Angel Food Bakery Serves Final Airstream
Stephanie Samuels behind the counter one last time.
You’ll have to go elsewhere to get your Thin Mint fix from now on. After a decade of serving delightful breakfast treats, strong coffee and some of the city’s finest retro sweets ever to grace a pastry case, Stephanie Samuels has decided to hang it up. “I’m just exhausted,” the always chipper pastry chef told me yesterday afternoon, during a festive farewell party. It’s always sad when a business closes, especially when the business in question is one where you derived so much pleasure over the years. Although in my case, I couldn’t help but think of how many other places there are in Chicago that might be on the verge of closing.
La Boulangerie in Logan Square shuttered recently, and there’s another relatively high-profile place I’ve heard that might be on the ropes. “The winter was just brutal,” said Samuels, who had been supporting the business with her own money for some time, echoing a sentiment I’ve heard from other restaurateurs. Yet I kept thinking of how many times I’d passed the bakery on Montrose and not pulled over to go get something to eat, even if it was just to pop an Airstream into my mouth. This “Twinkie” homage of white cake stuffed with marshmallow buttercream put the bakery on the map, as did her R.V. (an Airstream in a raspberry glaze rolled in coconut) – both items luxe approaches to a processed Hostess nightmare. I only really saw Samuels a few times a year, at the occasional charity function and my annual pig roast, but I always thought Angel Food was one of the city’s best. As you stepped inside and gazed up at the Easy-Bake Ovens, you knew the owner never took herself too seriously, but as soon as you popped a Thin Mint or a whoopie pie into your mouth, you knew she had some serious skills. Many of those skills were on display during Blackbird’s first year in business or at erwin – both restaurants featuring New American cuisine. Samuels also gained a reputation as a specialty cake creator, offering up whimsical designs for weddings and birthdays; (even though the bakery is technically closed, they’ll still be open Tues. – Fri. this week, selling off all of the baked goods and getting out cakes that were ordered previously).
It’s no secret the price of butter and eggs has been slowly creeping up over the past few years, and “there’s no way I could pass on those increases to my customers” Samuels told me. But she acknowledges it would have been helpful to have a better head for business than just buttercream. I don’t know. I think it’s awfully difficult to make money on such small margins, and certainly, when your raw product costs increase, you face difficult choices. Do you raise your prices and potentially alienate regulars? Would those regulars keep coming if they knew that one spring Sunday might be the last day ever? I kept thinking about other great bakeries in town – Bittersweet, Floriole, Vanille, La Fournette – and how upset would customers be if they decided to hang it up? More to the point: how willing are you to accept price increases (and by how much) in order to keep a local business afloat, and could you make a regular attempt at patronizing it, rather than only on special occasions?
I had all kinds of questions as I left yesterday afternoon, R.V., Thin Mint and chocolate-peanut butter Airstream in tow. I had no doubt Samuels will land on her feet – she’s talking about working on something with her boyfriend at his farm in Mt. Carroll, IL (maybe an artisan cajeta, made from her own goats’ milk); there’s talk of doing some consulting (Levy and Lettuce would be crazy not to snatch her up for awhile) and she assures me that another bakery will be going into the space. But I think this closing sends a much bigger message: don’t assume your favorite place -be it a bakery, food shop, bar or restaurant – is in the black, coasting on a healthy profit every month. If you like it, patronize it, and be sure to tell others.
Angel Food Bakery
1636 W. Montrose