The taste of success
By J. Chambless
Edie O'Neill behind the counter at Edie's Sweet and Savory Pastries in West Chester.
By John Chambless
Edie O'Neill gets up at 2 a.m., starts
baking at 3 a.m., and is regularly in bed by 9 p.m., “But this job
is so much fun it's not really a job,” she said brightly. “It
doesn't bother me to be here that long.”
Sitting at one of the cafe tables at her gleaming West Chester bakery, Edie's Sweet and Savory Pastries, O'Neill has the beaming smile and confidence of someone who is finally doing what they love. But for most of her career, she was pursuing a different path.
“I grew up in Chester, and graduated in 1973 from Chester High School,” she said. “For five and a half years, I worked for the Chester Police Department as secretary to the Chief. I worked at Crozer Hospital for a while, and then got into the financial planning industry for the rest of my career. I decided at the age of 56 that I wanted to get out of that whole industry, because it's awful,” she said, laughing.
The career that was calling her was baking – something that had been a passion since she was about 14, “when my mom let me into the kitchen for the first time,” O'Neill said. “She let me bake something on my own, and it was chocolate pumpkin cookies. I was following a recipe, but it didn't translate well,” she said. “So I've never made them again, but the baking bug bit me. At that point, my mom said, 'If you like baking, then you bake.' I did most of the baking from then on.”
It took a few decades, but now O'Neill is putting her business background and her baking skills to use by running her own business, which opened in March and has already established itself as a bright spot on Market Street's east end.
Edie's started out with O'Neill renting the kitchen at her church, St. John's Episcopal in Concord Township, and selling her products from her home. “As a business, when you're selling to the public, you're not allowed to use a non-certified kitchen,” she said. The church kitchen worked for a while, but she had to transport all perishable ingredients back and forth from her home. She began selling her products – quiches, pies, cookies and cakes – at the Thornton Farmer's Market four years ago. That got her on firm footing without the expense of a storefront.
“It was like running a business in a microcosm,” she said. “You're watching food trends, you're watching what sells, what people are looking for. Basically, it taught us a lot. We built a customer base and learned a lot about how to do business.”
Working with her son, Billy, as a business partner, O'Neill methodically planned her new venture. “Our plan was to open a bakery, but we did it very methodically. I have to say that none of this would have happened without a group called SCORE. They mentor you. Many times people think they're ready to do something, but they'd ask me questions. They'd ask how I would handle things financially, that sort of thing. Those questions reined me in a little bit, and made me a more effective business person.”
Working with a realtor, she investigated a wide range of available spaces in the region, including a spot right across Chestnut Street, but when she stepped into the former welding warehouse at 136 E. Market, she was hooked.
“My son and I walked in and said, 'This is it,'” O'Neill said. “It was awful, though. It was very dirty, there was a taxidermied puma in the window,” she added, laughing. “I said, 'That is leaving, right?'”
The 600 square feet for the bakery was carved out of the vast space, and is perfectly sized for the bakery. There are cafe tables by the large front window, and just enough space for the refrigerators and ovens that O'Neill bought. An antique wooden display cabinet holds the day's specialties, which change each day, as well as seasonally.
Of the recipes O'Neill uses, “some are mine, some are my mother's, some are my mother-in-law's, some are recipes that I adapted from a cookbook,” she said. “We are an old-fashioned bakery. People call in, I take orders. I'm doing a wedding this weekend where I'm doing a lot of cupcakes, but they also wanted a brunch, so I'm doing a lot of quiches and muffins, too.”
Realizing that delivering products was not something she wanted to handle, “I don't do off-site catering,” O'Neill said. “We don't do prepared cakes and hold them in the freezer. So if you want a layer cake for a birthday, you'll have to call in advance, because we're going to make your cake. We're not going to whip something out of the freezer and put 'Happy birthday' on it and hand it to you.”
Among O'Neill's hottest sellers are her pot pies – beef or chicken, with the kind of flaky crust that takes time and care to create. “I just made a double batch of chicken and a batch of beef two days ago, and the chicken's gone, and the beef is almost gone,” she said. “Let's just say there is a huge difference between a frozen supermarket pot pie and a homemade pot pie.”
She also sells a lot of quiches for brunches, “but making the pies is my favorite,” she said. “That's why my logo is in the shape of a pie. I could make pies all the time.”
O'Neill's daughter, Jenny, helps out with the cakes, since she loves that aspect of baking. It's a team effort that pays off with distinctive products such as the Cowboy Cookies, which are constantly on the display counter but don't last long. “People go crazy for them because they have so much stuff in them,” O'Neill said. “They have pretzels, pecans, chocolate chips, coconut and oatmeal. And there's just enough dough to hold all that craziness together. That is one of the few cookies that I make constantly.”
Her shortbread cookies are pure and simple, so they're good for anyone with allergies.
O'Neill has sidestepped the pitfalls of many bakeries, such as the overuse of fondant, which is structurally necessary for elaborate cake sculptures, but simply doesn't taste good. “We absolutely refuse fondant. We use buttercream or cream cheese frosting, or ganache,” she said. “We don't mass produce anything. There are no preservatives in anything. We don't use mixes. If you've been in a big bakery and you try three different cookies, there's a good chance they're going to taste very similar. What they do is make a mix, and then make several kinds of cookies out of it. That doesn't happen here. And our pies are not as sweet. You should be able to taste the individual fruit.”
The idea, she said, “is to have food like your own family would make. This is real food, as opposed to the manufactured food you get in so many places.”
After baking all day during the week, O'Neill said Sunday is her day to make meals for her family ahead of time for use during the week. Her daughter still lives at home with O'Neill and her husband in Middletown Township.
Part of running a business in West Chester means interacting with students from West Chester University, and O'Neill is proud that she supplies breakfast provisions at a fair price. “We keep prices lower so college kids can come in and get something for breakfast. We offer higher-end items for dinner parties, too, but we also have affordable items for the kids who just want a muffin or a quiche or something.”
One of the generational changes O'Neill has seen is that customers are sometimes dazzled by what she can create.
“Cooking in general is fading away,” she said. “My older daughter, who is also a pastry chef, and my younger daughter, were stunned by how many of their classmates didn't understand where things come from. My older daughter had a friend who thought that pasta actually grew. I find that so scary,” O'Neill said, laughing. “My generation did not cook as much as our parents' generation, and that has filtered down to the next generation. Part of that is lifestyle change. My daughter's generation is so involved in so many activities, when would they have time to be in the kitchen? That's where we've begun to lose the ability to make good food.”
O'Neill sees hope, though, in the farm-to-table movement that has increased awareness of using pure ingredients that are locally sourced. “A lot of people are starting to make food themselves,” she said. “They're more interested in how their food is prepared. A lot of it is health-based, and a lot of it is concern about the environment, which is a good thing. I'm beginning to see people in my children's generation get more interested in real food.”
As the smiling face behind the counter every day, O'Neill is rapidly getting a steady clientele, and becoming part of the community.
“This is my retirement,” she said. “The goal was two-fold. I wanted to leave a legacy for my children, and the other goal of being here in West Chester is to become part of the community. There are a lot of good things happening. There's a virtual reality place opening down the street, Miss Winnie's has amazing Jamaican food. We're seeing a lot more interest moving down this way. We want to be a part of this vital community.”
For more information, visit www.ediespastriespa.com.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, email firstname.lastname@example.org.