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Angel Food Bakery Is Closing at the End of March

By Patty Wetli | March 21, 2014 7:24am
 Ravenswood will lose its little slice of heaven when Angel Food Bakery closes at the end of March.
Angel Food Bakery Closing
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RAVENSWOOD — For the past 10 years, visitors to the corner of Montrose and Paulina avenues have been greeted by the comforting "Oven's On" placard hanging from the door of Angel Food Bakery.

On March 30, owner Stephanie Samuels will flip the switch to "off," shuttering a shop that, for her, has been as much about building community as selling cupcakes.

Samuels' announcement that Angel Food, 1636 W. Montrose Ave., would be closing at the end of the month — news she posted on Facebook on Wednesday — met with a chorus of "Nooooos" from the bakery's legion of fans.

Overwhelmed by the outpouring of support, Samuels, who sat for an interview Thursday with DNAinfo Chicago, kept a tissue close at hand as she talked about the difficult decision to end Angel Food's run.

"The straw was, I finally cashed in the last thing I've got," said Samuels, who's been funding the bakery's operations out of her now-depleted personal savings.

"I can't sustain myself," she said. "I've never been able to pay myself, and 10 years is a long time to do that."

In her interactions with customers, Samuels — whose infectious laugh and effervescent smile are as much personal trademarks as the ever-present bow in her bright red hair — never let on that Angel Food was struggling.

"I run downstairs and cry a lot and then I come back up," she said.

In retrospect, Samuels conceded that while she nailed the creative side of her enterprise — her retro baked goods were featured numerous times in national publications and on Food Network and Cooking Channel programs — her business acumen was lacking at times.

"When I started, I seriously didn't understand what payroll taxes meant," she said.

Navigating city and state taxes, permits (that adorable sidewalk cafe costs $600 annually), inspections and licenses never came naturally to Samuels. A string of almost comical bad luck didn't help either.

First, a gaping sinkhole opened up on Montrose. Then came the reconstruction of the Brown Line and with it the temporary closure of the nearby Montrose station. That was followed by a lengthy sewer main replacement project that blocked through traffic on the street.

"All hell broke loose," Samuels said. "That was brutal."

Over the years, she weighed numerous ways of increasing revenue: taking on wholesale clients, cutting staff or focusing on big-ticket items like custom cakes rather than her cafe.

"Those were not things I wanted to change, that was a choice," said Samuels, adding that boxing up cakes for delivery or carryout could never match her interest in interacting with customers.

The community that gathered inside Angel Food's brightly-painted walls became her true passion, the value of which couldn't be measured in terms of profit and loss.

"We know everybody here and they know us," said Mike Wysock, a familiar face behind Angel Food's counter and claimant to the title of Samuels' first hire.

"She's like a big sister really," he said of his boss. "You don't feel like employees, we're just family."

Indeed Samuels' top priority upon deciding to close was to find positions for her kitchen staff.

"I can relax," she said, having placed her chief cook, Oliver de los Santos, at Leghorn.

"I'm not a business person, I'm a community organizer," Samuels said. "There are some people who became friends just from meeting here. I love that. There were families that came in when I was just opening and they were pregnant with their first child. Now they have two or three and the oldest is in fourth grade."

Over the years, Samuels has become a cross between fairy godmother and honorary aunt to the neighborhood's children, offering up free homemade graham crackers to infants as a rite of passage into the world of treats.

To the youngsters she's known since birth, Samuels intends on making a gift of one of the many vintage Easy-Bake Ovens that decorate her shop, the thought of which sends her reaching for another Kleenex.

"I have a box up at the counter, and I've already used half," she said.

Still, she would rather focus on the positive during Angel Food's final week, including plans for what comes next.

Samuels' longtime love, artist and educator Dan Brinkmeier, recently moved to Mount Carroll, Ill. — "the New England of the Midwest" — to make a go of his family's farm. (Angel Food sells his eggs and honey.)

"I'm going to try to straddle both places," she said, with one foot in the country, one in the city. "I've been trying to pitch a modern 'Green Acres' show."

She envisions creating some sort of arts and agricultural education program at the farm, with classes in scientific illustration or canning workshops.

"It's exciting to me what could happen," Samuels said.

She'd also like to operate a program that would have her cooking for and teaching adults with disabilities.

"I need to feel like I'm taking care of, nurturing people," she said. "It's important for me to feel part of something."

But at the moment, her immediate future is devoted to celebrating Angel Food's final days.

"People from far and wide are going to come in," she said.

On March 30, Samuels will serve brunch one last time, and then throw the doors open to the neighborhood for an evening of reminiscence and champagne. She has a handful of cake orders to fulfill into the first week of April, and will continue to sell coffee and pastries until she runs out of ingredients — cash only.

Then it will be lights out, oven off.