sold, says the arrival in 1991 of Fresh Fields, which was later bought by Whole Foods Market, discouraged bakery-owner hopefuls.
"They soaked up the wealthy consumers with their in-store bakery, and they don't buy from the small local bakers," says Furstenberg. At the same time, the rapid growth of not only Marvelous Market but local chains such as Firehook Bakery and Uptown Bakers "doomed some small bakeries and discouraged others to follow," he says.
Sarah Kenney, spokeswoman for Whole Foods in the mid-Atlantic, says individual stores are free to buy from local bakers, but the only example she could cite of one actually doing so was the Alexandria Whole Foods, which stocks Firehook bread. She says small shops might not make as much money at Whole Foods as at a farmers market, where they sell directly to consumers: "In many cases it doesn't make financial sense to sell to us." She adds, "We'd be interested in checking these [new] places out for ourselves."
Furstenberg is opening a new place of his own next summer: a 50- to 100-seat bakery/restaurant in Upper Northwest. Because he believes that "people don't want to make a special trip" to a bakery, he plans to build "neighborhood allegiance" with breads, house-made ice cream, chocolates, savory sandwiches and takeout entrees.
Harry Sarkees hopes for such allegiance at his new place, too. On Sept. 22 in Vienna, Sarkees plans to open Silva's Patisserie, named in honor of his mother, who will help him create European-style pastries and organic breads. Silva's will be a carryout operation.
"I grew up in Vienna. I'm a Vienna boy," says Sarkees, 34, who had a small bakery in Falls Church in the mid-1990s and later was a pastry chef for Restaurant Associates, which runs the food services at the Kennedy Center. "Vienna has very savvy people who have traveled the world, diplomats who know what good pastries are." His specialty: one-bite wonders, such as chocolate Grand Marnier mini-tortes and green tea and pomegranate mousse petits fours.
He has wholesale accounts in place with area country clubs, restaurants and caterers. So far, he has invested $400,000 on building renovations, European-made pastry cases and an Italian bread oven.
That's significantly more than the $80,000 that Brian Noyes has spent on Red Truck Bakery & Farm Store, which he hopes to open Oct. 6 in rural but high-toned The Plains, in Virginia hunt country. He has leased a charming 1920s Victorian clapboard cottage at the town's crossroads that has long been a food store but, according to Noyes, not a particularly successful one.
"It all started with my hobby for making jams and a winning $10,000 Powerball ticket," says Noyes, 50. He's leaving Smithsonian magazine, where he is art director, and opening a country store featuring the jams and breads he developed with the money he won a few years ago. (He is also a former art director for The Washington Post Magazine.)
Noyes launched his one-man baking show in 2004 from his farmhouse near Orlean, in Fauquier County. In addition to his day job, every Friday night he baked dozens of loaves of focaccia, honey-wheat bread, brownies and pies. On Saturday mornings he delivered them to rural stores in a 1954 tomato-red Ford F100 pickup truck that he bought from fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger. And he still found time to study baking at the Culinary Institute of America and L'Academie de Cuisine.
In addition to rustic breads, coffee cakes and fruit pies, Red Truck will stock local, organic and ethically produced meats, dairy products, wine, produce, honey and more. He has lined up a dozen local wineries and country grocers to carry his breads and pastries. Says Noyes: "It's going to take both wholesale and retail components to make this go."
Another baker's dream fulfilled. "It's what I've always wanted: a little country store selling my free-form tarts," Noyes says. "And if I'm going to do it at all, I've got to do it now."