Sounds impressive doesn’t it, Julius Meinl North America, conjuring up the image of a kingdom of faux-Viennese cafes stretching from Manitoba to Miami. At least that’s the commonly-held misconception.
“People think we’re so big,” says Natalie Berg, president of Meinl NA, which will celebrate its tenth anniversary later this year. “It’s just our two [Chicago] coffee houses and the patisserie.” The kingdom, it turns out, only extends from Southport and Addison to Lincoln and Montrose, with a just-opened patisserie at 4115 N. Ravenswood Ave. slightly expanding the company’s footprint.
“It’ll never be like Starbucks, it’s the opposite of Starbucks,” Berg says of an often-made comparison. “At the end of the day, it’s a family company.” Albeit one with a multinational, 150-year history.
Though Meinl NA maintains strong ties to its Austrian parent–Berg says she speaks with Thomas Meinl daily and he may visit stateside for the patisserie’s official grand opening–the Chicago locations are firmly rooted in their respective neighborhoods. “Everyone employed here lives here,” she says.
In fact, Berg and her then-roommate C.J. DeVera were sharing an apartment at Waveland and Janssen when they started out as servers at Meinl’s Southport cafe 10 years ago. Having worked their way up the ladder together–DeVera is now vice president of Meinl NA–the pair emphasize community involvement, like food drives for local pantries, and recruited old college friends from Illinois Wesleyan to kick start Meinl’s music programming.
The gleaming new patisserie, which also has counter seating for a handful of customers, dispels yet another myth about Meinl: The exquisite pastries are, surprise, baked from scratch on site, not shipped in from Vienna or manufactured from box mixes.
Rochelle DuBridge, a graduate of the French Pastry School, recently joined the Meinl team as executive pastry chef, overseeing the patisserie’s staff of six. With a resume that includes stints as pastry sous chef under Mindy Segal at Hot Chocolate and pastry chef at Paul Virant’s Vie, DuBridge admits her latest career move left some folks scratching their heads.
“A lot of people were like, ‘Why did you leave restaurants?’” she says.
The answer is that DuBridge was ready for a challenge. Though there are certain constants in the Meinl pastry case–the Opera Cake, for example, and really, who’s going to argue with that–she also has a fair amount of creative license, from playing around with the fillings for the increasingly popular krapfen (think Austrian doughnut) to developing new menu items.
Having mastered the art of the plated dessert–you know, those elaborately theatrical presentations of squiggles, dollops and nests of spun sugar–DuBridge is on a mission to translate those sorts of complicated elements into a single, individual pastry. The resulting desserts have an almost Faberge egg-like quality to them, tiny works of art that reveal a multitude of textures and flavors.
One recent invention: the pineapple right-side-up cake, the production of which takes DuBridge about five minutes to explain and includes basting a vanilla bean-studded pineapple like a turkey, only with a brown sugar glaze instead of gravy. She’s currently perfecting “a peanut butter bar thing,” which resembles a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup in the way that Mercedes and Kia are both automobiles.
“I like taking flavors that I know and I grew up with and making it more refined,” says DuBridge, who originally hails from Grand Rapids, Mich. Meinl’s European approach to pastry, she notes, “asks for more detail and more finished work versus piping on top of a cupcake.”
“I think the Meinl customer just appreciates the finer things. You get an experience–you’re kind of transporting yourself to Vienna,” says Berg. “Americans are so busy, it’s about getting them to slow down, come inside, sit down and relax, enjoy your cup of coffee, take five minutes to enjoy your tea in a porcelain cup.”
And stop counting calories. “The Viennese have a pastry every day, it’s part of their culture,” Berg says. “What I saw when I was a server, I’ll always remember the first customer when I brought out the silver tray. You’re adding joy to people’s day.”