Independent bakeries keep customers coming back

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Holiday gluttony and New Year's resolutions of healthier eating are giving way to a springtime season of socializing and sweet treats.

After all, what's a wedding, graduation, communion or Mother's Day without a cake and cookies?

Loss of bakery burns up owner

For 33 years, Debbie Moore enjoyed baking for friends and family.

She finally turned her hobby into a business two years ago, when she bought Christopher's Sweet Shoppe on Route 22 in Export.

But she didn't anticipate that the major road work directly in front of her store would cause her cookie dough to crumble -- literally.

Within a month, she said, construction caused a break in her waterline and two breaks in her gas line.

"I had product in the oven," she said of the gas line breaks, adding that she received no compensation for the damage.

Even though wedding cake orders remained, daily walk-in traffic was down 70 percent. Heavy equipment and stopped traffic blocked the entrance to her store.

"There were hours when you just couldn't get in or out," she said.

Finally, at the beginning of February, she closed the shop, taking the original owner's recipes with her. She is in the process of acquiring funding, but is unsure whether she will reopen her bakery at another location.

-- By Laurie Bailey

Area independent bakeries are filling their calendars with special orders despite the impact of retailers such as Giant Eagle and Sam's Club on the industry.

And despite the escalating cost of wheat and eggs.

"I've got my niche ... we've been in business for a long time," said Tony Moio, owner of Moio's Italian Pastry Shop in Monroeville. His family-owned business has been around since 1935, when his grandfather, Raphael Moio, opened a bakery in East Liberty.

Moio's specializes in desserts uncommon in most bakeries. Everything is made from scratch "for the discriminating customer," Mr. Moio added.

He and several family members, including his wife, Meg, create age-old Italian recipes like pasticciotti, a cream puff made with sweet tart dough, filled with fresh lemon custard. They also sell ricotta tarts and cannoli, their signature item.

"But decorated cakes are our biggest business," Mr. Moio said.

According to Mike Kalupa, president of the Retail Bakers Association, there aren't as many "old-fashioned" bakeries -- those that concoct everything from breads and rolls to cakes and pastries -- as there were 40 years ago.

Now, most consider themselves to be specialty bakeries.

"They've taken a piece of what a bakery used to be and carved their place out of that," Mr. Moio said.

Nineteen years ago, Marc Serrao opened Oakmont Bakery, which has grown from 1,200 to 8,500 square feet and into a community institution. He travels throughout the country, seeking new trends.

Retail manager Michael Sullivan said Oakmont is part of a bakery network in which members swap ideas and share research.

"Because [independent bakeries are] a shrinking community, they really do have a lot of support for one another," he said.

One result of their research is Oakmont's line of "Attitude Cupcakes," which it began selling last year. For $2 apiece or $20 a dozen, you can experience "Elvis in Oakmont" (a yellow cupcake filled with banana mousse, to go with peanut butter frosting and a white chocolate ganache); a "Creamsicle" (yellow cake, vanilla cream filling with orange butter cream); or a "Parrothead" (a key lime-filled, white cream-topped cake complete with palm trees and sunglasses).

Mr. Sullivan said that because of a strong and loyal customer base, Oakmont Bakery is not threatened by larger stores.

"They're good at what they do, and we're good at what we do," he said.

James Gray, owner of Dozen Cupcakes in Squirrel Hill, agrees.

"I think people appreciate the convenience of the big boxes for everyday things," he said. "But the experience of the 'boutique bakery' is more appealing, more cosmopolitan."

In business since only December 2006, Dozen, a 700-square-foot shop, has taken the national cupcake trend to new levels of local success.

"Boy, has [the business] grown, and we're still growing," said Mr. Gray.

Oh, and his bakery also has an "Elvis": a banana cupcake with chocolate hazelnut filling, topped with peanut butter buttercream.

"One thing Elvis was known for was his enjoyment of peanut butter and banana sandwiches," Mr. Gray said. In fact, sometimes The King even had bacon on them. Dozen offers the option of having the Elvis cupcake sprinkled with bacon bits, giving customers the "Full Elvis."

Last year, Mr. Gray opened Dozen Bake Shop in Lawrenceville, which is larger and serves cupcakes and other traditional bakery items and includes a 25-seat cafe.

His businesses have added about nine employees and may need to expand further, he said.

Dozen Cupcakes is booked four to six months in advance for specialty cupcake orders for events such as weddings. Cupcakes, he explained, offer more variety of flavors for less expense. And no one has to cut a cupcake at a wedding reception.

People are going for a simpler, more casual and different presentation.

"This has been a growing trend," Mr. Gray said. "People are forgoing the traditional wedding cake."

Mark Scozio, of Scozio's Bakery and Pastry Shoppes, isn't worried about larger retailers, either, perhaps because he owns three grocery stores in which his full-service bakeries are located.

"We were one of the first to do a bakery in the store," he said.

Back in 1972, the family-run, "old world and ethnic bakery" was part of the Shop 'n Save supermarket in McKeesport.

Today, Mr. Scozio operates Giant Eagle stores in White Oak and Penn and the Festival of Foods store in Wexford, all of which have Scozio's bakeries.

He said Scozio's can ensure quality because the proper equipment is in the store.

His mother, Vi, has been the family's wedding cake expert for more than 25 years. He said many grocery store bakeries have several products shipped from a central location and are decorated and displayed in the bakery.

"People like the idea that stuff is baked for them and not 'out' and already packaged," said Jeff Pastor, of Pastor's Special Order Bakery in Greensburg.

His is not a walk-in bakery, but a storefront with a consultation area. For the past two years, Mr. Pastor has taken orders for cookies and cakes from scratch for special events such as weddings.

Price-wise, Mr. Pastor said he is competitive with large stores because he doesn't have to buy in bulk, but rather as he takes orders. He, however, said he has been affected by the rapidly rising cost of ingredients.

"Since November, the price of flour has doubled," said Mr. Kalupa, of Retail Bakers.

Tony Moio said his costs have risen about 5 percent overall and he anticipates another 3 percent hike next month. He's paying $29 for a 50-pound bag of flour that cost him $9.50 six months ago.

A pound of his cookies has gone from an average of $15 to $19.

"The government needs to step in somewhere," said Mr. Moio, who, along with other independent bakers, has written letters to congressmen and senators about the escalating prices of bakery commodities and the decreasing wheat crops.

Giant Eagle has increased prices as well. Within the past year, the price for a half-dozen cupcakes increased from $2.99 to $3.29, said Candy Schaum, assistant manager at the corporate-owned Murrysville store.

For the time being, though, Dozen Cupcakes' Mr. Gray believes it is best to swallow the cost of higher wheat prices, in the hope they eventually will come down. The cost for one of his exotic cupcakes will remain $2.50, or $25 for 14 cupcakes, for most flavors.

"We've gotten a lot of community support," he said.

Laurie Bailey is a freelance writer.


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