By 5:45 a.m. the August sun has been up less than an hour, a slacker next to the pastry chefs at Beth’s Little Bake Shop, 1814 Central St. The three have been kneading, rolling and mixing since 3 a.m., working their magic with flour, sugar and butter in the night kitchen.
Now, 15 minutes before the 6 a.m. opening, Chefs Kelly and Kaitlyn are carrying sheet after sheet of fragrant baked goods up the stairs from the basement preparation area.
Breakfast specialties, finished in time for early commuters heading to the Metra station across the street, are the first up. There are scones, one sweet, one savory; raspberry Danish, pinwheel-shaped and tender; flaky butter, almond and chocolate croissants; sweet brioche; and monkey Danish, made from croissant dough rolled in cinnamon and sugar, topped with cream cheese and streusel and fast becoming a Bake Shop signature item.
At the top of the stairs, shop owner/chef Beth Welch receives the baking sheets, checks that the pastries are done and applies the final touches before retail specialist Lauren places them, jewel-like, in the glass cases.
Standing in a finishing station tucked behind one of the cases, Ms. Welch mixes a powdered sugar glaze and drizzles it over still-warm cranberry-almond scones. Then, without taking a step, she reaches for a bowl of cream cheese icing from an under-counter refrigerator and pipes a plump spiral onto each cinnamon roll.
This compact and efficient finishing space, fitted with counter, ovens and refrigerators, is where Ms. Welch says she spends “90% of my time.” Here she can preside over her shop, checking out foot traffic through the windows onto Poplar and Central streets or completing baking tasks and business while conversing with customers.
The tiny workspace epitomizes the care, planning – and patience — that went into converting a 100-year-old building and former gallery into a state-of-the-art bakery. Beth’s Little Bake Shop opened June 24, a year and three months after renovation began. Every day, Ms. Welch says, was “a surprise to me and to the construction team. Everything in the guts of the building rebelled.” They had to do “everything,” she says, including digging out and re-piping the basement. But, she says, “Everything was fixable. There was just a delay factor.”
Given the space constraints, Ms. Welch made choices. She had no room for an espresso machine but, against others’ advice, installed an icemaker. Ice-cold homemade lemonade, she reports, has been a huge seller.
She worked with an architect and a designer to create what she says she hopes is “a European feel, like someone’s kitchen — like my own grandmother’s kitchen.” The ambience flows from many careful details: glittering light fixtures, silver cake stands, brown boxes and bags with her fancy cupcake logo.
A mind for minutiae and talent for organization are useful ingredients for a baking business. On this Thursday morning while Ms. Welch schedules oven time for a procession of breakfast, snack and dessert items, she must also be thinking ahead. So downstairs, her chefs are rolling out dough that requires a day of rest before butter can be folded in to make Saturday’s croissants.
But regardless of planning, baking is often unpredictable. Ms. Welch says yeast dough varies with the weather, proofing too quickly when it is hot and too slowly when it is cold. French macarons (also called macaroons), the rainbow-colored, filled delicacies made with a meringue of almond flour, egg whites and sugar, are notoriously “finicky,” she says.
Though new to retail, Ms. Welch has dealt for years with the vicissitudes of baking and business. Experience has left her with a bag of tricks, such as controlling rising time by moving yeast dough to a warmer or cooler spot. A St. Athanasius and Evanston Township High School graduate, she earned a bachelor’s degree in restaurant and hotel management from the Culinary Institute of America, the majority of her course work in business. Returning to her hometown, this self-described “Evanston girl through and through” ran a dessert catering business and thought long about starting her own bakery.
She says she “knew she had to jump on it” when the Danon Gallery vacated its corner space, relocating next door, but she was as yet unaware of three developments that would enhance the location. Ten Mile House moved into the apartment building on Central and Eastwood; the Evanston Art Center relocated across the street; and the City began configuring a new traffic pattern and bus stop at her doorstep. Central Street east of the Metra tracks has the potential to be Wedding Central: invitations from Perennials, flowers from Preston’s, gown from Dame Couture and, of course, a cake from Beth’s.
Despite all the early-morning activity, an air of calm and order prevails in the shop. Ms. Welch is just where she has wanted to be since she was a little girl, baking with her Scottish grandmother. Her grandmother, who with a gentle hand turned out light-as-a-feather dinner biscuits, let little Beth have her own ball of dough. She kneaded it so vigorously it came out brick-hard, so they laughed and fed her “bird biscuits” to the only creatures that would eat them.
Her grandmother died the day Ms. Welch’s parents dropped her off at culinary school. “She was seeing me to the final point in the career we had together,” Ms. Welch says. Beth’s Little Bake Shop is dedicated to her.