Let this be a warning to fans of Internet shopping: Sharin Nathan went online to look for a used mixer and wound up buying an entire bakery.
In 2010, the pastry chef, formerly of Charlie Trotter’s and Harvest on Huron, was ready to wield her whisk again after taking a hiatus to raise her two children (now ages 8 and 11).
“I thought I’d go into catering and farmers markets, working out of a shared kitchen,” Nathan recalls.
Looking for equipment, she Googled Hobart mixers—an essential tool of the professional pastry trade—and came across a listing from Sweet Honeybee Bakery, which not only had a Hobart for sale but the entire bakery too.
“It was completely random,” Nathan says. “It was just kind of a weird roundabout way to find it.”
She decided to take the leap and in July, her Sweet Sensations Pastry shop, 1918 W. Montrose Ave., will celebrate its one-year anniversary operating out of the former Honeybee address.
Nathan is no stranger to life-altering snap decisions. In fact, that’s how she became a pastry chef in the first place.
During her freshman year in college, her boyfriend (now husband) took her to Everest for dinner. “He was a total foodie and I didn’t have that background at all,” she says. “That was my first unbelievable experience with food. I never knew food could be so good.”
Kendall’s program includes an internship, so you know where this story is heading. Nathan only applied to a single restaurant—Everest. In her interview with Chef Joho, she recounted the story of her magical dinner and reminded him of their earlier connection. “He said, ‘OK, I’ll give you a chance.’”
The experience, six months of working side by side with the restaurant’s sole pastry chef through the hectic holiday season, serves her well in her current role as owner/operator/chef/barista/cashier.
Though Nathan employs a part-time prep person in the morning and a part-time decorator in the afternoon, for much of the day, Sweet Sensations is a one-woman operation.
Consider the following schedule: Nathan arrives at the shop at 5 a.m. every morning, opens at 7 a.m., closes at 6 p.m., and hangs around for another hour to put the place in order for the next day’s work. Then she heads home to juggle her roles as wife and mother. (Even this is an improvement over her restaurant days, when 2 a.m. was a more typical quitting time.)
“I kind of take it one day at a time,” she says. Her goal is to grow the business to the point where it can support the hiring of additional staff. “Since I started out in a bad economy, it can only get better,” she jokes.
Nathan is the first to admit that her plan for the shop continues to evolve and that her first year, as with any start-up, offered its share of challenges and surprises.
She originally envisioned filling her cases with an array of pies and tarts and hoped to lure morning commuters with savory scones and filled brioche. “I wound up throwing so much out,” she says (dumpster divers, take note). “It’s really all about the cupcake.”
Former Honeybee customers were accustomed to a full complement of cupcake choices, and Nathan learned to adjust accordingly. “Honestly, I didn’t have a recipe for red velvet.”
While she’s since satisfied the cupcake crowd (her German chocolate is a huge seller) Nathan has come to realize she can’t please everyone.
“Over the holidays a business asked us to make individual cakes for their customers,” she recalls. At one point, she had 19 completed cakes, and nowhere to store them but her display case. So she swapped out her usual trays of pastries to make temporary room for the cakes. Of course, that’s when a first-time customer chose to enter, took one look at the dearth of sweets in the case, and Yelp-ed about it.
Actually, the reason Nathan rarely stocks more than six of any pastry is that she’s constantly baking throughout the day. If something runs low, she whips up another batch, which not only makes for less waste but fresher product overall.
“To me, it’s all about the flavor and using natural, seasonal ingredients,” she says.
Thanks in part to shows like “Top Chef: Just Desserts” and the overall foodie trend, the American sweet tooth is gradually coming around to Nathan’s line of thinking.
“People are so used to the Jewel cake and the Costco cake and the preservatives,” she says. “We don’t use any mixes; we make our own buttercream.” In fact, Sweet Sensations goes through 36 pounds of butter on a slow week, and sometimes twice as much.
While television has certainly raised the profile of the pasty profession, don’t expect to find Nathan on the Food Network anytime soon. “My daughter says, ‘You should go on Cupcake Wars,’ but the TV stuff, it’s not me, it’s not my thing,” Nathan says.
Instead, she trusts more to word of mouth. “This neighborhood really tries to support local businesses,” she says.
To spread the word about Sweet Sensations, she also participates in charity events, like a recent benefit for the Eleanor Foundation, which supports working female heads-of-households.
Nathan spent a day baking 800 mini-cupcakes and other assorted treats for the event, while her mother-in-law worked the cash register. “It was a hectic day,” she says, in what’s likely a massive understatement. The payoff will come later, if just one attendee turns into a customer.
Who knows, maybe they’ll even order a fruit tart.
Short & Sweet Review:
OK, this reporter couldn’t walk into Sweet Sensations and not sample Nathan’s handiwork. I tried a chocolate chunk cookie, caramel bar and Boston cream pie cupcake. Back off, glutton police—I shared with my husband. The cookie was thick and chewy and packed with high-quality chocolate; basically a cookie monster’s dream. (OK, I didn’t share that one so much.) The bar featured a rim of slightly crusty burnt sugar that caramel fans will recognize as nirvana. As for the cupcake, let me quote my husband: “This woman knows what she’s doing.”