If you've been to a coffee shop in New York, chances are that there was a collection of carefully arranged scones, cakes, and cookies in the glass case next to the cash register. Maybe you ordered one—a blue cheese pecan scone or a vegan chocolate chip cookie—and thought, "Goodness! This is delicious." There is an excellent chance that that baked good came from Ovenly, a two-woman-owned bakery based in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood.
Agatha Kulaga and Erin Patinkin founded Ovenly as just one bakery in 2010, but it's quickly become one of the biggest providers of treats to coffee shops in New York; they currently provide scones, cookies, cakes, muffins—you name it—to over 120 wholesale clients, including a handful of museums and LaGuardia Airport. (That's a lot of baked goods.) So what's it like to see your business grow from a small-batch operation to a large-batch one, and to see the fruits (cookies) of your labor all over your city? Agatha and Erin told us what they really do all day at Ovenly:
How would you describe your job to a 5-year-old?
We both hang out with a lot of little kids (relatives, close friends’ children, etc.) and we usually say, “Do you like cookies? Well, we bake THOUSANDS of them a day and sell them to people who live all over New York City. We think we make people happy that way.”
What does a day in the life look like?
As the leaders of the company, we spend a lot of our days in meetings—we network with other business owners and investors, plan our retail expansion, discuss our profit and loss statements with our CFO (who is also Erin’s brother), brainstorm different partnership opportunities, and sit down with our various managers and leads. This is fueled mostly by copious amounts of coffee and honey-chocolate blondies.
What is it like to transition from a small-scale baking operation to a large-scale one?
We’re not exactly a large-scale bakery just yet! We work out of 1,200 square feet in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, but we produce upwards of 6,000 units of baked goods per day. Transitioning from a small-batch baking operation to doing higher volume production was a huge undertaking that was a true trial-and-error process. We’re self-taught bakers, and while we both spent a ton of time working in restaurants, we had zero experience working in bakeries or setting up a kitchen. Also, being in New York, you’ve gotta pump out as much as possible from tiny spaces.
The biggest learning curves for us have been in recipe scaling and flow. In terms of recipes, baking is an exact science but there is no solid equation for scaling—leavening agents, acids, and sugars can do funky things in large quantities and the only way to scale a recipe is really to test it over and over again until it’s right. In terms of flow, it’s amazing how much time we’ve saved simply by rejiggering schedules and moving around equipment.
What is the creative process like at a large-scale bakery? How involved are you two in coming up with and tasting new recipes?
We are still very hands-on with recipe testing and development (and tasting!), but now we often rely on our General Manager, Bill (who started off as a baker), and our Kitchen Manager, Libby, to realize our vision. That said, we love the creative process of testing recipes, so we still get into the kitchen as much as we can.
Which ingredients do you bake with most often, or have a loyalty to?
Everything we do at Ovenly is sweet and savory with a touch of spice and/or is a twist on a traditional recipe. If we come up with an idea that doesn’t fall into those categories, it’s immediately adapted or tossed. That said, we love to use fresh ground spices like cinnamon and cardamom in recipes, and pair those with dried fruits or citrus and ground nuts. A perfect example of this is our pistachio-cardamom cake with chocolate ganache: We hand-grind pistachios and pair them with fresh cardamom and lemon zest. It’s one of our signature treats. We also love to use prunes in our baking, despite their having a bad rap. We are on a campaign to rebrand the prune as hip and delicious!
Speaking of prunes, we once had a prune-ginger scone that was a total flop until we renamed it a dried plum ginger scone (people are afraid of prunes!). We’ve definitely had other flops. Specific ones that come to mind include our take on the Combo™ (completely unsuccessful), mochi sesame green tea muffins (gross), and gluten-free walnut breakfast bread (the consistency was scary).
More: Whip up a batch of Agatha and Erin's lovingly prune-filled Paczki with Prune Butter.
What do you look for in a really excellent pastry? What's the "quality control" process like?
For us, an excellent pastry has to have a good balance of sweet and savory. As with any food, the care and love that goes into a pastry is usually something that you can taste upon first bite.
We have a serious quality control process at our shop. Our Quality Control Lead, Maurice, oversees the training and day-to-day baking of our pastries, but we also expect our back-of-house staff to always use the four senses of taste, touch, sight, smell when making sure each and every item we produce is absolutely perfect.
What are the most popular items? Any sleeper hits should we know about?
Our most popular items are the classics: Salted Chocolate Chip Cookie and a Peanut Butter Cookie. What most people don’t know is that the former is secretly vegan, and the latter gluten-free. However, one of our most underappreciated yet delicious treats is our Montego Bay Bar—date-chocolate jam stuffed between a black caraway-spelt-pecan cookie crust. It’s pretty awesome.
What pastries do you buy when you're buying for yourself?
Erin: I lean toward a really good croissant, which are hard to come by. One of my favorites is from a nondescript bakery on 23rd Street called La Maison de Macaron. They have a chocolate pistachio (notice a theme) number there that I love .
Agatha: I’m a sucker for pastries that are slightly sweet and stuffed with cheese, like cartocci and pastelitos. I’m also really into weirdly textured foods, so I love Japanese pastries where mochi and bean curd are added to all things sweet.
Do you ever get sick of pastries?
Um... No. One might say we are addicted.
What are the most common questions customers ask you?
Where did you come up with the name? Brainstorming session.
Why aren’t you fat? Exercise, moderation (and stress).
Will you open in my city, PLEASE? We would love to! Maybe one day.
How do you run a business and do all the baking every day? We don’t! We have an amazing staff of 46.
Ovenly is doing so well. You guys must be rich now, right? Not even close.
Are any of your baked goods healthy? If you consider butter good for you, then yes.
What kinds of baked goods are best for DIYing—especially for someone who doesn't have a lot of baking experience?
The best thing to do is find a base recipe you like and alter it. Is there a banana bread that really floats your boat? Then try adding in toasted hazelnuts or ground flax into the base recipe. An oat-raisin cookie recipe you’re partial to? Replace the raisins with bourbon-steeped, chopped prunes or currants and add in some deeply toasted pecans and super-dark chocolate. We included a lot of great base recipes with creative suggestions in the Ovenly Cookbook!
What would you ask a baker? Put your questions in the comments.
First and second photos by Winona Barton Ballentine; third and fourth photos by Mark Weinberg
On Black & Highly Flavored, co-hosts Derek Kirk and Tamara Celeste shine a light on the need-to-know movers and shakers of our food & beverage industry.Listen Now