Early in the morning, bakery ovens are firing up all over town.
At Kay’s on Manchester’s Lake Ave., Friday, Nov. 9, will mark 25 years of firing up what is basically a clinic on Greek baked goods. Kay Skilogianis, the corner shop’s owner, comes out from behind the counter and calls your name. If it’s your second time there, she knows it.
Five minutes north up Union Street, Michelle Moulin is chatting with a customer. about cakes. She began doing this kind of thing on Oct. 3 16 years ago: What’s the occasion? What’s your favorite design? Do you want chocolate or vanilla? What filling? Wait — you weren’t thinking filling? At Michelle’s, you’ll want filling, she says. “Our cakes are ... simple and friendly, but going above and beyond. ...The shop is not in a mall; it’s specialty. People are driving out here specifically for us,” Moulin said.
Both Skilogianis and Moulin attribute their success to loyal regulars. After growing up in Manchester, Skilogianis opened her bakery and it quickly became an institution in the Greek and French Canadian neighborhoods of Manchester.
“My twists, my peta, the baklava — it’s all made fresh here, and people seem to like it,” she said. “It’s been a hard, long road, but it’s rewarding to see people happy when they come back.”
The Kay’s kitchen is separated from the rest of the shop by a bakery case filled with spinach, custard and cheese peta and trays of baklava, fig squares, lemon squares and raspberry squares. For winter, she stocks quarts of soup — chicken noodle, Greek egg lemon and more — and takes orders for pork pies for the holidays. Dozen-bags of koulourakia (seeded butter twists) are shelved below the sales counter.
“I’ve had many steady, faithful [customers] over the years, some since the beginning. I ask about their families, their days. It’s about being kind and knowing people — we all have our special qualities,” Skilogianis said.
Personal service comes straight from the owner at both establishments.
“It’s about taking the stress out of it, trying to accommodate what they want. I want to say thank you for all my customers, because I have a huge loyal following and it’s a free choice to pick here,” Moulin said.
The aroma of fresh cakes and frostings hits you as soon as you walk into Michelle’s. It’s tiny inside, only 900 square feet. Napoleons, cheesecakes, fresh fruit tarts and loaded chocolate chip cookies are among her bestselling items, but the displayed cakes for quick pickup are the most eye-catching.
“I like to decorate,” Moulin said. “Having the bakery lets me bake and be artistic. It’s fun, and I enjoy seeing how the cake comes out and how it matches a room at a party or wedding.”
Michelle’s also has a deli counter for lunch sandwiches. After opening in place of Ginny’s, another bakery that occupied the spot for a few years, she decided to keep the deli counter going, and Ginny’s customers continued to come in. From them and her family and friends, Moulin said, her cakes earned a reputation. Her first job was waitressing at Linda’s Family Restaurant in Goffstown, now closed, after she graduated from the Culinary Institute of America.
“That was just what I like to do. At that time, they were telling us to go to college for what you liked,” she said.
Cakes come out of the oven three to four days before an event, then are embellished with chocolate ganache or mocha, vanilla, or lemon butter cream and refrigerated to “make them happy,” Moulin said. Just prior to the event, the designs are added.
“In any job, you’ve got to like it more than half of the time. You don’t want to be miserable with what you do,” Skilogianis said.
443 Lake Ave. has a rich history of small business. According to Skilogianis, it was a carpet store before she remodeled, and before that Sabo’s Pizza, which made homemade Syrian bread. It was also once Burpee’s Market and Goulet’s Pharmacy. Skilogianis remembers Manchester’s 30-plus bakeries, when she was growing up, three on Lake Avenue: “During the ’70s and ’80s, they started disappearing — people could get everything at the supermarket. But it’s slowly coming back, I think. ... Downtown is trying to do their own thing and drawing new generations.”
She opened the bakery with the help of Reggie Chagnon, a carpenter who learned baking in the Army after being drafted in 1953. He came out as a sergeant and had enjoyed the work, so he wanted to get back into it.
“Small businesses like this are the backbone of America, these places that aren’t impersonal,” Chagnon said.
Moulin’s challenge has been to bring people back down from orbit about cake designs. Customers come in wielding photos from the Internet or grandiose ideas they got from TV shows about how to make a cake. “Plus, sometimes they want like a tiered cake for a first birthday, and I think, ‘What are you going to be getting for the wedding?’” Moulin said. “...We keep it simple, a professional product with the feel it could be made at home.”
Skilogianis says, “I am not interested in getting bigger. My customers have become family, though, so I listen to what they want.”