Editor’s Note, 10.27.13: The Bikery is now closed.
Editor’s Note, 10.13.12: The Bikery has changed ownership and its standards for baked goods and coffee have changed for the worse.
Olivier Vrambout is a man with flour in his bones. The grandson of a baker for a Belgian convent, Vrambout has bounced from what was once Zaire to Belgium to Washington State to Stillwater; it’s in this Saint Croix River town that he owns and operates The Bikery. His operation is a working bike shop; it’s also a tidy-but-welcoming bike-themed cafe that produces earnest and skillfully executed pastry.
Prodded to identify a current favorite, he points with understated but evident pride to his fruit galette: “Right now, I like these fruit galettes. The dough is made with cream cheese, so it’s really flaky. I use different fruits like pears and apples, cut by hand. It’s my favorite, I love it — you can have it here with coffee, or you can take it home and warm it up, and have it with ice cream as a dessert.”
Each pastry is an edible flashback to childhood for Vrambout. “Every Friday, my grandmother made these galettes with a special iron — I just remember that as a little kid, being really excited every Friday,” he recalls.
Eating one of Vrambout’s galettes is a notable experience; we’ve been conditioned by dozens of mediocre coffee-shop pastries to expect this sort of a croissant/fruit tart hybrid to be tough and filled with sickly sweet fruit filling. Vrambout’s rendition is much closer in spirit to what you’d expect of European baked goods: a light, delicately flaky and truly tender pastry wrapped around understated, naturally sweet fruit. There’s no need to tear with one’s teeth; you can practically tease the thing apart with gentle bites.
As is the case with many well-executed foods, the X-factor that sets The Bikery’s galette apart from your typical pastry is hours and hours of time.
“The biggest difference between artisan baking and something you’re doing on a broader scale is that you’re eliminating the people like me, who make things by hand,” Vrambout says. “You just don’t get the same feeling, or the same flakiness with the dough. A hand-made croissant takes three days. I made croissant starter last night, and I folded the butter this morning at 4:30. I’ll let that chill for four or five hours and then roll it out… that makes a big difference.”
As Vrambout positions his eight-month old business, he is a man standing astride two seemingly contradictory trends. On one hand, the economy is falling apart.
“When I opened this spot, I knew things were going sour… the reason I picked this spot was for rent — as opposed to setting up downtown,” he says. A note of wry weariness creeps into his voice. “I built everything, I did everything myself. It took my four months. I tiled everything, I took the ceilings down, did the kitchen, did the lighting… In this tough economy, having a really low overhead is really critical.” The Bikery crew is a tight group: Vrambout works with his mom, Maryce, a baker and a part-time counter clerk.
“My mission is to grow on the inside — I’ve learned a lot from my other business [in Washington], where I expanded so fast,” he says of his Mount Bakery restaurant, in Bellingham. “I had 21 employees when I sold it, but I started out like this — just me and my mom and my wife… and then all of a sudden, all you’re doing is managing people.”
The second trend The Bikery is wrestling with — or, more accurately, is propelled by — is the surging interest in eating well-made food with a local pedigree.
“It’s getting there,” he says of public appreciation for carefully crafted food and drink. “In Europe, you have the cheese shop, the butcher and the bread guy, and they’re all next to each other. You go there, and then you go to the market on Sunday. On the other hand, around here there’s the 24 hour grocery store, buying globally, versus buying locally.”
In a particularly pleasing case of Stillwater synergy, Vrambout has teamed up with the brewers of Lift Bridge to make bread from the spent grain leftover after making beer. “[Spent grain] can be really wet, depending upon what time they take it out,” says Vrambout. “What you have left is saturated with all these liquids, it’s very flavorful. I try to dry it out and come up with some kind of bread recipe, usually not too involved because the grain is already very flavorful.”
“Last time I added blue cheese and walnuts, though.”
It’s not entirely surprising that Vrambout, who hails from one of the world’s great brewing powerhouses, would make common cause with a scrappy team of up-and-coming local beermakers.
“What I’m trying to do is promote those guys, because — between Washington and Oregon, I spent 13 years of my life there, and it was brewery central, with micro-brewers everywhere,” Vrambout says. “But here, it’s more like there aren’t any local brewers, and these guys are trying to get something started. It turns out the legislation in this state is ridiculous.”
Visitors to The Bikery can’t (yet) count on regular access to Lift Bridge beer bread, but the bakery’s numerous baskets always contain at least a few items of real interest.
Across the board, the Bikery’s goods are of high quality, with freshly ground coffee available to accompany scratch-made items such croissants, baguettes, pan du raisin and almond blueberry coffee cake.
Exceptionally good and worth a bit more exploration are the shop’s Belgian brownies, which are a mature version of the Midwestern standard, each bite a strong, broad wall of cocoa flavor.
If you’re making the Bikery a destination — and you should, because you’ll learn things and enjoy yourself, and recognize that the galette and/or brownie alone makes the trip worthwhile — head out early. Vrambout runs his shop with a European approach to supply and demand; he makes a guess as to what the day’s demand will be, and produces only that amount of baked goods. When something runs out, it’s gone until the next day.
Bakery in Stillwater
904 4th St S
Stillwater, MN 55082
OWNER/BAKER: Olivier Vrambout