On a wet, dreary Monday before Valentine’s Day, I tuck into one McLean shop whose smells remind you of the sweetness of the upcoming holiday. Only the best Italian coffee will do this morning, and I’m looking forward to spending a few minutes learning about the interesting woman who has opened a bakery of insatiable delights. The decadent European-style sweets surround you as you wonder where to look first.
They have a savory menu too. Homemade soups, sandwiches and salads.
Sweetbites Cafe and Bakery Owner Sandra Panetta has a decorative background of New York Italian family heritage, an early formation of cooking and baking, and the creative qualities of an inventor that fills the bakery with food passion and innovation.
Q&A with Sandra:
Q: You started a Sweetbites food truck in 2010. Why did you move to a storefront?
Sandra: I started the truck in DC. At the time I started there were no regulations. Over the years it became heavily regulated with fees, permits, inspections. The ability to park was an issue, the number of trucks went up.
My truck had been very successful, people really loved it. In 2015, I thought this is the time to start looking around, time for a change.
Q: Would you have kept the truck going if it remained as it was the first year or two before the regulations?
A lot of successful trucks transition to bricks and mortar. Food truck is a great start, a great way to test your product. There is a bit of a fallacy out there that there’s no overhead in operating a truck, there are a lot of operating expenses. I saw the writing on the wall, I knew it was time to do something else. I was a single mom, supporting two kids at the time. It was time to move on and I knew I wanted to stay in the business. The biggest challenge was finding revenue to build the bakery.
Q: Who is your perfect customer? Who helps you turn your business over month in, month out?
We get tremendous business support from our local, daily foot traffic, from this large office park. MARS Candy is two doors down. Their employees come in for coffee and sandwiches. We put M&M’s on their special orders!
There is very little to eat around here, only a few places to go. We get a lot of coffee business and a steady stream from the doctors’ offices upstairs. Most of our customers we see all the time. We know what they want, we know their drinks, we get to know them, it’s really nice.
Q: Are you open every day?
We are open Monday through Friday right now. We were open on Saturdays, but we gave that a break for a while. We built a patio that we’ll open again in the springtime and that will be real nice, customers can eat outside.
Q: Tell me about your family background, Italian family?
My family background is a huge driving force for what I do. Being Italian means that food is a very important part of your life.
If You want to use your hands to explain yourself, it’s okay!
(chuckles) Sometimes I have to sit on my hands to be cognizant of what I’m doing.
Being in the kitchen all the time growing up was part of my life. My mom grew up in Rome and my dad grew up in Calabria. Both were big food lovers. Food was always a central part of everything at home. I’d be in the kitchen, helping my mom cook, mostly doing the baking while she did the cooking. I would be making the dessert and she would make the main dish. That’s how I got started.
Q: Did your mom let you have your own creative space when you were in the kitchen?
Well, like most Italian moms she was very controlling, very in control in the kitchen. So, it wasn’t until I got out on my own that I was able to be more creative. But those early years of being in the kitchen were so important, great foundation, great experience.
Q: Did you grow up in Virginia?
No, I great up in Syracuse, New York. There is a very large Italian community in Syracuse, that’s where the Italians settled.
Q: So… growing up you would have seen big productions of food and family gatherings?
Always. My mom is 89 years old and she still does it. There’s always the big holiday gatherings, the big Sunday dinners. I have great memories of all those things. Aunts and uncles and cousins, everybody helping to prepare food. You see the woman preparing food, the men sitting around enjoying it.
Q: Have you ever offered cooking classes?
I did classes for Living Social for quite a while. It was great fun. We did cupcakes. The classes were for adults. Living Social had a building in DC, where they had facilities you could use. The classes were large, about 75 people. It was like being on Food Network. I had a station up front, there was a camera, and everyone had all their little stations, I liked it a lot, everyone had fun.
Q: You must be so busy. What types of things do you think about doing in your downtime?
My biggest struggle is staffing. Staffing behind the counter is difficult to find because of the hours. The bakers are great, I’ve been lucky with bakers. But not having behind-the-counter staff, I find myself behind the counter all day long and so I can’t do the things I want to do. I want to grow the business. I have a vision for what I want to grow into and it’s difficult to get there when I’m too busy with the business. My brother who runs his own business said to me “If you’re in the business you need to get out of the business. Otherwise you’re too busy to find the time to grow it.” So yes that day-to-day being bogged down. Entrepreneurs always have visions of what they want it to be. But in reality, you’re wearing so many different hats.
The things I like to do are big picture items, managerial things.
Luckily now my two are off at college. That was a hard time, junior and senior year of high school for the kids. Those years when the kids were younger, just getting through high school and the college process, that is a hard time. It’s easier now that they’re at college.
Q: Do your children have interest in helping mom in the bakery?
My daughter works here whenever she has time. She worked here all summer. She came home winter break on a Friday, and started working Saturday morning, she was right here helping. There is just nothing like having her to help me, it’s wonderful. My son… well, he comes in when he’s hungry.
Q: What is your most popular product?
Our most popular product is our homemade cinnamon buns, people go crazy for them. In addition to all the sweets, customers come in for breakfast, coffee, we make sandwiches and salads.
Q: What about your breads. Do you bake those here?
Oh, that’s an exciting area for us!
We are starting to make fresh bread here, and we are going to start featuring bread as a new item. We are the only bread makers in this area. We are making different flavors, cranberry walnut, sourdough loaf, French bread, we make an olive loaf. Right now, we are working on how to set up the display, how we feature it on the menu. We may offer a new bread each day and make sure to let people know… if you want fresh baguette come on Friday, maybe fresh cranberry loaf Monday morning. There is nothing like a fresh loaf that has just come out of the oven. We’re very excited about this!
Q: Do you have a sweet tooth? How do you keep your figure around the delicacies and incredible smells?
I have a huge sweet tooth!
There is a method to my madness. I enjoy the sweets a lot. I need to taste everything to make sure it is absolutely perfect. But mainly I try to eat healthy, I eat healthy meals, I work out, lead a healthy lifestyle, I enjoy the treats. It seems to work as long as there is a good balance.
Q: You must have to stick with tastes rather than full servings?
(smiling) Last Friday one of my staff left me a little smiley note saying “I put the last cream puff in the refrigerator. I thought… “Okay, why did you have to tell me that? You’ve all gone home now, and I’ve been left here with the last cream puff! What do you think I’m going to do?”
That was the best cream puff I ever had. It had this crunchy caramel glaze on it. First, I was upset she left me the note identifying the cream puff and where it was. And then I felt so glad, because honestly it was the most amazing thing I ever ate.
My bakers know me, they’re very good to me. One of my bakers will make me a tiny little scone and set it aside so there is something there for me. That way I won’t eat everything in sight.
Q: If you could ask your local community to come in to Sweetbites for one reason “Come in for…” what would you say?
We make everything here every day. We don’t skimp on quality. We use imported chocolate, we use fresh butter and cream. We don’t use any preservatives.
We have bakers who are very skilled, very experienced. It matters to have a baker who knows what they’re doing, to have that experience.
We work on the recipes to make sure they’re perfected. I am a total sweet snob so I’m going to have to like it before we sell it.
We don’t offer anything that has been pre-prepared or preprocessed. If you want fresh, home baked, delicious pastries, it’s here.
Also, we are a little community here too. It means something to have that. We draw people together and give them a place to meet and talk.
I also think what is unique about us is that you never see the same menu two days in a row. We find customers are willing to try new things. They get excited about coming in and trying something new. We will always have a scone, a muffin, a cookie. But we get bored if we have the same one every day. We want to have fun, be creative, use things that are seasonal and use things that strike our fancy. If we have fresh berries, let’s put them in the scones today. Not a lot of people do that. That sets us apart too.
Sandra, thank you, this has been in every sense, Delightful!
Armed with my homemade cinnamon bun and two fresh biscuits, I make my way out of this lovely spot.
Sandra’s bakery is a space where she invents and creates homemade, daily menus that are thoughtful, using ingredients of superior quality and fresh fruits and making customers return soon for the next meal.
She has mastered an art of drawing community together in her bakery on Elm Street. In her own way, Sandra works to bring the best of community life to her customers and give them what they seek and what they have come to trust her for. Sweetbites is a great community spot and a hometown favorite bakery.
Sweetbites Cafe and Bakery
6845 Elm Street | McLean, VA 22101
Serving fresh gourmet-to-go
• gourmet sandwiches
• freshly baked artisan desserts
• illy coffee/espresso
To contact Sandra about special orders and for more information, visit Sweetbites Bakery on the web at http://www.sweetbitescafe.com/