Before the cupcake, there was the CupCake, along with Ho-Hos, King Dons (aka, Ding Dongs, it’s a long story), Twinkies and other lesser members of the Hostess and Little Debbie families. Stephanie Samuels grew up with these popular packaged snack cakes so when she opened her own bakery, Angel Food, 1636 W. Montrose Ave., she decided to showcase recreations of popular comfort foods as her signature treats.
For her updated and upgraded Twinkie, Samuels starts with a moist and light spongy cake, injects it with gooey marshmallow buttercream and then wraps it in aluminum foil to resemble the iconic Airstream trailer (hence the name), partly because Samuels loves Airstreams (“That would be my food truck if I had one”) and partly to keep the legal team at Hostess busy elsewhere. The result is pure divine inspiration: it’s not called Angel Food for nothing.
In short order, the R.V. (an homage to the raspberry Zinger) and Nutty Camper (a spin on the elusive Chocodile) joined the Airstream to form what Samuels dubbed the Trailer Park Special. That sort of whimsical touch or “schtick,” as Samuels calls it, pervades Angel Food, from the brightly painted blue and green walls lined with vintage Easy-Bake Ovens to the ever-present bow in Samuels’ hair. (“I was worried when I opened that we were too girlie. I’m thrilled that big men feel comfortable here.”) Crossing the “yum”-my threshold feels a bit like stepping from a bustling urban thoroughfare into small town Main Street, which suits Samuels just fine.
When she opened Angel Food in 2004, Samuels had a particular vision for her new venture. “I was more interested in starting a community here, and I did that,” she says. “It’s like Mayberry around here.”
Whether it’s the friendships formed among her tight-knit and uncommonly cheerful employees, a partnership with the local elementary school or relationships forged with loyal customers, she takes pride in her role as “citizen of the neighborhood” (going so far as to relieve the block of a noisy rooster). Samuels knows many of her customers by name, including the pint-sized ones who were newborns seven years ago and now boast siblings, as if she were part of their extended family.
She even entered the profession the old-fashioned way: No fancy pastry school for Samuels, who grew up mostly in Highland Park; she learned on the job. Answering a want ad for a pastry chef at the now-shuttered Metropolis Cafe, she talked her way into the gig despite a complete lack of experience, unless you consider an art degree in museum studies the ideal resume for a baker. Owner Erwin Drechsler “took a leap of faith,” says Samuels. “I had the drive and the interest.” As it turns out, her training in sculpture and collage actually served her well in designing desserts, along with having an innate sense of how to create pastries.
After leaving Metropolis, Samuels worked as a food stylist and ran a cake business on the side. Though she dreamed of having her own bakery, the building that now houses Angel Food came up for sale twice before she decided to take the plunge. “It was really scary,” she says. “I’m surprised I’m still here.”
With Lillstreet Art Center, Hazel and Margie’s Candies in close proximity, Samuels was certain her stretch of Montrose was about to become the next Armitage. “Then construction started from the minute I opened.” First there was the CTA Brown Line renovation, which temporarily closed the nearby Montrose station, next came the infamous sinkhole that yawned open on the street in 2008 and, adding further insult, a sewer project that posed a daunting challenge to pedestrians. Small wonder “retail hasn’t come this way,” Samuels says.
She credits area residents for keeping her doors open. “I think they have a greater appreciation for and mindset of shopping local,” Samuels says. “They want to support neighborhood businesses.”
Early attention from the Food Network also raised Angel Food’s profile. “They picked us up for a couple of shows,” says Samuels, namely Recipe for Success and Unwrapped. “I was lucky to have some press and word of mouth.” She lets Twitter and Facebook do the talking for her now, whether announcing the scone of the day or posting a picture of a unique pastry. “I think that just adds to the sense of community,” Samuels says. “I’m amazed at how many people it reaches.”
Still Samuels isn’t the sort to court fame. “I love Gordon Ramsey,” she confesses, “but I don’t know about the whole celebrity chef thing.” Though she’s constructed her share of elaborate cakes, including one shaped like a giant croissant, if Samuels were to cast herself in a reality TV show, it would be quite a departure from Cake Boss.
Not surprisingly, she’d rather update a classic. “I always wanted to pitch a modern Green Acres.” Her boyfriend’s family owns a farm in Michigan, where Samuels plays beekeeper in her spare time, bringing her own honey to Angel Food. She also tries to incorporate as much of the farm’s produce into her cooking as possible: pickles, pumpkins, butternut squash and watercress (Angel Food also serves lunch and brunch; “we need to fill the space in the middle part of the day”). “I’m really interested in combining food, arts and agriculture,” she says. “But that’s retirement.”
In the meantime, Samuels is honing her skills through a collaboration with Ravenswood Elementary, which sits kitty-corner from Angel Food. She helped plant a vegetable garden at the school, with any eye toward teaching students about the farm-to-table cycle. Once harvested, the herbs and vegetables will be converted into things like salsa and pasta sauce. “I’m hoping to bring the kids here or go to the school and cook,” says Samuels. “I’m really looking forward to that.”
For the past two years, Samuels has also participated in the Lincoln Square Thursday night farmers market, both as a vendor and a buyer: you’re likely to find fruit from the market in her individual tarts, which are among her favorite pastries to bake. Her inaugural effort was something of a baptism by fire; the blazing hot temperatures of an open-air market pitched on a swath of asphalt caught her by surprise. “I tried to bring cupcakes and the Airstream but it was too difficult to keep them from getting warm,” she says. “This year nothing needs refrigerating, everything can take the heat.” She’s found that her array of tarts, brownies, rugelach and cookies (there’s a jumbo cornbread cookie that keeps a certain reporter coming back week after week) is reaching new customers, many of whom were unfamiliar with Angel Food. “We have been getting more people here in the shop that we’ve seen at the market,” Samuels says.
Along with increasing Angel Food’s fan base, the market adds to the bakery’s already hectic production schedule. The kitchen typically works a day ahead; morning pastries are prepped the night before, with a staff member arriving around 6 a.m. to pop items in the oven. Samuels clocks in sometime between 7:30 and 8 a.m., a far cry from the early days. “I was probably here at 4:30 in the morning,” she recalls, “and working until 8 or 9 at night.” That sound you hear is the collective bubbles bursting of all those daydreamers who think running a bakery would be “fun.”
Angel Food has since expanded to seven employees, including Samuels trusted right-hand man, Oliver, whose story sounds vaguely familiar. In a case of paying it forward, she hired Oliver despite a lack of kitchen credentials. He started as a dishwasher and under Samuels tutelage eventually worked his way up to cook. “He really caught on and runs everything now,” she says.
Samuels has received an education at Angel Food as well. “I’ve learned a lot about myself, my strengths and weaknesses,” she says. Under the strengths column she would list creativity, passion, a sense for food and appreciation of community. Under weaknesses: “The day to day business end. It’s hard to have both sides of your brain working equally. But we’ve stayed open and viable for seven years. I’m really proud we’ve hung in there.”
These days, with Angel Food more firmly established, Samuels can even afford the luxury of the occasional vacation or dinner with friends, where she’s perfectly content to leave the food prep to someone else. “I like to try something that isn’t mine,” she says. “I’d rather bring a bottle of wine.”