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How sweet it is! Small, local bakeries have devoted following

| Friday, Nov. 11, 2011

Stacey Spinola doesn't have a stop button. The Murrysville mother of five wakes up each day at 4 a.m. to plan what goodies will come out of her oven, puts in 10-plus hours at her bakery and then returns home to help with homework and bedtime rituals.

And Spinola, 36, couldn't be happier with her schedule. She loves to bake up to 100 dozen of her signature chocolate chip cookies at the year-old Spinola's Bake Shop on any given day.

"This is a labor of love," she said. "I put a lot of time and energy in it, but it makes a difference. It's worth it."

Whether it's treats for a birthday or simply because it's Friday, local bakers regularly watch their delicious delicacies fly off the shelves. As they prepare for the busiest season of the year -- Christmas -- their day-to-day business is as steady as ever.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Pennsylvania had the fourth most bakery employees in the country in 2010, with 9,500 statewide. Despite a struggling economy, locally owned independent bakeries continue to thrive, their owners say.

"If people want quality -- if they want a good, freshly made cake -- they come to us," said Tony Moio, owner of Moio's Italian Pastry Shop in Monroeville. "You either have a niche, or you have the longevity and the following."

For Moio, 52, of Washington Township, it's a bit of both. He has run the bakery founded by his grandfather in 1935 for 34 years. Moio's is known for its Italian pastries -- including a fresh cannoli stuffed with ricotta and chocolate custard -- and cakes. And these aren't everyday yellow or chocolate cakes. Moio's offers everything from black-forest to yellow-sponge-rum cake batters.

Like Spinola's, Moio's is a scratch bakery -- meaning everything it sells is made from fresh ingredients and not frozen. That's something that supermarkets don't necessarily offer.

"We're not like box cutter openers," said Ron Stoecklein, owner of Stoecklein's Bake Shop on Saltsburg Road in Penn Hills. "Everything's made by hand. People know we're not pulling things out of freezers or boxes; we're making everything on site. And they like that."

Customers also like the elaborate cakes local bakeries can make. Moio remembers creating a cake replica of Monroeville Mall -- complete with a black Gimbels Brothers department store -- for the mall's 10th anniversary. Stoecklein said he can spend 12 hours a day decorating specialty cakes.

A positive influence

The demand for that type of baked good has increased with the popularity of shows such as TLC's "Cake Boss," a series that focuses on a baker who creates unique specialty cakes.

"The things (customers) see on TV, that helps us out," said Stoecklein, 56, of Penn Hills. "They might think we're crazy once they see the way things are made. But on the flip side, they come in and want us to make those sort of things."

That can be a problem sometimes, Moio said.

Most people don't realize the time or materials it takes to create, for instance, an upright Mickey Mouse cake -- a treat Moio has had customers re-quest. It would take at least two to three hours, he said, and would cost about $150.

"Those shows have definitely raised awareness and support for the independent baker," Moio said.

In a time of economic trouble, that's a good thing, local bakers said.

Though her bakery along Old William Penn Highway in Murrysville has been open for only 13 months, Spinola doesn't worry too much about the economy affecting her business. A baker friend once told her that so long as she could make bread, she would have customers during tough times.

"I look at it this way: Where else can people treat themselves to something special for $1.50 or less?" Spinola said. "People still have birthdays; they still get married."

Stoecklein said the secret is to keep putting out a high-quality product and find a niche. But not every trend is for him.

Find the right niche -- and location

While his shop provides everything from cookies to bread, Stoecklein has avoided pastries such as specialty cupcakes. They start to get a bit pricey, and customers don't always want to spend the dough -- as much as $30 -- for a dozen cupcakes.

Getting into the business isn't an easy thing, Stoecklein said. Like Moio, his is a family business. Stoecklein's Bake Shop moved to Penn Hills from Blawnox in 2009 after rent prices got a bit too high across the river.

"Baking is carried on through families," Stoecklein said. "A lot of kids look at this and think it's something fun to do. There's more people trying to open up shop, but it's not always working."

Spinola is the exception, rather than the rule. Since opening her shop last year, she's found a steady clientele in Murrysville. A former teacher, she has been baking since she was a child -- most of the recipes she uses at her bakery are just larger versions of what she made with her mother. She hand rolls every pie crust and makes multiple batches of chocolate chip cookies -- her top sellers -- each day.

"I don't have a baking degree or a business degree," she said. "I'm just a frugal mother."

It shows in her shop.

Rather than a sprawling kitchen separate from the sales floor, Spinola's customers can watch bakers mix gourmet cupcake batter or ice a cake from the counter. The walls, pink and brown, are adorned with quotes such as, "Coffee makes it possible to get out of bed ... Cupcakes make it worthwhile," and "A balanced diet is a cookie in both hands."

It's those sorts of personal touches that keep customers coming back, bakery owners say.

Bakeries become part of family traditions, Moio said. This Christmas, he knows customers will wait in a line that wraps along the parking lot of his Route 22 shop to pick up their annual holiday cookie trays because it's tradition.

He expects to sell about 3 tons of cookies -- nearly 150,000 -- for Christmas. And after Christmas, comes Valentine's Day -- followed by Mother's Day.

"We're insane until the end of June," Spinola said with a laugh. "We get some down time between then and September.

"There's no bad time to be a baker."

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