Old school baking at Old Town Bakery



 

 

I walked into Old Town Bakery at 9 a.m. on a recent Friday morning and, although I had previously made an appointment to meet with owner Niall Bowen, the tiny charmer of a café was already jam-packed with sleepy-eyed patrons who had not yet had their morning coffee, and who encouraged me to stand in queue like everyone else.

I did not want to upset anyone during this very sensitive time of day. When it was my turn at the front of the Iine I ordered a cafe latté, a breakfast burrito with bacon, scrambled eggs, cheddar, Pico de Gallo and roasted potatoes and a tomato brie soup to take with me so that I could have it later on for lunch. I would say that my patience definitely paid off.

Old Town Bakery is alive with an energetic buzz when most restaurants still have their doors closed. Customers seem generally excited to be a part of the very early rush hour, even if they are not fully awake and are standing in a line that goes out the door. There may not be any in-house seating. It is more of a grab and go, but the atmosphere is comfortably cozy like grandma’s house. It just makes you feel good to be there.

 

 

As I patiently awaited my turn, I couldn’t help but stare at the display fridge of fine cheeses, gourmet charcuterie and baked goods. I was especially drawn to the glistening sticky buns for which Old Town Bakery has become notorious. I remember hearing about the sticky buns through the coconut telegraph (which is what Key West residents call the grapevine) years ago, and I’m still hearing about them to this day. The bakery was recently acknowledged by Miami New Times as having the best key lime pie in the Florida Keys.

On the menu there are Danishes, cookies and brownies. A daily rotation of homemade artisanal breads accentuates the list of hearty sandwiches such as the vegan with hummus, spinach, tomato, sprouts, red onion and olive or the curried chicken salad with crisp green apples. Old Town Bakery roasts its own meats and make all of its pestos and spreads from scratch. It is important that no attention to detail is spared and that quality is not compromised by shortcuts.

“If it’s not authentic and doesn’t have character or heart, then it’s something that I don’t want to make,” Niall tells me when we sit down for our interview. Me, with my hands full of to-go bags getting ready to start my day and him almost ready to finish a shift that started at 1 a.m.

“We are particularly proud of our croissants. We make them by hand with a big heavy rolling pin on an antique bench that involves a lot more labor, but allows you to actually feel what you are making and to be a part of it. That extra effort we put in shows up in the final product,” he says.

When it comes to baking, Niall lives in a world that is old school where equipment is tediously manual and cupcakes are more of a pop culture trend than a lifelong tradition. Butter, sugar, salt and eggs are the backbone of ingredients. Measurements are taken in pounds and ounces. There are no digital scales at Old Town Bakery. Everything that Niall has learned in the French pastry shops and small kitchens he has worked in across Georgia, Florida and Boston, he has brought with him to the island. His attitude about baking is very nofrills, no-nonsense. When I ask him what inspired him to pursue the business, he says it is simply a matter of what he has been doing all his life. That it is what he set out to do from day one and has been doing ever since.

“When I was a kid I got good advice to stick with one thing and the trade has treated me pretty well since,” he reveals. “It was an experiment to try and make the food I love in an unapologetic way and see if it works.”

Turns out things have been working for Niall along with his wife, Ela Kyrsztofiak, and their team of loyal employees including Jessica McManis, who has been an integral part of the day-to-day operations since they opened in May 2010. They describe themselves as a group of locals just trying to do something cool, something real. Their genuine dedication has attracted a following of regulars who sometimes visit three to four times a week. Jessica already knows their orders long before they make it up to the counter.

“This place is starting to become a destination,” Niall says. “It’s got its own personality. It’s food that has heart for locals and tourists alike.”

A visit to Old Town Bakery, 930 Eaton St., is worth walking a few blocks away from Duval Street. However, delivery is also available every day from 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. Visit them online at www.oldtownbakerykeywest.com. ¦

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