Bakery has soft touch, fresh aroma

Posted Sept. 10, 2009, at 7:49 p.m.

In one of my first exploratory walks near my apartment in Baltimore, I found that the predominating scent of the harbor was suddenly overwhelmed by another, even stronger aroma: fresh bread. While I had passed many a restaurant or flowering tree that had temporarily erased the scent of the harbor, this was different — it overwhelmed an entire block or more.

I decided to search for the source by following my nose, turning or backtracking whenever it began to fade. It was near lunchtime, after all, and more than just my curiosity was piqued. The aroma of fresh-baked bread had to be too substantial for just a corner bakery.

Sure enough, turning another corner brought me face to face with a giant sign reading “H&S Bakery.” The large bread factory had a retail store below — with bargains as good as three loaves selling for a single dollar. My stomach growled out loud, and a woman standing on the sidewalk next to me laughed.

This bread factory is one of Baltimore’s many long-standing businesses. The baking company is a self-proclaimed “typical American success story,” in which two families of immigrants from Greece, the Paterakis and the Tsakalos, began selling hearth-baked breads out of the basement of a row house in 1943. Harry Tsakalos and Isidore (Steve) Paterakis, “H&S,” baked the bread by hand and delivered it in their sole bakery truck.

It has grown into the largest specialty hearth bakery on the East Coast — H&S sells more than 100 varieties of hearth-baked breads, rolls and specialty items with no fewer than 15 baking facilities distributing bread in 23 states — and it’s still family-owned and -operated by second- and third-generation family members. I whistled my way through the door and down the aisles inside.

Being 24 years old and a student, I really appreciate things like three loaves for a dollar. As a young adult, living in a city has its tradeoffs: I can attend a concert in exchange for a week of tinned beans and brown rice, buy a cappuccino after scrounging for change at the Laundromat. I never seem (and chats with my contemporaries indicate that I’m not alone in this) to have coffee filters, paper towels and toilet paper all in my house at the same time — one item invariably ends up being substituted in the other’s place. This newly found bakery outlet featuring three loaves for a dollar really made my day.

Of course, it’s not just the young twentysomethings searching for a good deal these days. The H&S bakery outlet is frequented by many people in this neighborhood, all stocking up on rolls and bagels for the week. An older couple in front of me reads the labels of every product out loud to each other before dropping them into their cart. Many customers seem to know the bakery employees personally, particularly the young Greek woman running the cash register. She points out specials to people as they come in based on what they usually get and like.

I grabbed a 24-pack of English muffins along with my loaves of bread and headed to the cash register. The young cashier, who I imagine is part of the H&S Bakery family, picked them up and frowned. “These are buy one, get one free,” she said in heavily accented, authoritative tones. “You can go get another 24-pack of English muffins.”

“I don’t want another 24 English muffins, though,” I said.

“They are on special today,” she insisted. “The sign over there says so. Buy one, get one free.”

“They won’t all fit in my freezer. I’ll waste them.”

“But they’re free,” she said incredulously. “Don’t you know anyone you could give them to? Your grandmother? Your in-laws?”

“I — no —” With a look of exasperation, she turned from me to the other people in line.

“Who wants English muffins? You?” She pointed at a man two people behind me in line. “There you go. You take her other 24 muffins. Over there, by the cakes.” He carefully took down a 24-pack of English muffins from the shelf while the cashier nodded encouragingly. “You, and you,” she said commandingly, pointing first at me and then at him. “Now you are friends. There.”

She gave me my change as briskly as that and went on to the next person in line. I didn’t start to laugh until the doors of the bakery had shut behind me and I was standing on the sidewalk.

The scent of bread followed me for a block or two before it finally began to fade. But the memory of the retail bakery and its feisty, bargain-giving proprietor stuck with me and kept me laughing all day.

Meg Adams, who grew up in Holden and graduated from John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor and Vassar College in New York, shares her experiences with readers each Friday.

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