Behind a small cafe in Greenpoint lies the tastebuds of a city.
“Here, you have to try this,” says Erin Patinkin, unwrapping a small butcher's paper bag. “This is a test recipe, the ‘Hot Chocolate’ cookie. Let me know what you think.” Between the smell of burnt sugar, the whirring espresso grinder, and the James Blake on the speakers, thinking was hard enough as is. After one bite of Ovenly’s latest, it was impossible.
Patinkin smiles: the grin on my face means she’s done her job. As one half of the duo behind “New York’s Best Bakery,” her mandate is both alluringly simple and just the tip of the iceberg. “That’s our mission: ‘provide joy through flavor,’” Patinkin shares, “and that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for the last seven years.”
Since Ovenly began in 2010, what was once a two-woman operation (Patinkin and co-founder Agatha Kulaga) has grown from renting a half-oven in the kitchen of a pizza shop to providing joy at the rate of over 6000 baked goods per day. Ovenly’s flagship in Greenpoint, Brooklyn is both retail space and commercial kitchen - counting stores in Manhattan and Park Slope, Ovenly’s zen-inducing baked goods indulge New Yorkers from three distinct locations. Counting their wholesale partners - Stumptown, Joe, and every other trendy coffee shop you’ve ever visited - that number jumps to over 160. If you live in the city and metabolize sugar, you’ve probably had joy provided, courtesy of Ovenly.
So yes, business is booming. But quantitative success is just the icing on the cake. Since day one, Ovenly has put humanity at the center of everything. Staff and regulars form lasting friendships; maternity and paternity leave is offered to all employees; 40% of the company is made up of political refugees and the formerly-incarcerated. “If you said seven years ago, ‘What do you want out of Ovenly?’, I would’ve been like ‘I just want to make cookies and I want people to buy them,’” Patinkin told me. “Now, I want people to come here and be like ‘this stuff is delicious and I love what you’re doing.’ I want my staff to feel that way, too.”
There’s an old adage: “Cooking is art; baking is science” - one spontaneous and inspired, the other coldly prescribed. For Patinkin and Ovenly, nothing is further from the truth. In a swirl of smells, warmth radiating from ovens and smiles alike, Erin Patinkin and I spoke in person about baking, Brooklyn, and the endless pursuit of a better chocolate chip cookie:
What inspired you to start Ovenly?
So I worked in the arts and in non-profits, but I was always excited about food. I met Agatha at a food-focused book club - everyone in the club was a chef, environmental lawyer, something to do with food or food policy, except for Agatha and me. The day that we met, I brought up the fact I was surprised a business hadn’t come out of this club. Agatha kinda hung around after and was like, “I really want to start a company,” and I was like, “Me too.”
We first decided to start a high-end bar snack business. We created all these flavors, and got a client around the corner from here. The bar [formerly Veronica People’s Club] was also a cafe in the morning, and the owner there [asked] “I can’t find any good pastries--would you guys consider doing baked goods?” and Agatha and I said “why not?”
Well, the bar snacks never took off, but the baked goods did. In June 2010, I started delivering [them] twice a week to that café/bar. By November 2010, I had to quit my job. By March of the next year, Agatha had to quit hers. Honestly, we worked 14-16 hours a day for 2 years. We started baking in Paulie Gee’s, where we installed a half-size convection oven in his kitchen. We baked from 3am until 10am every day until we got our own kitchen in Red Hook. Then, five years ago, we built out this space [Ovenly’s Greenpoint flagship].
We’ll open our third store next week in Park Slope, and then we’re opening a fourth at the end of the year in Williamsburg. We wholesale to 160 plus clients all over the city, delivering fresh baked goods 362 days a year, the staff of 55 making about 6-7000 baked goods every single day. Yet you come in here and might not know that this space is the face of a larger operation.
The entire bakery is “behind these walls,” so this is both first store and the heart of the operation?
Yes! And then we’re also opening a test kitchen as part of our new offices. It’s going to look like a really fancy home kitchen where we’ll do [events]. A lot of chefs need a space to cook when they write cookbooks or before their restaurant opens, so we’re going to have pop-ups with chefs. The test kitchen is a space for us to have fun and experiment.
Do you ever get over the feeling of going somewhere, seeing Ovenly cookies, and watching people be like “that looks really good!”?
Nope. Never. That’s a great feeling. I love when someone eats a cookie and starts giving me the “Rocky” fist pump.
I got into this business because I love feeding people. I love food, too, but I love hospitality. We [at Ovenly] sell baked goods. We make people happy. We provide people joy, and that’s always been something that we’ve loved. That’s our mission: “provide joy through flavor,” and that’s exactly what we’ve been doing for the last seven years.
Was cooking big in your family, too?
I grew up baking with my mom and grandma, who was from Eastern Europe but who was also very American. So, we made weird JELL-O cakes and also walnut kiffle. But yeah, I loved it. Since I was in college, I was very focused on baking, but first just as a hobby.
I have a graduate degree in arts management, but I really wanted to go to culinary school. Now, it’s interesting, because I feel food as a career has become much more legitimate now, but back in my day, that was not as acceptable [to parents like mine]. I felt an expectation to be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a banker, and that never fit my interests or my personality. I even took my LSAT…
You took the LSAT?
Oh my God, I took the LSAT! And when I finished, I put the pencil down and [thought], “I do not want to be a lawyer.” I really wanted to go to culinary school but my parents poo-poo’d it. Like, “you’ve got a college degree, why would you go work in a kitchen for $12/hour?”
So here I am, owning a bakery.
What do they think now?
Oh, I mean they’re so proud. Obviously very happy.
Plus, you get to show up at every occasion bringing baked goods…
… and my Mom can say “I taught her everything she knows!”
Speaking of “taught”: if I’m understanding correctly, you’re also a self-taught baker, right?
Self-taught baker and businessperson. I feel that in the last seven years I learned how to be a production baker, a manufacturer, and I got my MBA.
Why was Brooklyn the perfect place for that growth?
Why was Brooklyn perfect? It was a moment in time where artisan food was making a big push forward. We started Ovenly in 2010 right after the crash, and that’s also when we saw all these Brooklyn artisans starting their companies--us included. We were on the tail end of that, but we’re part of the same wave as Four and Twenty Blackbirds, The Good Batch, etc. A lot of them are career-changers as well.
This was also the time of second-generation coffee - Stumptown’s, the Joe’s of the world, where you’d go and buy $4 lattes - but there really was no very good wholesale baked goods available. I think our stuff is delicious - we’ve been named the “Best Bakery in New York” multiple times, “Best Cake,” all these different awards - but business is somewhat talent, somewhat luck, and we were lucky to find that niche when we did. I don’t think the bar snacks would have ever really built this.
Reflecting on those seven years of luck and talent, what’s been your proudest moment watching Ovenly grow?
I’m proud of the fact that we’re still in business! We’ve made tons of mistakes on the way, but there’s a 94% fail rate in the food world and we’ve made it work. I’m proud that we wrote a cookbook in 2014, and it was named one of the best books of the season. I’m proud of my amazing staff. One of the pressures that I feel (and also something that I’m proud of) is that we provide the livelihoods for 55 people.
But right now, I think one of the things I’m really proud of is being here. We’ve established our core values, built a company culture, and have a true “triple-bottom line.” We employ political refugees and the formerly-incarcerated. We provide, I believe, some of the best benefits in the industry - maternity leave, paternity leave, healthcare, sick days, and vacation for everyone. I feel, in this moment, most proud of the fact that I’m not just building a business, but that I’m building a good business that builds quality jobs.
If you said seven years ago, “what do you want out of Ovenly?” I would’ve been like “I just want to make cookies and I want people to buy them.” Now, I’m like, “I want my clients to come here and think, ‘this stuff is delicious and I love what you’re doing,’ and I want my staff to feel that way, too. I just want to keep building that.
Alright, that was all of my metaphysical “leadership” stuff. Let’s get into the fun. What is your favorite recipe you’ve ever produced?
Oh, the chocolate chip cookie. Classic. I worked in a vegetarian restaurant in Chicago my first year out of college, and the pastry chef there was very, very proud of his chocolate chip cookie, but I thought it was shit. So, I decided to make a better one. I ended up creating that recipe a long time ago, but when [Ovenly] started making it we tweaked it to scale it.
How do you develop the new classics?
We sit around, ask “what should we make?” and then we make it happen. That’s it. We are currently in a co-working space [until the new offices are finished], and one day we were having a meeting where we were just shouting out flavors with our kitchen managers. Something like, “I got it! Coconut cake with matcha frosting!” These two women actually walked over to us and said, “what do you do? This is the best meeting I’ve ever overheard.”
I’ve always heard the phrase “Cooking is art, baking is science.” Is it really that linear - just simple stoichiometry?
Absolutely no. Once you know the basic ratios, you can really get creative on a small scale - tweak this, add that, but only if you’re only making 12 cookies at a time. Once you start scaling, all sorts of weird stuff happens. If you scale baking powder straight, for example, it may cause so much oxygen to release that it would blow holes in your cupcakes... which we’ve done. You have to be prepared to make a lot of really weird-tasting things until you get it right.
You almost have to know the rules to break the rules.
Exactly. And some things are a straight scale. We’ve found that gluten-free cookies are easy. But once you start mixing flours and butter and eggs together, it gets crazy.
Do you have a most memorable time where “rules broken” went either really right or really wrong?
Well, it’s mostly in the “wrong” direction. We used to make this spicy bacon caramel corn, and every other time we made it, the caramel would turn powdery. The popcorn would be collapse and become… chalky. It was disgusting. Totally saccharine.
Once, when we were making a vanilla cake dough, our baker tripled the amount of eggs alone instead of tripling the whole recipe. Basically, turned the whole thing into really liquid-y batter. We didn’t want to waste it so we thought, “What do we with this? It still tastes good. Oh, we’ll make vanilla-cake pancakes for a family meal!”
Which we did. For two straight weeks.
Stuff like that, but I think that’s baking in general. It’s easy to bake something for 20 seconds longer than you should and then you can’t sell it because it’s not perfect, but it’s still amazing food. That’s why we donate everything that’s not sold to a soup kitchen.
Between all the baking and 16 hour days, what do you like to do for fun around Brooklyn?
Well, now I don’t work 16-hour days! I did that for two years. Now, I run the company as the CEO. I don’t work in the kitchen at all anymore. As the founder, there came a point where I needed to take off the metaphorical apron and focus on the business.
Do you miss it?
You know, I had to take a break. After cooking that much, you just need some time off. Now, I cook and bake a lot again, but it’s mostly at home.
What I do for fun? I mean, I have a very strong community of friends and I go out with them. I take a lot of art classes. My background is in theater, so I re-upped with an improv class, which I think every entrepreneur should take - it teaches you risk, teaches you listening, it totally guided me as entrepreneur. I love doing those kinds of things because they inspire my like “zen moments” where I’m not thinking about anything stressful.
I also travel a lot. Whenever I can, I try to get out of Dodge and go on a trip.
How does that love of travel inspire Ovenly in Brooklyn?
That’s a big thing for me, and Agatha, too. We love going places, buying random things from markets, and testing them out. If it’s not for baking, it’s just for fun. There’s a woman named Fany Gerson who owns La Newyorkina, and is the chef partner in Dough doughnuts, and she got married in Mexico City. There were family and friends there, yes, but also at least 20 chefs. When we arrived, the chefs were all, “let’s go eat everything, everywhere.” We went to a ton of food markets. It was really fun.
From the world back to Brooklyn: you’ve built a community out of Greenpoint Avenue.
What’s your vision for the next five years of building that community?
Community’s a big thing for us. We’re focused on becoming the neighborhood bakery in every neighborhood. I really credit my staff for this, but if people come here, most come back 3-5 times a week. My staff are friends with our clients, our clients are friends with me, we’ve built a community around each store.
That’s really what “hospitality” is to us: being part of the neighborhood, and being that moment of joy in your day. I don’t know if “community” is the right word. I feel it’s more like an ecosystem. We want to be part of an ecosystem that is based on relationships.
As for Greenpoint: I know some people have woes [about the urban development], but all this new construction up West St? I’m happy for it. Even as a resident of the neighborhood. It was just empty land, and now, the whole waterfront is going to connect. I’m excited for that to happen. The more public spaces we can have, the better.