It started with biscotti
From hammer to whisk: No regrets as hobby morphs into bakery
Labor of love: Long a hobby baker, Larry Blanas and his wife, Vicky, ignored naysayers' warnings of shaky economic times and cupcake competition, and launched his dream in Wilmette. (Antonio Perez/Chicago Tribune)
Long a hobby baker, Blanas ignored naysayers' warnings of shaky economic times and cupcake competition, and launched his dream in Wilmette. In July 2011, he opened a 1,200-square-foot shop. Those naysayers now stand on the other side of the counter at Lawrence Deans Bake Shop.
"Buddies (in the construction business) still think I'm nuts," explains the 54-year old father of two. Life has changed. Instead of running off to Home Depot while bathroom tiles set, he's up at 4 a.m. to proof dough for cinnamon rolls or package a couple of dozen hand-decorated cookies for an 8 a.m. pickup. The freedom to grab last-minute tickets to a Cubs game is history. So is his jogging routine.
But regrets? No way. Satisfaction is sweet.
"In the construction business, it's hard to please clients," Blanas said. "They're always thinking you're ripping them off. You bid a job, and then someone comes and undercuts you. People are never happy. But here, a customer buys a cupcake, bites into it and you hear 'Wow, that's beautiful.'"
The store (637 Green Bay Road) had a former life as a flower shop. He signed a lease after months of scouting for the right location and finding ovens, display cases and sinks from restaurant stores and on Craigslist.
The decision to switch careers evolved.
Baking was always a pastime, but the food business was in Blanas' Greek roots. His grandfather, the late Gus Mitchell, operated several restaurants on the North Shore. Listening to tales of long hours, no vacation and demanding customers never detoured him. But reality — paying bills, raising two children with his wife Vicky — got in the way.
She worked as a program director at the Center for Talent Development at Northwestern University after a career in teaching. He managed to squeeze in cooking classes at night and toyed with recipes. His biscotti found avid tasters among Vicky's colleagues. When an opportunity to sell at Northfield Farmers Market popped up in 2006, he leased a commercial kitchen and launched a website.
Word spread and orders grew. Calls to Vicky at work to stop by and whip up more batter or frosting dictated her lunch break or what time she got home for dinner. His presence at holiday fairs expanded the inventory to include fudge, toffee, more varieties and flavors of cookies and muffins. Plaudits followed. She resigned from Northwestern this May to join him full time.
The 17-year marriage added a business element. Personality differences surfaced. She thrives on creativity and customer contact; Larry's the neat-nick with an eye for detail, a love of food chemistry and excellent time-management skills. The heavy metal music he prefers often sends her outside for a walk.
Moral support comes from their children and customers. When school schedules permit, the kids pitch in. Niko, a junior at New Trier High School, uses an iPad to set up technology to manage sales and inventory. Alex, a high school freshman, designs sugar flower decorations and works the sales counter. An additional seasonal employee now shares the counter traffic.
Holiday treats will include riffs on pumpkin pie spices. Biscotti dipped in bittersweet and white chocolates will come in other flavors such as peppermint and eggnog. Variety bags of biscotti ends and samplers of fudge and toffee will share trays with hand-decorated cookies the size of a silver dollar.
Special requests challenge the artist in Vicky. For one bachelorette party she designed body parts from sugar cookie dough. For a funeral luncheon, she cut sugar cookie dough in the shapes of urns. The collection of 500 copper cookie cutters represents months of online shopping.
"You never know what customers want," she adds. Fudge flies out the door, so do zucchini muffins. One customer's order for frosted cinnamon rolls wiped out the entire inventory. Giving into a last-minute plea for a dozen mini cupcakes derailed her mission to flop into a chair one evening and finish a book.
The physical demands of being on their feet all day exhaust them. Too many snitches of warm cranberry-almond muffins foil Larry's campaign to control his girth.
There are no regrets, nor are their former careers missed.
"What makes us tired also makes us happy," Vicky says.