The little girl is frozen in front of the glass partition at Bread Furst. She’s completely rooted to the floor, transfixed by the tantalizing display of goods: cake stands crowded with muffins and sugar-dusted baby bundts; baskets of English muffins and baguettes; a jar of marshmallows; and a tray of dainty caramels.
The girl and her mom are supposed to be choosing one treat each. But this has suddenly turned into a decision of Solomonic proportions for the child. The grown-up sees, understands: All right, we can get one more thing, she says. A marshmallow is added to the to-go bag. ¶ Yes, Washington, your next bakery outing may just take a little longer, too.
Rather than shops specializing in a single type of treat — cupcakeries, macaron shops, doughnut boutiques and, yes, even a cakepoppery — many of the newest entries on the scene recall the neighborhood bakeries many of us grew up visiting, pressing our noses against glass cases filled with indecision-inducing arrays of cookies, brownies, muffins and just about every other fat-, sugar- and carb-loaded goodie one could imagine.
“This is timeless,” said restaurateur Aaron Gordon, who opened Bakers and Baristas, a bakery and coffeehouse next to his Red Velvet Cupcakery in Penn Quarter, in January. “This is something people have been doing for hundreds and hundreds of years. It offers something for everyone.”
The Washington area is dotted with legacy establishments that have been around for years, such as Heidelberg Pastry Shoppe in Arlington, Breads Unlimited in Bethesda and, until recently, Heller’s Bakery in the District. But the all-around model seemed to largely fall out of vogue for shops that opened in the past decade, whether due to the desire to capitalize on dessert trends, fad diets, changing shopping habits or the fact that it’s just plain hard to make good bread.
Now, chefs and customers are rediscovering the appeal of the classic bakery.
“I think it’s great that we seem to be slowly accumulating some neighborhood places,” said Mark Furstenberg, the longtime Washington baker who opened Marvelous Market on Connecticut Avenue NW in 1990. Bread Furst, his newest venture, opened in Van Ness in May.
Bread Furst stands out from other recent arrivals for its emphasis on crusty loaves of bread, but it’s similar in that its menu offers a variety of sweet and savory items that change throughout the day.
“With single-purpose or special-interest kind of bakeries, you really have a limited number of hours per day you can be open,” which doesn’t make sense economically, said Tiffany MacIsaac, the former Neighborhood Restaurant Group executive pastry chef whose solo business, Buttercream Bakeshop, exists as an ongoing pop-up. “You want to be open as many hours as possible.”
Shop owners believe the well-rounded bakery appeals to customers’ interest in trying new things.
“I think people like variety, yet we’re creatures of habit,” said Dawn Hart, who plans to open Village Sweet in Arlington’s Westover neighborhood this spring. “It’s way too easy to get the same thing every morning,” which is one reason Hart intends to change the menu seasonally.
A varied menu is also more fun for chefs, according to MacIsaac, who spent a lot of time working at Neighborhood Restaurant Group’s two Buzz Bakery locations.
“I think it’s the next wave for pastry chefs in general, being your own boss,” she said. “It’s also cool to have control over everything.”
The woman at the helm of RareSweets, which opened in December in CityCenterDC, is one such example. Meredith Tomason worked as a pastry chef at a variety of spots in New York, including Tom Colicchio’s Craft, before relocating to Washington and starting RareSweets in the shared spaces of Union Kitchen.
In addition to being more fun, Tomason said, varied options are good for her staff, which will have the opportunity to learn how to make more things.
But creating an array of goods comes with challenges.
Claudia van Hintum, executive pastry chef of the CakeRoom in Adams Morgan, said it can take a while to get to know what customers want. She thinks she’s at that point now, noting that anything with Nutella does well. She’s also come to expect the arrival of those they affectionately call the “cupcake zombies,” who swing by on weekend evenings after visiting the neighborhood bars.
Large menus must be carefully planned. Not much can be left to chance when you’re working with very fresh, perishable products. Van Hintum said CakeRoom extras are donated or shared with nearby businesses.
“It makes it a great deal more difficult to plan,” Furstenberg said of deciding to go with an expansive roster. “It also requires tighter production, more attention to what’s sold and what’s left over, and better use of what’s left over.”
Jimmy Hopper, owner of Three Fifty Bakery and Coffee Bar in Dupont Circle, puts out limited quantities of each of his items at a time.
“We’re not baking trays and trays of all this,” he said, gesturing to his display arranged on cake stands and under glass domes. Instead, he has balls of cookie dough, quiche crusts and more ready to bake as needed.
“We’re what I consider small-batch, like what you would do at home,” he said.
Three Fifty works around another common problem many amateur and professional bakers face: a small kitchen.
Room and money for equipment can be another limiting factor, although a lot can be done by hand, MacIsaac said.
“My policy has always been decide what you want to do and then figure out how to do it,” she said.
How to do it sometimes means getting creative about strategy and what you sell.
“I lacked the courage to do only a bakery because I wasn’t sure that we would be successful making only breads and pastries,” Furstenberg said. “My concept was to lean a little bit toward a neighborhood food store” without losing the identity of a bakery. He decided to sell sandwiches and salads for takeout “to give people more reasons to stop by.” To that end, he’s thinking that ice cream may be in the works for the summer.
But that’s not all. Bread Furst’s shelves are full of other impulse-purchase items, including cookbooks, cheese and jars of pickles or preserved lemons.
Hart envisions selling local dairy at Village Sweet to go along with her treats. She’d also like to make further use of her space to host classes and events aimed at children and adults.
As much as they want to turn over as many baked goods as possible, chefs and bakery owners think an important part of their success will be creating a sense of community among their customers.
“I think they’re wanting this kind of bakery — where they can get a cup of coffee, a pastry,” with good service and friendly employees, MacIsaac said.
Hart’s philosophy for her pending shop: “It’s an extension of my own house.”