In a quaint, New York bakery with royal blue-colored walls, the smell of meticulously baked bread, cooked fruits, and cheese fill the room. A menu that consists of numerous options – largely sweet – offers “little pastry, lotta love,” through flavors like strawberry rhubarb, cherry sweet cream, and poppyseed. They are, for Texan and New York resident Autumn, demonstrative of the sweetness of life.
For Stanford, kolaches are an essential part of life. It’s why her bakery, Brooklyn Kolache, has taken New York City by storm. With locations in Bed-Stuy and Greenwich Village, Brooklyn Kolache has provided something truly new, innovative, and delicious to the New York pastry community.
“Kolaches, for Texans, have these memories tied to them,” says Stanford. “I want to share some of that in the city.”
Photos by Joel Marsh Garland (left) & Brooklyn Kolache (right)
For Stanford, the idea of opening a kolache shop wasn’t necessarily always on her mind, but it’s deeply connected to her Texas roots. Born and raised in Austin, Texas, Stanford’s parents have roots in Houston. However, because Stanford grew up in Austin, she’d never had the savory Houston version – a klobasniky of sausage and cheese – and was familiar with the sweet versions found in the rest of the state. So familiar, that eating kolaches became part of her regular travel through the state.
“We would drive back and forth, and stop either in La Grange or Ellinger,” said Stanford, recalling visits to Weikel’s and Hruska’s. “We would stop there halfway between Houston and Austin every weekend when we would go back and forth, and go to the bathroom and get kolaches and I would always get cherry, sweet cheese, some kind of cherry and sweet cheese combination.”
Stanford worked in a number of roles before getting in the kolache-making business, including a stint at Seamless, a delivery service which is now owned by GrubHub. She lived in Colorado and New York, and during her time at Seamless, started in customer service and worked her way up into management. She left the company in 2008, having worked her way into a role as operations manager. The experience taught her a lot about budgeting and leadership, and the ins and outs of running and operating a staff in the food industry. The experience was formative for her, but also left her wanting more.
“When I left, I knew that I wanted to kind of go back to something that wasn’t in front of a computer and didn’t involve sitting in meetings.”
Photo by Diana Davis
Stanford, who had worked in cafes in Austin and Colorado throughout high school and college, had a conversation with her brother-in-law. The East Coast native now lived in Houston, where he’d been exposed to the various styles of Texas kolaches. He suggested to Stanford, always a kolache enthusiast, to actually begin making kolaches. It hit Stanford, who was now back in New York City, that despite the incredible diversity within New York’s dining community, there was no place for the food she loved as a kid.
“That’s when I thought, why are there no kolaches here? And then I didn’t, I really didn’t know that they were specific to Texas until I started trying to figure out why there weren’t kolaches in New York City.”
Stanford made the ambitious decision to open something like a coffee shop, where they would also sell kolaches to set themselves apart.
“I thought it was something interesting to contribute,” said Stanford.
Stanford’s version of kolaches lines up with the kolaches served throughout Texas (and yes, even, within Houston). Reflecting the rich Czech immigrants’ influence on Texas cuisine. Czech immigrants, who arrived to central and eastern parts of Texas during the 19th century, found community in Central Texas. Within that region, Texas-Czech immigrant communities form a Central Texas Czech belt of sorts, and became the known place to find kolaches, which came from Czech foodways. These kolaches, which are still available in places like Czech Stop (Little Czech Bakery), Village Bakery, and Hruska’s, were always sweet: the perfectly baked bread was filled with fruit like apricot or strawberry, and sometimes cheese. Poppy seed and cheese has become a favorite, among other flavors, too. The Czech community within the state still holds onto these traditions, and for many road-tripping Texans, stopping to get a sweet kolache is an essential part of the travel experience.
Photos by Brooklyn Kolache (top left), Dara Pollak (bottom left) & Diana Davis (right)
Now, Stanford has brought a bit of that experience to New Yorkers and displaced Texans living in New York. Though Stanford is not of Czech descent, she values the culinary traditions that emerged from the community, and their delicious impact on American food. She started practicing and developing a recipe, trucking forward with the idea until she opened her first store location in April 2012.
“It’s been really amazing to see how things have grown,” said Stanford.
While Stanford has worked in food management roles, she didn’t have a culinary background. Kolaches, which are notoriously difficult to make, proved a bit challenging for the young and eager business owner. The dough can be finicky, and it can take a long time for the dough to rise. For a proper kolache dough, it can take days for the dough to actually set to get to the stage of actually shaping and baking them. For Stanford, this process was essential. She didn’t just want to make kolaches; she wanted to make kolaches that would spark nostalgia for visitors, allowing them to reconnect with childhood memories.
“It’s so easy to just not be what people remember,” said Stanford. “That’s one of the things that’s tricky about this. I’m really trying to recreate people’s childhood memories. And so you have to have it be so specific.”
Baking everything from scratch, Stanford became skilled at the process by focusing on kolaches and kolaches alone. She eventually hired Lorraine, a stellar pastry chef, to join the team, and she’s been with Brooklyn Kolache for eight years.
Photos by Dara Pollak (left) & Michael Tulipan (right)
“We would slowly tweak things and improve them,” said Stanford.
Stanford’s bakery has become a hub for the large population of Texans living in New York.
“We have a huge amount of Texans in New York. When we first opened in Brooklyn, we would just have these lines on the weekend and everybody would wear their Texas gear or their university gear.”
Stanford recalls that Aggies and graduates from University of Texas, Austin and Texas Christian University would come to the bakery. They started making their visits a tradition within the first year of business.
“They just loved having something that reminded them of home,” said Stanford.
However, Stanford noticed a trend. While some recognized the Czech Stop’s influence on the bakery, others – particularly those from Houston – came looking for something else. In Houston, what’s known as “kolaches” are actually “klobasniky.” A cousin of the kolaches, these delights are similar to sausage rolls, but instead use a kolache dough to wrap the sausage, which is paired with cheese or spices. Many Houstonians came in looking for that particular memory.
“It bothers me when people are disappointed because they’re like, ‘well these are good but this isn’t what really hits the spot for me.’ I want people to find exactly what they want when they come looking for a kolache.”
Photos by Dara Pollak (top left), & Dan Wang (top right & bottom)
To address the issue, Stanford has been working to develop a Houston kolache. She’s been trying to source with Johnsonville, eager to bring that revered taste to Houstonians living in the Northeast.
“Once I get those sausages in stock, we’re going to have the Houston-style ones at both locations every day,” says Stanford. “And I really think that they’re going to become the most popular flavor we have quickly, because they’re super good.”
While Stanford is working to develop that specific kolache, she’s got much to be proud of. In addition to her sweet offerings, she’s got vegetarian options like pimento cheese, mushroom and goat cheese, and spinach and feta kolaches. She also offers up eggy options, like her chorizo, egg, and cheese kolache, and a delicious bacon, egg, and cheese pastry. Numerous coffee selections and seasonal lattes round out the menu, and the shop, vocally advocating inclusivity, has made a significant impression on the NYC community.
“We’ve really created a really diverse team of people from all over,” says Stanford. “The brand has sort of embraced this idea that part of our branding is being inclusive and having an option where you can get coffee and breakfast for under $8. We’re inclusive price wise, we’re inclusive in terms of hiring, and also in our branding. Our target market is not just specific to Texans, we try to appeal to whoever you are in your city.”
The success dates back to the origins and mission of the business.
Photos by Michael Tulipan (left & right) & Dara Pollak (center)
“In 2012, everything in Brooklyn was basically handcrafted and artisanal,” Stanford recalls. “It was before everything was free-range and organic. Everything was fancy, and so I really wanted to do something like a kolache which is kind of mass produced in Texas, but do it in an artisanal way. So we get all of our sausage shipped in from Meyers Elgin Sausage and Elgin, Texas. And we do everything in a super artisanal way. The flavors that you see – like the sausage, jalapeno cheese, sausage cheese – are obviously the more authentic. Also the poppy seed and sweet cream cheese. I wanted parents to be able to grab something on the way to school – so we do a peanut butter and jelly. And I needed vegetarian flavors. So we started doing a spinach and feta and mushroom with goat cheese; you won’t see those in Texas. And then and then we started just trying to do more seasonal things to rotate it. [In winter], we’re doing a candied pecan and apple and in January it’ll be citrus season, so we’re going to start doing a Meyer lemon curd. And this summer we’ll do strawberry rhubarb.”
It just so happens to be one of the owner’s favorites.
“The strawberry rhubarb one is probably one of my favorites,” says Stanford. “It’s hard to rotate them out because people get really into them, and then they get upset when we stop making it. But it’s also really fun to have new flavors. Every month, we have at least one new flavor.”
While kolaches are deeply important to Stanford, she’s been involved in other concepts, working to build relationships and partnerships within her community.
Photo by Brooklyn Kolache
“We’ve opened some other concepts,” says Stanford. “My staff opened a breakfast taco TexMex slash Filipino situation where we do handmade tortillas and queso, but we also stuff them with chicken, adobo and other Filipino meat.
“We also have been working on some collaborations with other local businesses. Right now we’re working with Romeo’s, which had a location in the city but their main location opened in 2012 and Clinton Hill, very close to our original location. They do these long hot peppers that they stuff with ground salami and different cheeses.
They’ve also done collaborations with other businesses, including Nice Day Chinese, which is located on the same block.
“They have this crazy rich Asian french toast and it has like coconut jam and crunchy peanut butter, and so we French toasted a kolache, which was a huge pain,” she recalls with laughter, “but they were delicious.”
Photos by Brooklyn Kolache
For Stanford, however, the joy comes providing joy to Texans, and helping newcomers learn something new.
“One thing that’s actually really interesting, because a lot of people are like, ‘what are these? Where do they come from?’ [Teaching] the learning curve of what kolaches are, has been like the biggest project and struggle for us. But if you look at the kolaches, they’re actually so interesting in the sense that kolaches are Czech, and you look at Texas food, Texas food is largely German and Czech and Mexican. So now you have this German, Czech, and Mexican pastry that’s in New York City. It’s really interesting because I don’t know what people think Texas food is, but they do not think of it being German, and Czech and Mexican. But that’s really what it is. So for us, it’s been educating people about kolaches.”
For Stanford, educating people is well worth seeing people enjoy their first delicious bite of the pastry.
“It’s just a special pastry, and I hope to bring some of that joy to the community.”
Photos by Brooklyn Kolache