By Rochelle Bilow, Finger Lakes Food Correspondent
Photos by Stu Gallagher
In a town steeped in tradition, there’s something decidedly new – and young – happening on the culinary front. Husband and wife team Chris Grilli and Katie Brennan, ages 28 and 26 respectively, purchased the decades-old establishment on Jordan Street in July of 2011, and have since been putting a modern spin on a classic repertoire.
Skaneateles Bakery has been in operation since 1959 and despite having changed owners a few times, still feels as authentic as it had when it first opened. The original recipes are still in use, from donuts and cinnamon rolls to generously-sized cookies and scones, and a few of the staff members stuck with the establishment through the change in ownership.
Brennan employs 15 staff members, an impressive number, given the petite size of the storefront and kitchen area, although most are local high school and college students working the cash register. “My mom works here too,” she said with a giggle. “She comes in a couple days a week to lend a hand.”
From the looks of it, many hands are needed to produce the amount of food they do. Not only do they pile their counter high with baked goods – Those scones! More on that later. – they also offer sandwiches on house-baked bread and soups, “made from scratch,” she said proudly. The biggest seller on the savory menu is a turkey sandwich with chipotle, avocado and applewood-smoked bacon. In terms of plain numbers, though, nothing comes close to the donuts.
If donuts can be grouped into genres, these would be vehemently old-school. No bigger than a tight fist and freshly made every morning, they taste of real sugar and cinnamon, a far cry from their mass-produced counterparts. They get snatched up by the bagful by hungry customers at Christmas time, when actors bring characters from A Christmas Carol to life at the annual Dickens of a Christmas festival. “But lots of people also buy food and walk it across the street to the water,” Brennan acknowledges. “Summer is really busy.” She took what sounded like a deep breath of relief. “Summer was really busy.” The bakery’s location in the heart of the village, directly across from Doug’s Fish Fry, makes for high traffic on weekday mornings and lazy weekend afternoons alike.
The newlyweds purchased the establishment from Sam Mason, original recipes and all, if not on a whim, then definitely with a prayer. Neither Brennan or Grilli had worked in the restaurant industry, Brennan said in a phone interview. And even more frightening, neither had owned a business. She was working with an interior designer (she now works full-time at the bakery) and her husband was a schoolteacher.
“But it was always something I toyed with,” she said. “One of the things I love about baking is that it allows me to be creative. I always thought ‘wouldn’t it be neat to own a bakery?’” Brennan’s father, settled in Moravia, thought so too. He felt a strong connection to Skaneateles Bakery, and passed that onto his daughter before he passed away. “Chris and I moved back to the area [from Boston] in 2010, and I kept a pulse on everything around me.” When the listing went public, they didn’t hesitate.
I visited with my boyfriend this past Sunday for lunch and a look around. An egg, cheese and bacon sandwich had character – no freakishly uniform eggs here – and a goat cheese salad came with healthy-looking red leaf lettuce lightly dressed in homemade vinaigrette. Café Kubal, a Syracuse-based roaster, provides the beans for coffee, and a variety of freshly-packed teas are available (The Earl Grey is excellent; a heady hit of bergamot.) The real kicker was the scone we ordered, studded with chunks of chewy dried apricot and with a distinct buttermilk biscuit-like texture. It was topped with a cautious drizzle of sugar glaze and was so good that we ordered another on our way out.
If the food seemed to resonate more with me than a typical bakery’s fare, I suppose it can be chalked up to the fact that Brennan just gets what’s trending in the restaurant and food world right now. “Local, organic, and fresh,” she said. “Our mindset is that the most important thing in serving food is that it be of high quality. Local and organic mean great quality.”
They already work with a handful of local farmers, growers and vendors, including Wake Robin Farm of Jordan, who provides the yogurt for their parfaits. When the weather warms up, Brennan has big plans to source local animal protein more fresh produce to round out their menu. “We support the community as much as we can because they really support us,” she said.
So they get the local and organic thing, which is undeniably important. But what I like best is the sense of whimsy and charm about the place. The menu is written on a chalkboard, with a gray, smudgy spot in the left-hand corner where a “Word of the Day” and its definition get written and erased again and again. The baked goods and sandwiches, if eaten in, are handed to customers in small wicker baskets and the employees’ feathers never seem too ruffled to chat. The menu is clever too – I spied a homemade Pop Tart, its belly swollen with homemade raspberry jam – and swooned. This is joyful food.
Brennan is such a chipper personality, full of optimism and excitement (she must be a morning person), that I found myself wondering if she’d run into any challenges or unpleasant surprises as a new business owner. “Being a boss is hard,” she said. “But honestly, and this may sound dorky, I really love my staff.”
She loves what she’s doing, too, and so does Skaneateles. In a town that can be tough to please, Brennan is having no problem becoming part of the fabric. The cupcakes, cookies and muffins that made the bakery famous will continue to shine while taking on a personality of their own. And that is what’s really sweet.