By Missy Schrott | [email protected]
As Joan Leko walked into Alexandria Pastry Shop on a late Friday morning, she was greeted by familiar faces and the scent of fresh baked goods.
She ordered a coffee and sat down at a table in the middle of the café’s sunlit seating area, where she pulled out a crossword puzzle and got to work.
Shortly after, her friend Helen joined her to chat over a cup of coffee before continuing on with her day. Then three more friends gradually joined Leko’s table.
Almost every day of the week, at any given time, variations of a group of about 10 locals, ranging in age from 60 to 90, can be found frequenting their favorite neighborhood sweet spot, most likely gathered around a table decorated with coffee cups, muffin wrappers and newspapers.
“It’s kind of like Cheers – everybody knows your name,” Ken Erickson, one of the shop’s regulars, said.
“We call it the Cheers for senior citizens,” Marilyn McKeown, another pastry shop groupie, joked.
Many of the shop’s frequent guests have been visiting for decades. Leko has been coming to the Bradlee Shopping Center pastry stop since it opened in 1988. The shop will celebrate its 30th anniversary on July 21.
As the regulars lingered over their coffees and helped each other with the crossword, Alexandria Pastry Shop founder and owner Tom Lally buzzed around the café.
It only takes a few minutes of observing Lally to understand how he’s kept the small business thriving for 30 years.
Cutting through the kitchen from his office to the café, he took time to ensure operations were running smoothly, sampling homemade buttercream frosting, checking to see if stacks of cakes were cool and skirting around bustling bakers with the ease of someone who dodges flying dough on a daily basis.
He appeared equally at home on the other side of the doors, greeting customers by name, stepping in to help out a busy cashier at the register and sliding wedding cake samples in front of a bride-and-groom-to-be.
While the pastry shop has won numerous awards and accolades over the years from publications like the Washingtonian, Lally said he considered his greatest accomplishments the relationships he’s developed with his employees and customers.
Over the course of 30 years, Lally has kneaded Alexandria Pastry Shop into more than a place to grab your morning coffee, a light lunch or a sweet treat – he’s made it a community institution.
Lally has always loved pastries and fondly recounts childhood memories of visiting neighborhood bakeries with his mother.
He graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a degree in food service and housing administration and worked in several D.C. area restaurants and bakeries before he switched to bakery sales.
He met his wife and settled in a house about a mile from the Bradlee Shopping Center, which Lally decided would be perfect for a bakery.
Lally said that his decade in bakery sales gave him a foot in the door in the industry and allowed him to open Alexandria Pastry Shop quickly in the former High’s Dairy Store location in 1988.
“We were on a bare bones budget,” Lally said. “And we begged, borrowed, stealed equipment, and loaned and financed everything we could do to get the place open.”
From the moment the bakery first opened, Lally said it’s been his philosophy to make everything from scratch with the best available ingredients, from imported chocolate to fresh eggs to real vanilla bean.
Adhering to the highest standards of quality has allowed Lally to build a reputation in the community. Over the years, Alexandria Pastry Shop has made its mark on Alexandria as a go-to casual lunch spot and bakery, as well as a successful catering business and wedding cake designer.
“I hear people say, when they want a special birthday cake, when they want a special party cake, they come here to get stuff that’s going to taste good,” he said. “During the holidays, we’ll have people come and say, ‘I don’t know what we would do without you. You’re a tradition at my home.’”
The pastry shop’s menu is constantly evolving and expanding, both to keep up with food trends like the cupcake boom-and-bust and to take advantage of seasonal ingredients. This summer, Lally landed a hit with a blueberry lemon cake and, more recently, has been experimenting with fresh peaches.
Lally said he makes it a point to continue learning from fellow bakers, whether it’s through visiting local pastry shops while traveling or by taking advice from his customers in Alexandria.
For example, one Christmas in the shop’s early years, Lally said he had tried and failed to make a German Christmas stollen.
“It was the worst stollen,” he said. “But this German lady came in one time, and we talked, and I said, ‘We just have this terrible stollen,’ and she goes, ‘I have a family recipe.’ I said, ‘Will you give it to me?’ And she said, ‘Sure,’ and it’s the best. We’ve been using it for like, 20-some years.”
Lally said it’s the daily interactions like these, with his customers and staff, that make the job worthwhile.
Regulars like Leko and her crew said they return to the pastry shop day after day for the atmosphere, the company and the food.
“Everybody knows everybody, plainly,” Leko said. “If you go somewhere and then you don’t want to go home yet, you come here and you have coffee and cake.”
The regulars in Leko’s group all live nearby, but most hadn’t known each other until they started meeting at the pastry shop. The informal gatherings escalated from once a week, to a couple times a week, to not being able to walk into the shop without recognizing at least one person.
“It’s like when you’re a kid and you’re growing up and you call somebody, ‘Hey, can Johnny come out and play? Can Suzie come out and play?’” Erickson said. “We’ve kind of got this routine here, where you know you’re going to find your friends here.”
Erickson said he likes that the group can hang out for several hours without feeling rushed to pay the bill and leave as they would at an ordinary sit-down restaurant.
Each day, the group spends time together talking about their families, doing the weekly crossword puzzle, sharing book recommendations and, of course, splitting a pastry or two.
“We do not feel old, and I think that’s the important thing,” McKeown said. “We all come from different [backgrounds], yet we’re all able to sit, have a cup of coffee, share something and feel that this has been an important part of our day.”
“I’ll tell you what I like,” Ella van Bakergem said, pausing to carefully slice her fork into a piece of triple chocolate mousse cake. “Well, first of all, I like the pastries. That’s the number one thing that drew me here in the beginning.”
Besides the desserts, van Bakergem said she liked the ambiance of the pastry shop. Unlike other cafés or restaurants, the floor plan is open, there isn’t loud music blaring and the seating isn’t taken up by businesspeople on laptops, she said.
“You could go in the coffee shop starting with ‘S’ and ending with ‘K’ next door, and it’s not the same,” McKeown said.
While the regulars are hooked on the café’s character, cakes and companionship, some customers are drawn to the shop by tradition.
“The children coming in who were looking at the cookies in the cookie case, … we’ve done their wedding cakes,” Lally said, “Now they’re coming back with their children, and they’re looking in the cookie case. It’s been a generational thing for people.”
Lally said his key to maintaining such a loyal customer base, beyond producing quality products, has been ensuring positive customer service.
“When I hire people to work up front, I try to hire attitude, not experience,” he said. “We teach them how to answer the phone, how to address people, and I say to them, ‘You’re going to learn things here, how you want to treat people when you go out to a restaurant, because you’ll see how people treat you here.’”
One of Lally’s college-age employees, Andres Montenegro, said Alexandria Pastry Shop gave his father one of his first jobs when he emigrated from Bolivia.
When asked about the shop’s secret to success, Montenegro said it boiled down to customer service.
“Since it’s a small shop, we don’t have the resources that big companies do, so I think customer service is the main thing that helps people feel like they have a good connection,” he said.
Lally said, in the end, he attributes the shop’s 30 thriving years to quality and service.
“I have a couple doing a wedding cake tasting over there, and the bride said she doesn’t eat cake” he said as he helped clean up from a lunch rush, glancing over his shoulder at a couple sitting at a cozy corner table.
“She’s on her second slice,” he said, “so we’re doing something right.”