Becoming a Baker
It’s 1:00 p.m. on a Tuesday in February in Park Slope, Brooklyn. A bitter wind barrels down the nearly empty sidewalks of Eighth Avenue. This is the quiet hour. Lunchtime is over and the schools won’t let out for another two hours, spilling students onto the sidewalks and into the local diners and coffee shops. Weather forecasters are predicting a winter storm for tomorrow, and there’s the slightly ominous feeling in the air of a city preparing to batten down.
Park Slope has a reputation for many things, but tops among them is that it is a neighborhood for families. If New York City is essentially a cluster of small towns—each with its own history, customs, and rules; grouped together in a tiny space; and connected by subway lines instead of highways—Park Slope has long been the place couples with small children leave the city for when they don’t actually
want to leave the city. These days, real estate prices are such that relocations like this are largely limited to millionaires, but the neighborhood still manages to maintain a seventies, Sesame Street vibe despite the influx of money. This is the epicenter of Brooklyn’s brownstone-lined streets, the heart of New York’s liberal leanings. Mayor Bill de Blasio has called it home for decades, and still makes the trip all the way from Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side to exercise at the local YMCA every day. Senator Chuck Schumer’s downstate residence is in one of the handful of prewar apartment buildings that line Prospect Park a few blocks away. Park Slope’s legendary food co-op—founded in the early seventies by residents who wanted access to good food—is one of the oldest and largest in the nation; it’s also notorious for strict membership rules that have generated near-mythical stories around the city over the years.
Eighth Avenue runs between bustling Seventh Avenue, the neighborhood’s main street, and Prospect Park West, which borders the west side of the park. Prospect Park is Brooklyn’s version of Central Park, minus the tourists and the fences needed to prevent them from ruining the grass. In the summer, the park is the borough’s enormous bustling backyard, hosting barbecues, drum circles,
picnics, and concerts. Right now, it’s mostly empty save for a few resolute joggers and cyclists taking advantage of its emptier hours. If the forecasted storm brings actual snow tomorrow, then the Long Meadow will become host to a serious sledding scene, but for now everything remains gray and cold.
Eighth Avenue is almost entirely residential. From where it begins off Grand Army Plaza to where it ends a mile and a half south at the Prospect Expressway before continuing to and merging with Fort Hamilton Parkway, it’s a long series of brownstone stoops and apartment entries, interspersed with a few churches and synagogues from one end to the other, save for a pocket of blink-and-you-might-miss small stores between Eleventh and Twelfth Streets that somehow slipped through the zoning laws. This pocket of stores is so easily missed, in fact, that when one gets off the F or G train exit at the corner of Ninth Street and Eighth Avenue and begins walking south, there is almost always a moment of panic just past the corner of Tenth Street: Is it still there? Does it look closed? Has it packed up and disappeared like so many other beloved New York businesses? But then you cross Eleventh Street and you sigh from relief. It’s still there. Along with the small spa, taco place, and pizza bar on the far corner.
There right in the middle, the narrow blue awning now visible, thank goodness, is Ladybird Bakery.
Ladybird is tiny. Small even by New York standards, it has a quaint mom-and-pop appearance that so many new businesses try to capture, except here it’s underdone in a way that reinforces its authenticity. The patina has been earned, not created. A simple sky-blue awning hangs over the door, displaying the name LADYBIRD in contained letters that are barely readable a block away (hence the repeated panic that comes with every visit). On either end of the awning are the bakery’s address and phone number. The phone number hints to its longstanding presence in the
neighborhood; a throwback to when people called to place their order, rather than doing it online. The windows are rimmed with paintings of wildflowers. On either side of the door are plain wooden benches that invite loitering; despite its small footprint, customers are invited to take up as much space as they can.
Once inside, the narrow room is dominated by a large glass display case that is brimming with baked goods. Like suddenly stepping into a bright light, it can take a few minutes to make sense of everything that is being offered. To the left are all the tarts and pies, on the right are all the cakes—each shelf devoted to a different size and flavor. On top of the counter are plates of cookies, muffins, and, if you get there early enough, scones. The floor behind the counter is elevated, so the servers can better see the customers, but even with their added height, the servers still have to peer at customers through the tall plates of baked goods piled on the counter. Opposite the counter are a handful of tables pushed against the windows, enough to sit two to three people each. In the morning, these tables are filled with young schoolchildren and their parents; around 3:00 p.m., they are crowded with high school students stopping by for a snack.
Once your eye adjusts to the bonanza of baked goods—the cakes with different icings and colorful decorations are especially dazzling—it slowly becomes apparent that there are few actual signs marking what’s what. There are no price tags at all. You must ask. It’s at this stage of the purchasing process that it becomes especially easy to spot the regular from the newbie. Those who point with assurance when called upon—the six-inch Blackout, please—and those who pause, frown, and then begin a series of familiar questions: What’s in that cake? How much does the small one cost? How many inches is the big one? Can I have it personalized? Ladybird is a place that requires conversation.
THE DESIRE TO CONNECT is perhaps the thing that defines a baker more than anything else. Baking is about enjoyment, whether it be in celebration or simply end-of-day comfort. More precisely, baking is about other people’s enjoyment. Chefs can happily make a meal for one, but no one bakes for themselves. Is there another profession so devoted to bringing happiness to other people’s lives? It’s difficult to imagine a simpler, more direct way to bring some goodness into the world on a daily basis.
At the moment, Ladybird is empty except for Mary Louise Clemens, Ladybird’s owner, who has just arrived and is sitting at the corner table scrolling through her phone. Clemens opened Ladybird (then called Two Little Red Hens), in this space twenty-five years ago, and has been its sole owner for the last thirteen. Running a small, brick-and-mortar business anywhere in the country could reasonably be considered an act of insanity in the digital age, but to do so in New York for more than a quarter century successfully is a combination of heroic and miraculous. And yet, perhaps there’s no better measure of how well Clemens’s bakery is run than the fact she’s able to show up at 1:00 p.m. and immediately launch into a topic that has nothing to do with baked goods at all. She’s currently obsessed with another feel-good activity: the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show.
Clemens is a cheerful woman in her mid-fifties, with a round youthful face, bobbed brown hair, and glasses. If you pay very close attention when she speaks, you can hear traces of a Southern accent when she pronounces certain words. She’s wearing a vest over her button-down shirt and jeans; if it wasn’t the middle of winter in Brooklyn, you might well assume her hobby is gardening, not attending dog shows. A snow advisory has just officially been issued for New York
City beginning at 5:00 a.m. tomorrow, but Clemens, who is scrolling through her phone, looking for pictures from last year’s event, will not be deterred. Pier 94, where the show is being held, is on the westernmost side of the city, part of a neighborhood that for decades housed working docks but not much else and is subsequently a no-man’s-land of public transportation with the nearest subway four avenues away. Last year, Clemens was sporting an injured foot and slogged the whole way in an orthopedic boot. “It was worth it,” she says. But she’s already decided not to walk in tomorrow’s snow. This year she’ll take the train into Manhattan and then a taxi the remaining blocks to Pier 94.
She returns to her dog pictures to point out one of last year’s contestants in the boxer category. “It’s just so crazy. This poor guy, I mean he had just a normal little coat, but all these other ones are decked out and look like Elvis,” she says, and I can catch her faint accent when she says the musician’s name. She scrolls again. “And this is my dog watching the dog show that night. She loves to watch TV.”
IF YOU WERE ABLE to follow Clemens’s Southern accent back to its origin, it would lead you to San Angelo, Texas, a
small city ninety minutes south of Abilene, where she was born and raised. No one who knew her then would be surprised at what she was doing now. “I started baking when I was a child because I didn’t want to do yard work in Texas,” says Clemens. “My friends would come over and I would pretend I had a bakery. I started off using Bisquick and different things like that. My parents would wake up and I’d have the whole table filled with stuff. It was crazy.”
At twelve, she took her first cake-decorating class at the local college, learning the basics like flowers and seashells. She was so young, her mother had to enroll with her. By age fifteen, she knew that baking was her calling. “I could have stayed up all night doing other things, I suppose, though this was the seventies in mid-Texas so you didn’t really have other things. You didn’t have TV, or TV was not like it is now, so that’s what we did.”
At nineteen, she enrolled in San Angelo State to study management and emerged with an associate’s degree. Following that, she enrolled in the Culinary Institute of America. The Culinary Institute, “the other CIA” as many of its students jokingly refer to it, opened in 1946 as the New Haven Restaurant Institute and was designed to train returning veterans in the culinary arts. In his memoir Kitchen
Confidential, Anthony Bourdain devotes an entire chapter to his time there in the mid-seventies, crediting it, in a roundabout way, as the thing that readied in him for the cooking world. A sort of military basic training, but for cooking.
Like many of its graduates in those days, when Clemens left she immediately landed a job, through CIA connections, at a hotel in California. The hotel was on the edge of Monterey Bay, and Clemens was hired onto the small pastry team. Hotel desserts are plated affairs. “It’s a different kind of dessert than what you’d do for a bakery, unless it’s for a buffet,” notes Clemens. “You rarely make an entire cake.” But she loved it. “It was a gorgeous hotel. I would do the plated desserts, or desserts for a buffet, and things like that. So, I worked there for a couple of years and then I moved to another hotel in another part of California.”
Though she didn’t see herself working in a hotel for the long-term, she’s quick to credit her time there for helping her develop strengths she still relies on today. First and foremost, time management. “I learned how to set up a buffet, how to put out two hundred desserts on a strict timetable. You know, in an hour or ten minutes if you have to get it plated up. It teaches you that kind of skill, how to be fast and organize your time, and just make things happen.”
It also taught her the skill of presentation, which was helpful when Ladybird got into wholesale and was doing large events for clients like the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. “I needed dessert for five hundred people and I knew I had the skills to do that kind of volume.”
After these initial years on the hotel circuit, Clemens transitioned to a small bakery in the area that was even smaller than Ladybird. It was here she learned how to decorate specialty cakes. “At the CIA we learned to decorate but it wasn’t the same.” She was still in her twenties at this point, benefitting enormously from the people she was working with. So what could compel a Texan, whose professional life had thus far happily existed in the beautiful surroundings of Monterey Bay, California, to relocate to eighties New York City, a place then overwhelmed with crime and battling a crack epidemic?
Two words: cheap rent.
BY THE TIME SHE moved to the city, Clemens had married a New Yorker and her husband had a rent-controlled apartment on the Upper West Side. Even in the eighties rent-controlled apartments were not easy to come by; when
they separated not long after, Clemens managed to keep the apartment, which made all the difference in her ability to live in New York and pursue baking on her own terms. “I was paying five hundred dollars a month rent for a one-bedroom on the Upper West Side. That’s how I was able to survive,” she says bluntly.
It was during this period of adjustment that Clemens started her own business with friend Christina Winkler. “She was a little bit older and had kids. I was young, soon to be single, and no kids. She kept on talking about doing something and I was like, ‘Well, let’s do it.’?” In the beginning, that “something” was simply selling their wares out of the back of Clemens’s van. They would bake for hours in either Clemens’s apartment or Winkler’s mother’s kitchen on the Upper East Side, then drive the goods down to the St. Mark’s farmers market in the East Village.
In the beginning, it was tough going. Clemens, like previous generations of New York newcomers trying to make it in the city, lived on baked potatoes, sometimes with cheese and pesto if she had the leftover money to buy the additional ingredients. She and Winkler added another farmers market to their rounds and did all their baking themselves. They named their business Two Little Red Hens. “We
wanted ‘The Little Red Hen,’?” says Clemens, “but that was taken, actually, I think by an Italian place or a pizza place or a chicken place. I’m not even sure. It was taken so we couldn’t do it, so another friend said, ‘There’s two of you so just go with two,’ and so we did that.”
After a year they moved their baking to a shared kitchen owned by a woman for whom Clemens had worked briefly when she first came to New York. This was the early nineties; Frasier had just premiered on prime time, introducing the world to the idea that drinking coffee with long fancy names was a sophisticated pastime. Coffee bars were beginning to open up around the city, and Clemens and Winkler began supplying pastries to one on the Upper East Side. “It was opened by a girl who was from Seattle and she had some family money backing. That was our first wholesale account.”
Not long after, in 1994, they decided it was time to take the plunge and open their own doors. They began searching for a location that might work. Location mattered less, remembers Clemens, than simply fulfilling the need to have their own space. “Brooklyn or Manhattan, we didn’t care.” Baker friends gave her a list of bakeries to visit, including a spot way down on Eighth Avenue in Brooklyn. At the time
it housed a bakery called Faith’s, owned by a woman of the same name. In 1994, The New York Times called it a “gem of a shop” and as far back as 1988 the paper was championing its “excellent sweet potato, pecan, and cranberry lattice pies.”
It was somewhat out of the way, but Clemens and Winkler went and looked anyway. They took it immediately, which as any person who has hunted for property in New York will tell you is the only way to get anything.
“We walked in, looked around, and that was it,” recalls Clemens. “It was very lucky, because the owners were going to close, but we came in at the last minute and got it.” Clemens borrowed $30,000 from her mother to cover her half of the start-up costs (over the next few years she repaid it entirely, plus 7.5 percent interest). But even with the loan, it was still a hard time. “I mean, I had nothing. I was newly divorced and single. I only paid five hundred dollars in rent but I scraped [by]. It was very, very hard for me.”
Like so much in the city, the neighborhood they settled in has changed drastically over the years; the space they landed between Eleventh and Twelfth Streets was then considered the outskirts of Park Slope. While these days it’s prime Park Slope territory, two decades ago it was still considered somewhat of a risk, business-wise. “Twelfth Street
was the dividing line when we first came,” says Clemens. “The Realtors would come by and point to ‘the little bakery’ as a selling point.”
Happily, the pair didn’t have to start from scratch. Included in the sale from Faith’s was much of the machinery, along with a series of her recipes—including one for the Brooklyn Blackout. The new owners immediately scrapped it. Faith had other things that were very good, but her recipe for the Brooklyn Blackout “was not one of them,” Clemens recalls. It would be years before the Blackout reappeared on Eighth Avenue. Instead, for a long time Two Little Red Hens stuck to the breakfast items it’d sold at the farmers market: scones, cupcakes, and muffins.
“The first couple of years we were here we didn’t sell any decorated cakes at all; there wasn’t really the market for that yet,” Clemens explains. This would change in the next few years, largely due to one very famous cupcake.