He had old world baking skills and a bakery in Wheaton. She had affluent clients, an impressive resume and a national reputation as a fine pastry chef.
Almost 80, he wanted to retire from grueling workdays that started at 5 in the morning. At 55, she wanted to get away from the rigors of restaurant kitchens.
So, even though she'd never owned a retail outlet before, pastry chef Ann Amernick held her breath and raised the money to buy Antoon Van Tol's bakery.
Merging his client base and her skills just might give her the combination she was looking for--an existing business with loyal customers, and the time to do her own award-winning special order cakes for private clients.
That is, as long as she kept his clients happy. She thought keeping his customers--or at least most of them--was essential to her financial survival.
But what would the trade-offs be? How much would she have to accommodate her sophisticated approach to his clients, who expected a store full of whipped cream cakes, Danish pastries and a dozen different kinds of almond cookies, not to mention huge hunks of Dutch cheese, scores of Dutch crackers, boxes of licorice and Indonesian condiments and spices.
Would she have time and energy left for the more costly special order cakes prized by her private clients? How much time would running the store take? Sure, it was open only Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, but that didn't count the hours of preparation. And finally, could she make enough money not only to pay the bills but also to make her efforts worthwhile?
In the three months since Amernick purchased the bakery in March, she's revisited these questions many times. And each time the answers shift a little.
It's the final weekend before Van Tol yields his almost 30-year-old bakery to Amernick, a woman he met only two weeks earlier. All week long, she's been watching him hand-roll Danish pastry, pipe out almond cookies, prepare the dough for his fruit-laden raisin bread--all the while trying to absorb as much as possible about his craft. "Most bakeries get cookies from the factory these days," says the tall, white-haired Dutch-born baker, pointing proudly to shelves lined with copper cookie tins. "I make all my own."
As he monitors cakes, breads and cookies in different stages of preparation, Amernick tags after Van Tol with pencil and paper, asking questions and deferring to him, taking notes on his ways, his recipes and how to please his customers. "I'm here to learn from him," she says. "I want to introduce some of my own things, but it won't be like somebody came in here and changed everything."
It's all a little overwhelming. Julie Wahyoeni, Van Tol's assistant of four years, is staying on to work part-time. But that doesn't take care of sales and customers, an area that Van Tol's wife, Wilhelmina, handled until she retired a year ago.
A week later, Van Tol and his wife have gone. Amernick and Wahyoeni have been baking for days, with help from friends like Patrick Musel, the executive pastry chef for Marvelous Market; Susan Limb, another baker for Marvelous Market; Ngozi Ogba and Irene Borjas, pastry cooks at Red Sage. As the early morning rush dies down, some realities hit Amernick hard.
For one thing, Van Tol's prices are incredibly low--so low she wonders how the bakery broke even after its rent was doubled last year. Handmade butter cookies for $8.95 a pound, large croissants for 70 cents a piece, dinner rolls for 35 cents, cakes that feed 20 people for $40. One customer this morning walked away with eight stollen, six almond rings, three dozen Danish pastries, three pounds of macaroons, three pounds of cheese palmiers and a huge loaf of seven-grain bread--"two backbreaking days of labor," says Amernick--"for $140."
For another thing, the air conditioning is barely working. It's very hot--so hot it's playing havoc with unbaked dough. So, to make sure she had Danish and croissants and bread for the weekend, Amernick had to come in before dawn to proof and bake it.
To make matters worse, Amernick isn't sure if the electricity can be upgraded enough to support a more adequate cooling system. (She'd wondered why the refrigerator was turned off when the mixer was on.)
And she hasn't figured out how to manage without having someone to take care of customers--some of them are already worried that the bakery they've relied on just won't be the same. One woman says she's heard they have a famous pastry chef now and complains when the large Danish rings she's used to have already sold out. "Nothing's the same as that ring," she says.
The afternoon is much quieter than the morning, but people still come in and buy.
"It was a good business day--huge considering," says Amernick, who purchased the bakery for under $50,000 on a quick take-it-or-leave-it basis, looking at the books only briefly. "But I would have made the same money on two wedding cakes. It's not hard to be thriving and busy. But it's hard to be doing that and make money."
Say Ann Amernick to people in pastry circles, and what comes to mind are dazzling presentations, top quality ingredients and--she freely admits--rigid high standards. The whole package has a payoff: delicious, special desserts made with meticulous care and presented exquisitely. Like her wedding cakes--graduated terraces of (usually chocolate) cake, covered in shiny white fondant, abundant with roses, lilies, petunias, lilies of the valley that cascade down the layers like a bridal bouquet from an English garden.
Amernick didn't start to cook until after she got married, when she plunged into baking "like a loon." But she seems to remember just about any dessert that's ever come her way. Raspberry-filled chocolate cakes from her childhood, a lemon fondant birthday cake from the early days of her marriage, her first experiments with mini-tartlets and petit fours, even a special prune cake.
Then in 1970 a trip to Europe introduced her to Parisian pastry shops and she was hooked for good. She came back and started baking even more, in particular elaborately decorated cakes. "I got so involved with desserts and pastries that people started asking me to make them."
From the mid-'70s through the mid-'80s, her passion for pastry found her working at a series of fine (mostly French) Washington restaurants: The Big Cheese, Le Pavillion, Maison Blanche, Jean-Louis at the Watergate. Sometimes she even straddled two jobs at once--even during a two-year stint as an assistant pastry chef at the White House--all the while bumpily balancing her responsibilities to her husband and two young sons.
Then a major fit of pique for not being selected to prepare the main dessert at a special dinner for New York chefs prepared by Jean-Louis Palladin prompted her to quit the restaurant business. (Palladin chose a super-star French pastry chef instead.) She worked for a caterer for three years and then took a nine-year break while she baked, happily, for friends and private clients.
Eventually, however, she began to feel isolated. "I grew creatively to a point and then I stopped," she says. So, in 1996 when Ann Cashion, chef and co-owner of Cashion's Eat Place in Adams-Morgan asked her if she knew anyone looking for a pastry position, Amernick took the job. "Sometimes you need that jolt."
Since then, Amernick's worked at a number of top Washington restaurants--including Michel Richard Citronelle and Red Sage--polishing techniques, picking up ideas. Working for Richard, who started his career as a pastry chef, was a special challenge. "He has very specific ideas and is demanding. But I learned a lot . . . I've learned something everywhere I've worked."
She learned a lot about managing her time too--a significant skill because making pastry is time-consuming--even more so her meticulous way. Decorating a wedding cake for 225 recently, even after it was assembled and all the flowers were made (about eight to 10 hours of work), took 2 1/2 hours--ordinarily, not something someone running a suburban bakery on a shoestring can spend the time and money to do.
She says she's never been good at charging enough for her time. Back in the '70s, when she was raising children and occasionally catering parties, she remembers, she got a request for 100 phyllo triangles filled with spinach--many hours of work. Her fee: $20. And the client balked. "I don't think I ever made money in those days," she says. "It never occurred to me."
Now it has to.
It's three weeks since Amernick took over the bakery. On the wall behind the sales counter, Van Tol's career highlights--a decoration from the Queen of Holland, his Swiss honor diploma--have been replaced by a letter of congratulations on Amernick's nomination for outstanding pastry chef of the year (four times), a formal menu naming her as one of the chefs at the D.C. celebration of Julia Child's 80th birthday.
On the positive side, the ovens have been repaired and the air conditioning is working a little bit better. But Amernick is still struggling to figure out the most efficient ways to martial her energies and work smart. Perhaps she can double or triple the dough recipes and use the freezer so that she doesn't always start from scratch. Perhaps the cookie roster can be trimmed back--the recipes are very labor-intensive. But what to do about the meat sticks--a time-consuming customer favorite that involves grinding veal and preparing puff pastry? They don't cost much ($1.35) and require special handling to ensure food safety.
She's pleased her old customers are placing orders. She hadn't been able to accommodate them while she was working at restaurants full time. "Can you manage to fit me in?" is a frequent question. "It fascinates me how considerate my customers are," she says.
With a constantly ringing portable phone virtually attached to her ear, she takes orders while she splits yellow cakes into layers and adjusts the speed of beaters that are whipping cream for Van Tol's whipped cream cake. "We're still selling more of those than anything else," she says. At this time of year, there are wedding cake queries to deal with too: "If you want the hazelnut, I'll make it," she says to a prospective customer, brushing wayward crumbs off a cake, "but fewer people will eat it. I always recommend the chocolate torte."
By morning's end, she and Wahyoeni will have put out three additional Danish rings, 14 apricot and four blueberry Danish, eight cinnamon rolls, two chocolate cakes, three whipped cream cakes with fruit, three raisin breads, two white breads, 12 raisin buns and assorted cookies. She's placed out tasting samples of her signature chocolate torte too.
And it's only Friday.
Making a living as a chef is always hard work and rarely highly paid. Making a living as a pastry chef is even more complicated. You're ruled not only by the ups and downs of the restaurant business or the catering industry, but also by the chef de cuisine.
Amernick, who has been divorced since 1982, has gone that route--and never felt she could control her own fate. Besides, it's virtually impossible for her to accept somebody else's standards. "I couldn't stand being told how to do things," she says of a couple of restaurant experiences.
But baking exquisite confections for private customers has its problems too. It's seasonal; it's lonely; and, she fears, it is considered less professional. "[The bakery] affords me a storefront, a cash flow and gives me a respectability that I don't get if I'm just doing wedding cakes."
From the start, she knew her plunge into business was risky--even assuming she held onto most of Van Tol's customers and expanded her base of special order clients. And it isn't exactly smooth yet, no matter how many hours she puts in.
So she frets about ways to bring in more business: She hopes more eye-catching signs will help. To drivers on University Boulevard, the bakery looks the same as it always has. "Nobody knows we're here yet or what we're about," she says.
Maybe tables in the front a la Starbucks would draw in new customers too, she says. And certainly, raising the bakery's longtime low prices will help the bottom line--even though she knows that move will cost her some old-time customers.
She's already started--slowly, cautiously. So far she's held the line on the cookies, but she's upped the cost of croissants (from 70 cents to 85 cents) and the delicate cheese palmiers (from $7.95 to $9.95 a pound). The prices didn't begin to cover the cost of labor to make them. She's even gone after Van Tol's whipped cream cakes (the popular eight-inch size is now $30 instead of $25). "That way I can put more fresh fruit in the cake," she says.
When she raised the prices on those cakes, and on the much sought-after raisin bread (from $1.70 to $2.60), it didn't affect their sales. There have been other pleasant surprises too. Some weeks longtime customers of the bakery buy considerably more than she anticipated and even order her specialties rather than what they're used to. Like her chocolate torte, a dense cake with chocolate, mocha cream and toffee, that costs $35 for the basic cake (decorated with chocolate fans and chocolate glaze) and $45 for the high-style version (fondant and gold leaves).
But other weeks, when bakery traffic slows down, she's found that her private clients and their orders for top-dollar confections keep her afloat. "Special orders will be the bread-and-butter of the business. They already are," she says, though she worries after the wedding season they could drop off.
Has she accommodated her style to what the customers want? Sure, maybe a little--but she knew that would be part of the deal.
Has she lowered her standards? Well, she won't.
In fact, she's following her instincts more and more, even if it means altering the traditional recipes she bought along with the bakery. Take the shop's Danish pastries. She felt they should be flakier, so she recently adjusted the dough. "I have a healthy respect for what Mr. Van Tol did. But if I'm going to do Danish, they're going to be as good as I can make them. I'm going to have to do it my way and see if it works."
And if people won't spend the extra money, or balk at a new approach, or make last-minute demands, that's that--those customers will be history. She probably loses money on them anyway.
There's still too much else to worry about--adequate staffing, for example. She can't continue to rely on friends and relatives working for nothing--like Amernick's mini-brigade of pastry chef volunteers, her niece Alison Lazinsky, 21, and friend Audrey Freed are frequent unpaid cashiers. And she can't afford to pay herself a weekly salary only once in a while (so far three times).
The slightest slow-down in sales worries her too. "It's time for people to think about getting into bathing suits," she says, "and there's nothing low-calorie or low-fat in this shop. It's an old-fashioned butter-and-cream European bakery."
Then, of course, there's the anxiety of meeting each month's rent.
Can she really make a success of this place?
"I've asked myself, 'Did I do the right thing?' " she says. "There's no question that there's money to be made. A lot of money? No. But if I can generate the business and the loyalty, then there's no reason I can't make a living.
"I've got to give it my best shot."
Amernick, at 2516 University Blvd. West in Wheaton, is open Fridays and Saturdays, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and Sundays, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Special cakes are available every day but Monday if ordered 48 hours in advance. For information, call 301-933-1517.
Recipes From Ann Amernick
At the Wheaton bakery she bought from Antoon Van Tol when he retired in March, Ann Amernick features his specialties as well as her own. These recipes come from "Special Desserts," a cookbook she wrote in 1992. Published by Clarkson Potter, it is currently out-of-print.
Many people tell me that this strudel reminds them of pastry that their grandmother made. The low oven temperature and slow baking produce a delicate color and flaky crust. From Ann Amernick's "Special Desserts" (Clarkson Potter, 1992).
For the pastry:
8 ounces (2 sticks) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup sour cream
1 tablespoon sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour plus additional for working the dough
For the filling:
24 ounces (about 3 cups) apricot preserves, processed until smooth in a blender or food processor
1 1/2 cups golden raisins
1 1/2 cups dark raisins
1 pound walnuts, finely chopped
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
For the pastry: Mix together the butter, sour cream and sugar in a large bowl. Add the flour and mix just until blended. The dough will look mealy. Gather the dough into a ball, wrap in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 3 hours or overnight.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Line 2 cookie sheets with a double thickness of cooking parchment paper.
Divide the dough into 4 equal parts. Work with 1 piece of dough at a time, keeping the remaining dough refrigerated. Place the dough on a well-floured surface, knead it briefly, then roll it out into an 8-by-12-inch rectangle. The dough should be thin enough so that you can almost see through it. Keep the surface well-floured to prevent the dough from sticking.
Spread 1/4 of the apricot preserves (about 3/4 cup) over the dough, leaving a 1/2-inch border on all sides. Sprinkle 1/4 of the raisins and walnuts over the preserves and dust with 1 teaspoon of the cinnamon. Fold the exposed edges of the dough inward over the filling to enclose the ends of the filling and roll the dough up tightly, lengthwise, ending with the seam on the bottom. Quickly lift the roll and place it, seam-side down, onto the baking sheet. Repeat the process with the remaining 3 portions of dough and filling. Chill the rolls for about 15 minutes before baking.
Bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until light golden. While the rolls are still warm, cut each into 10 slices with a serrated knife. The strudel will keep for at least 1 week in the refrigerator, or it can be frozen for up to 3 months.
Per slice: 243 calories, 3 gm protein, 32 gm carbohydrates, 12 gm fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 4 gm saturated fat, 16 mg sodium, 2 gm dietary fiber
Vanilla Butter Buttons
(125 tiny cookies)
These cookies are irresistible. They're the smaller, sweeter equivalent of potato chips. No bigger than one bite, they melt in the mouth. They are best made in cool, dry weather. From Ann Amernick's "Special Desserts" (Clarkson Potter, 1992).
6 ounces (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/3 cup sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Adjust the oven rack to the middle position. Have ready a pastry bag fitted with a 1/2-inch tip. Line 3 baking sheets with cooking parchment paper.
Using an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together on the lowest speed until pale and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla, still mixing on low speed. Gradually add all the flour. Finish mixing by hand by scraping with a spatula from the bottom of the bowl.
Fill the pastry bag half full and pipe 1/2-inch balls of dough 1 inch apart onto the cookie sheets. Bake 1 tray at a time, rotating the tray 180 degrees after 5 minutes. Bake for 5 minutes more, or until the cookies are brown on the edges and set in the center. Watch carefully since these cookies quickly become too brown. Let cool before removing from the sheets. Store in the refrigerator in airtight tins.
Per cookie: 16 calories, trace protein, 1 gm carbohydrates, 1 gm fat, 5 mg cholesterol, 1 gm saturated fat, 1 mg sodium, trace dietary fiber
Chocolate Fudge Cake
A rich, brownielike cake, this is a favorite for children's birthday parties. The trick is keeping it away from the adults! From "Special Desserts" by Ann Amernick (Clarkson Potter, 1992).
Butter for the pan
10 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1 pound (4 sticks) unsalted butter
8 large eggs
3 1/4 cups sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
Chocolate Fudge Frosting* (recipe follows)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter an 18-by-11-inch baking pan.
In a large metal bowl set on top of a pot of simmering water, melt the chocolate and butter together. Stir, remove from the heat and set aside.
Meanwhile, beat the eggs with the sugar until thick and pale yellow (don't worry if the sugar does not seem completely dissolved). Add the chocolate mixture to the egg mixture and stir until completely combined. Add the vanilla and stir. Add 1/4 of the flour and mix well. Add the rest of the flour in the same manner, in 3 additions, mixing well after each addition.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan and bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out with a just few crumbs clinging to it. Cool the cake in the pan. When the cake is completely cool, frost with Chocolate Fudge Frosting.
To serve, cut into 2-inch squares.
* Note: If you prefer, you can frost the cake with 2 cups of heavy cream, whipped and flavored with 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract and 2 tablespoons of confectioners' sugar.
Per serving (including frosting): 775 calories, 9 gm protein, 73 gm carbohydrates, 55 gm fat, 219 mg cholesterol, 33 gm saturated fat, 49 mg sodium, 5 gm dietary fiber
Chocolate Fudge Frosting
(Makes 2 cups)
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup heavy (whipping) cream
5 ounces unsweetened chocolate
4 ounces (1 stick) unsalted butter
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
In a 2-quart saucepan over medium-high heat, stir together the sugar and cream and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer for 6 minutes. Add the chocolate, butter and vanilla and stir until the chocolate and butter have melted and the mixture is smooth. Chill for 1 hour or until cool to the touch.
Beat the mixture with an electric mixer until fluffy and then swirl it over the top of the cake.
Per 2-tablespoon serving: 199 calories, 2 gm protein, 13 gm carbohydrates, 17 gm fat, 39 mg cholesterol, 11 gm saturated fat, 8 mg sodium, 1 gm dietary fiber
CAPTION: Ann Amernick, above, moved from pastry making for restaurants and private clients to her own retail operation when she bought Antoon Van Tol's bakery in Wheaton in March. Before he retired, Van Tol, left, spent two weeks briefing her on techniques and trade secrets.
CAPTION: Ann Amernick's wedding cakes are known for their intricate true-to-life decorations.