After seeing Dinkel’s and Swedish Bakery close, the owners are making moves —including opening in Pilsen — to ensure survival
Lakeview’s Bittersweet Pastry Shop & Cafe has served generations of customers from their weddings, to their baby showers, to their children’s graduations. On Thursday, July 27, the bakery will celebrate its 30th anniversary and showcase renovations — including power outlets in the counter and Wi-Fi — and menu changes that it hopes will allow it to stay in business for the next three decades.
“Bittersweet was really one of a kind when it opened in 1992, but now there’s a lot of competition, so we really want to make sure that we are staying current and relevant,” owner Esther Griego tells Eater. “In the last couple years we’ve seen Swedish Bakery close and Dinkel’s close and we really want to make sure that we’re able to maintain our legacy.”
Renovations have been underway since October on Tuesdays, the one day a week that Bittersweet is closed. The redesigned space features a new pastry case and more banquet and counter seating. The shop also turned a storage space into a dedicated wedding tasting area where up to eight people can try cakes with a view of the kitchen.
Chef David Castillo has overhauled the cafe menu to place more focus on local ingredients, mostly sourced from Local Foods. The restaurant is now rolling out bar snacks including boquerones with Calabrian chili butter and crostini and chicken liver mousse with seasonal preserves and sourdough from Publican Quality Bread. A new drink menu will place an emphasis on French wines, including pét nat and skin contact varieties, plus a seasonally rotating selection of five batched cocktails that will start with Death in the Afternoon and a passion fruit bellini.
“We have this beautiful space and we want people to be able to enjoy it for more than just a pastry in the morning,” Griego says. “We’re making sure that we can appeal to a wider audience.”
Griego took over Bittersweet from her aunt, Judy Contino, a 2015 James Beard semifinalist for outstanding baker. Griego put the renderings for the renovated space up along with samples of materials and pictures of the new fixtures to give customers an idea of where things were headed.
“Change can be challenging,” Griego says. “Now that we’re finishing up and our guests are able to see the final version, people are really able to appreciate it and the response has been really positive.”
While there are some things that Griego says will never change, like the popular flourless chocolate mousse cake, the bakery had to get creative when weddings and corporate events stopped during the COVID-19 pandemic. Castillo prepared family meal packs along with kits including confetti, candles, and cake, or other treats for at-home celebrations.
“I think overall we came out of COVID stronger,” Griego says. “It showed us what we could do and helped us see that things didn’t have to be set in stone. We want to focus on growth to reach people who have not been going to Bittersweet for 30 years.”
To that end, Bittersweet also sells its baked goods at Time Out Market Chicago and plans to open another location in September at 2019 S. Laflin Street in Pilsen.
“We just really lucked out in finding this really cool spot that has garage doors and a huge patio,” Griego says. “We’re hoping to make it a really welcoming space for the community down there. We’re looking at having a big mural and we’re sourcing a lot of mid-century modern furnishings to have a super laid-back vibe.”
The Pilsen location will have the same menu of pastries and drinks from Metropolis Coffee and will serve as another pickup spot for custom cake orders. Griego is still waiting to see if they’ll be able to get a liquor license for the Pilsen cafe but is also looking into serving coffee slushies there.
“We’re pretty excited about the future,” Griego says.
Bittersweet Pastry Shop & Cafe, 1114 W. Belmont Avenue, open 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday; opening at 2019 S. Laflin Street in September.