While most young adults are turning in for the night, Thao Rich is just getting out of bed. The 25-year-old is headed to work for a 12-hour shift. Half an hour later, she arrives in the dark at 1 Belmont Street in Cambridge. A large sign saying SOFRA marks the entrance to the eatery where she’s worked for 2 years. Looking up at the sign, Rich chuckles to herself, then remarks on how her early rising habits have put a damper on her social life. No matter, she says; she loves her job.
“In the morning I’ll begin by turning on the lights” says Rich, jokingly. “Then I’ll get started on the yeasted pastries.” An hour later, a second baker arrives. Shira Melen greets her fellow pastry chef with a cheerful “Morning!” Over the next eleven hours they will bake some 300 pastries, including 18 coveted morning buns, 24 Persian spice donuts, and a whopping 140 cookies. “The molasses cookie is my favorite,” says Rich. “The store kind of started because of that cookie.”
Back in 2001, renowned chef Ana Sortun opened the posh Cambridge restaurant Oleana with pastry chef Maura Kilpatrick and business partner Gary Griffen. Gary loved the molasses cookie that Maura would periodically bake for the restaurant. He even said he wished Ana would open a bakery so that he could have the molasses cookie every day. Seven years later, Gary got his wish.
Sofra Bakery opened in August 2008 with 15 employees. In three years the staff has quadrupled. And though Sortun is considered the “top dog” of Sofra, Kilpatrick is the executive pastry chef, in charge of all things baked. She arrives each morning at 5:00 AM to bake along with Rich and Melen. Kilpatrick has a calm demeanor, and instills a sense of tranquility in the kitchen– a good quality to have when you’re the head of one of the busiest bakeries on Boston.
Two members of the counter staff arrive, setting out pastries, grinding coffee, and setting up the store for the day. At 8:00, one of the counter staff promptly opens the entrance door, welcoming the growing line of customers outside the store’s entrance. For the next three hours, two to three members of the counter staff will ring in 100 orders, from baked goods to coffee drinks to a full range of breakfasts.
The store is a small space, with large pine beams and Turkish rugs covering the seating area. Large copper drums dot the wooden floor. Customers stand in 20 minute lines on the weekend, crowding the store to capacity (and then some). Behind the dining area lies the staff area, where pastries, breakfast, lunch, dinner, and catering items are made.
In the morning, “From the Kitchen” items range from Shakshuka (two eggs poached in a tomato-based curry served with pita) to spoonfuls of Greek yogurt atop a homemade granola of sesame seeds, dates, almonds, oats, golden raisins, and fleur de sel. Two chefs prepare these items daily, using food from mostly local purveyors. “We try our best to be conscious of where we get our food,” says Rich. “Our meat comes from a small farm in Maine, and we use seasonal produce.” In fact, in the summer many of Sofra’s vegetables come from Siena Farms, a Sudbury-based market farm started by Sortun’s husband, “farmer” Chris Kurth, in 2005. Sofra further partners with Siena Farms, acting as a pick-up location for locally-grown produce sold to customers from early June through October.
What at first glance seems like a small community of individuals, a longer look at Sofra reveals the enormity of this small shop. The roles of restaurant/bakery/café/catering flow fluidly throughout the day as each member of the staff works together on Sofra’s various operations.
Tara Rancourt, head of managerial operations of Sofra, walks in the door. “Morning, kiddos!” she yells as she walks down the stairs connecting the open-concept kitchen with the larger prep kitchen and storage areas. Rancourt quickly takes a look at the day’s catering orders that have to be packaged, then makes her way to the small manager’s office in the basement. “Catering orders account for about a third of our total profits,” Rancourt says. “Another third goes to the actual customers that come in the door, probably a fourth to the items in the case and dry goods in the front of the store, and the rest to the farmers’ markets in the summer.”
The case Rancourt speaks of is a large refrigerator to the left of the registers that stores meals that customers can store and reheat at home. Items include shrimp saganaki, carrot kibbeh, braised brussel sprouts, and 12 ounce containers of the unique mezze dips and spreads that Sofra equates to a “Mediterranean salad” medley. The chefs prepare these items daily, while Rancourt and two other managers are in charge of packing the food and setting it out in the case.
Meanwhile, stay-at-home moms, business men, older couples, twenty-somethings, vegans, and artists alike scrounge for tables as the noise level rises and more and more customers enter the shop. Sofra houses regulars and “first-timers,” and the counter staff are well-versed in describing items to old and new alike. “One thing’s for sure, you’ll never see us sell a muffin,” Rich jokes. “Scones, too. They fall under the muffin/cupcake category.” And it’s true. Each baked item is distinctively chosen because of its peculiarity. For example, Sofra’s baklava is a take on the traditional flakey-nuts-and-honey pastry. Maura creates a cocoa-honey syrup that she tosses with cocoa nibs, chopped hazelnuts, and pieces of chocolate to create a decadent (and unique) dessert.
Customers love coming in and asking what the latest spice in the Revani loaf is (it is currently infused with chamomile), or if the cumin in the Dukkah swirl is particularly pungent on that day. There’s an intimacy between customers and the staff, and regulars are welcomed and taken care of as if they, too, are a part of the Sofra family.
The lunch rush is over. Since 8:00 AM Sofra has processed 300 orders. “It’s tough work, especially during the summer,” says Laura Crooks, a member of the counter staff. Crooks has been working at Sofra since 2009, when she applied on a whim out of proximity to her apartment in Watertown. Though she now lives in Allston and the commute is more than two times longer than before, Crooks wouldn’t think of leaving Sofra for a job closer to home. “It’s not like a ‘real world’ job; it’s fun! Come on, now. I get to work with great people and delicious pastries all day, and I get health benefits?” She laughs.
The counter staff is comprised of a group of 12 individuals, mostly in or just-out-of college. Their general disposition is friendly and knowledgeable. “And witty,” says Crooks. “We’re pretty sharp, and we take pride in our job.” As do the rest of the Sofra staff. Sortun runs a tight ship, and the managers expect their employees to be on the ball every day. “We are, essentially, a small restaurant,” Crooks remarks. A small restaurant that provides millions of dollars of food annually and has developed a devoted cadre of happy customers.
The door has long since locked behind the last customer of the day, however Rancourt stays at the shop until now, running through credit cards for catering orders and calling various vendors to make sure the next day’s produce will arrive on-time. Rich, Melen, and Kilpatrick have since gone home and are most likely asleep in their beds. After all, the next day starts in less than 4 hours.