Meet the Maker: Ovenly Bakery

Dec 29, 2015

Light streams into Ovenly's large front windows and inside the busy cafe sits an epic wood and glass bakery case, arranged with milk glass cake stands, stacks of pistachio-cardamom quickbread, plates of inky black cakes and towers of currant-studded scones. Behind the swinging double doors of the cafe, lies a 1200-square-foot bakery, the heartbeat of Ovenly’s cafe and wholesale operation, all within steps of Greenpoint’s Transmitter Park in Brooklyn.

The owners, Erin Patinkin and Agatha Kulaga, are a charming and frenetic duo — on a regular day, you’ll notice them bustling in and out of the cafe, taste-testing new recipes and conducting business matters, whirling dervishes in a cloud of flour. The two deal in cookies, scones, and pastries with a savory-sweet bent served on delicate vintage china. And – though you might not realize it at first bite – social activism.

Ovenly is more than a beloved sugar fix serving over 150 wholesale accounts around the city (including Stumptown) and the namesake of a gorgeous cookbook that came out last year.

“A few years after starting Ovenly, we looked at one another one day and said ‘selling cookies is awesome, but how are we actually contributing to the world?’ says Erin.

(Before Ovenly, Erin and Agatha worked in social justice: Erin’s job was in communications and arts education for social justice-focused non-profits. Agatha worked in psychiatry research and social work, with a focus on mental health and addictions.)

Not long after, the two were approached by bakery regular Geoffrey Golia, a Greenpoint resident, Social Worker and Director of Employment Development at Getting Out and Staying Out (GOSO)— a Harlem-based nonprofit that works to provide skills and job training to young men who were formerly incarcerated. Moved by the story and their own backgrounds, Erin and Agatha vowed to take part.

Today, thirty percent of Ovenly employees are formerly incarcerated young men (in partnership with GOSO) or political refugees (in partnership with the Ansob Center for Refugees.)

Erin and Agatha’s decision to quit their day jobs and bootstrap it is an inspiration for anyone itching to start their own thing everywhere. Going beyond their own ambitions to design “a progressive workplace and create good jobs for good people” is an inspiration to all of us.

We chatted with them recently about how they got their start, gourmet Combos, and what’s feeding them, literally and spiritually.

(Get the recipe for their dreamy Stumptown-infused shortbread cookie called the Stumptown Shorty here.)

How did you meet?

We actually didn’t know each other before starting Ovenly. In May 2009, we met in a food-focused book club that Agatha’s childhood friend had started. The two of us immediately connected over our shared Eastern European ancestry (including our love of prunes!), passion for baking (and eating), and our entrepreneurial aspirations. We had a coffee date the following week and started hashing out our ideas for a business immediately. A few months later, Ovenly was born.

What was the idea behind Ovenly when you started?

Our initial plan was to be a gourmet bar snack company. We had a vision of inventing a high end version of the Combo™. Our first wholesale client (Veronica People’s Club) agreed to sell our snacks at the bar, but asked if we wanted to bake for their morning clientele. We both loved baking and didn’t have much else going on at the time, so it was an offer we couldn’t really refuse. The baked goods immediately took off, and, low-and-behold, our bar snack business became a bakery.

What are your goals now?

Our mission is to provide people joy through flavor. We want to build a national brand with a progressive workplace, while continuing to make the best baked goods on earth.

How do you come up with new recipe ideas?

Everything we do is sweet and savory with a touch of spice. Erin has more of a sweet tooth and Agatha has more of a savory tooth, so we try to strike that perfect balance between salty and sweet when we create our recipes. We also love to put twists on traditional recipe in the hope that we inspire people to be adventurous. This flavor philosophy has resulted in some of our most beloved staples like our black caraway-smoked sea salt shortbread, cheddar-mustard scone, and our Brooklyn Blackout Cake (made with Brooklyn Brewery Black Chocolate Stout and our salty, dark chocolate pudding).

What’s feeding you right now, food- and spirit-wise?

Agatha: I’m a fan of collecting canned seafood from all over the world. One of my favorites is Foie de Morue (cod liver), which I love to eat on She Wolf sourdough bread, topped with lemon and Portuguese sea salt. I have permanent requests in with friends traveling to France to smuggle back multiple cans for me. I finally read Muriel Barbery’s Elegance of the Hedgehog, which was one of the most beautiful books I’ve read in years. Oh, and my current morning shower routine involves listening to episodes of WNYC’s podcast Death, Sex and Money.

Erin: Food-wise, Anything that involves the words “dumpling” and “spicy” and “brothy” pretty much sums up my diet these days. The seasonal rice cakes at Yunnan BBQ are hitting the perfect chewy-saucy sweet spot. Also, I really don’t want to admit this, but I’ve been eating ice cream for breakfast. I have a problem.

I finished all four of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels in four weeks. If you are human, if you’ve ever had any sort of deep friendship, if you love literature, you will love these. Now I’m onto Area X (I’m a huge SciFi nerd) by Jeff Vandermeer, which is freaking me out so much that it gives me nightmares. (I’m also a huge scaredy cat.)

As far as Podcasts/TV: I love StartUp and can’t wait for season 3. The Genghis Khan series on Hardcore History Podcast is tops. Season 2 of The Leftovers was mysterious, beautiful, and fun.

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Most of us around here know working in the food and beverage industry, things can get weird and/or intense in a kitchen and cafe. Any mantras that pass through the Ovenly kitchen?

A mantra for all of us is “follow up and follow through.” It’s so busy all the time, that we try hard to keep up with the work and never let our colleagues down. Also, “it’s just cookies” is something we repeat regularly. Sometimes, we beat ourselves up when we make a mistake, but try to remind one another that in the end, we’re selling baked goods and we can always make more if something goes awry.

Can you give any advice to folks starting their own businesses?

Immerse yourself in books about business development and finance, and find mentors or advisors that know a lot about those subjects. You’ll need skills in both areas to be successful and to make good decisions.

Know your industry, know your numbers, and know what kind of money it will take to accomplish your goals.

Identify your mission, your vision, and values for your business. Review/revisit these regularly with your staff throughout the life of your venture.

Can you tell us more about your partnership with Getting Out Staying Out (GOSO) and the Ansob Center For Refugees?

In 2012, Geoffrey Golia, Social Worker and Director of Employment Development at Getting Out and Staying Out (GOSO), who happened to be a customer, approached us about partnering. We began working with GOSO (Geoffrey is an inspiration to work with!), which provides life skills and job training to formerly incarcerated young men.

Soon after, we partnered with the Ansob Center for Refugees, which assists with job placement for political refugees. There are now 13 different countries represented on our team, and many of our staff (including Agatha) are first generation Americans! Our hope is to provide economic opportunities to all members of our community and help them to achieve their professional goals and to provide them with essential job skills.

Thank you Agatha and Erin!

Photography by Winona Barton-Ballentine and Mark Weinberg.