Sweet Holiday Season When You Shop Local

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – If you’re looking to satisfy your hankering for brownies, look no further than Sugarpan Bakery’s stand at the center of Southern Park Mall. But you better get there early.

“We cannot keep the brownies on the shelf,” says owner Darla Cecil. “Most days we sell out of our stuff on here. If we have anything left over, it’s never the brownies.”

Cecil opened the satellite just before the coronavirus pandemic forced her to temporarily close her bakery at 196 McCartney Road, Campbell. Each day, Cecil brings containers of freshly baked cookies, cupcakes and brownies to sell. They range from traditional flavors like vanilla and triple chocolate to specialty items that include chocolate peanut butter cup and white chocolate macadamia.

Everything is baked at the Campbell site, including specialty orders and cakes. Because the pandemic forced customers to postpone weddings and other gatherings, those orders have been down, she says. However, the mall site made up for any retail business she lost “and then some,” she says. “I was really able to sustain the business based on this and my custom orders.”

It’s also afforded her invaluable exposure. Since reopening her site in Campbell Oct. 15, Cecil expects retail sales to increase, allowing her to hire five or six part-time workers in addition to the 10 she currently employs.

“We’re probably going to be running the ovens 24 hours to keep up with the volume we anticipate,” she says.

Cecil and other area bakeries and coffee shops are hopeful that strong holiday sales will bring them a happy new year. For that, they rely on the support of local customers.

Despite reduced operating hours since Easter and a maximum allowance of just eight customers at a time, Classic Bakery, Boardman, has seen a “pretty consistent” customer flow, says manager Christine Neff. “Blessedly, we’ve been super busy as of late,” she says.

Starting in November, the bakery will open back up to six days a week, which Neff says will help as holiday orders begin to roll in. Cookie orders make November and December two of Classic’s busiest months.

And while holiday travel is expected to be down this year, Neff says “people are still having get-togethers and people are still having cookies.”

Classic isn’t taking holiday cookie orders until after October. But Neff and owner Paul Rovnak are encouraging customers to place their orders soon after, and to call in their orders ahead and pay over the phone. They also ask customers to call the shop when they arrive so employees can bring out their orders curbside.

“We’re trying to make things for the customers as safe and uncomplicated as possible,” Rovnak says. “It’s just so much busier at the holidays that it’s going to be a challenge.”

Pumpkin is one of the top flavors during the holiday season, bakeries say. Neff expects pumpkin pies, logs and bread will continue to sell well through the end of the year and pecan pies – which are available in the store as of Nov. 1 – will also be hot through the new year.

Mocha House, Warren, offers pumpkin squares, cookies and cheesecake in its bakery cases, as well as pumpkin spice flavored coffee drinks, says co-owner Bill Axiotis. As things move into Christmas, peppermint will also become a popular drink flavor, he says.

Chocolate Strawberry Mousse Cake is a specialty at Mocha House in Warren. 

“We’re looking forward to 2021 being special,” he says. “2020 was a challenge. So 2021’s going to be real special for us.”

Axiotis has been “pleasantly surprised” with business during the pandemic. Mocha House and its Boardman and downtown Youngstown stores stayed open through the shutdown, during which revenue was down to about 30% of what the company usually brings in, he says.

Now, it’s closer to 85% and employment is nearly back to being full, he says.

“Little by little, we’re gaining back what we lost,” Axiotis says.

During the holidays, Axiotis expects customers to host smaller dinners and parties, if any at all, so the company is adapting its cookie and pastry trays and cakes to fit the need. “But we still feel we’re going to be just as busy,” he says.

Since reopening for indoor dining, customers have been returning as well. “We’re running out of space some days,” he says. To maximize the cafe’s seating during the winter months, siding will be added to the patio section with outdoor heaters, he says.

Bill Smith hopes customers take advantage of the indoor seating at the new home of Abigail’s Bakery Creations. Smith opened his new 2,500-square-foot storefront at 4930 Mahoning Ave. earlier this month after moving from his previous store a few doors down.

In addition to indoor seating and plenty of parking, the new store features a drive-thru, which helps because many customers remain wary about dining indoors during the pandemic, Smith says. Still, he expects to gain back the retail business he lost in the time from closing down the original store and opening the new one.

abigail's bakery creations
Bill Smith, co-owner of Abigail’s Bakery Creations.

At the new shop, customers will find the baklava, chocolate chip cookies, cakes, doughnuts and other baked goods, as well as the uncommon flavors and combinations that Smith is known for.

“One of the things that’s gotten me to where we are, I believe, is I do what normal bakeries don’t do,” he says. “Our top five flavors: Most people have never heard of them.”

His third-best-selling item is a pickleback cupcake. Other flavor combinations include lavender and rosemary, as well as banana and peanut butter, and chocolate with local beer.

The chocolate chip cookies and baklava account for more than half of his total revenue, he says. At the previous site, Smith sold 20 dozen chocolate chip cookies daily – the sole cookie variety he sells to walk-in customers. He would sell 4,000 cookies in 16 days, he says.

“I don’t compete with grandmas,” he says with a laugh. “I lose to grandma every time. I’ll accept that.”

With the new location, he expects cookie sales to increase to 40 to 50 dozen daily and hopes to land wholesale orders, he says.

Sales of bagged coffee are up 30% at Branch Street Coffee Roasters, Boardman. The trend began when Branch Street was forced to close its outlet at 1393 Boardman-Canfield Road, but has continued as customers who used to commute daily now work from home, says owner Matthew Campbell.

“I think those same people have started to develop their own coffee brewing habits at home on the way to their commute to their living room,” Campbell says. “As we’ve opened back up, they’ve also come in to purchase coffee in person.”

As the holiday season approaches, Campbell expects sales of bagged coffee to be closer to 40% of total revenue, he notes.

Like Smith, Campbell recognizes that some customers are still avoiding lines and drinking coffee in the shop. After reopening, the shop launched a mobile app that lets customers order and pay for their drinks ahead of time, so they can walk in, grab their cup and walk out. Branch Street also offers curbside service, he says.

“That gives us the opportunity to plan for the next couple minutes ahead of us when we see those coming through so it’s ready on time,” he says.

Fall flavors are already flowing at Branch Street – except for pumpkin. A shortage prevented the shop from rolling out any pumpkin flavors. But Campbell says the roastery got “really creative” with developing new fall flavors.

“I’m really happy with what we were able to put out there,” he says.

Temptations Café in Greenville, Pa., also lost many of its regular customers when it had to shut down, says Cheryl Axtell, who owns the cafe with her fiance, Joe LaBruzzo. Temptations specializes in gourmet coffee drinks as well as breakfast sandwiches and paninis. It is known for its cupcakes and other baked goods.

While the loss of weddings hurt the company’s cake business, those orders are beginning to return, Axtell says. Temptations just hired a cake decorator, who brings nine years of experience at a bakery in New Orleans.

Cheryl Axtell, business partner for Temptations Café and Cakery in Greenville, Pa., holds a Halloween-themed cookie cake in front of a counter filled with cakes and cupcakes.

“He’s bringing ideas and something fresh into the bakery that we’re all looking forward to and it’s already started to improve,” Axtell says. “Now we’re going to be able to offer a variety of cakes in our display and do custom orders more than we were able to before.”

For customers who remain uneasy about dining indoors, Temptations also has a pick-up window at its 290 Main St. location for walk-up customers who order ahead of time. Axtell hopes the holiday season will give the café a boost to make up for the business it lost during the shutdown.

“I encourage everybody to support local. That’s crucial for us right now,” she says. “We’re depending on our survival right now and local business is what we really depend on to keep us going here.”

Pictured: Cupcakes, brownies and cookies are the order of the day for Sugarpan Bakery’s satellite in the Southern Park Mall. Darla Cecil says she sells out almost daily. 

Hear more from these small businesses in our On the Menu series on AfterHoursYoungstown.com