STICKING IT OUT ON STICKY BUN SUNDAY
Lauren Mitterer’s Sunday begins dark and early at 2:30 a.m. She unlocks the door of her Charleston bakery, WildFlour Pastry, and starts by dusting the first layer of King Arthur flour on her wood-top baking table. As she reaches for her rolling pin, she can hear in the distance the sounds of college kids returning home from bars. Her iPod soon fills the space with female folk music, drowning out the late-night revelers.
Mitterer is preparing for Sticky Bun Sunday, a ritual for Charlestonians in the know, as these giant, sweet cinnamon pastries are only available one day a week. On this day of rest, WildFlour is open half its normal business hours, but the bake shop can be twice as busy. This is her day to “get back in the trenches,” remarks Mitterer. On this particular Sunday, Mitterer’s trenches are dug quite deep: she has forty-eight hot milk strawberry shortcakes to make for a Guerilla Cuisine dinner with the restaurant 17 North, two wedding cakes to decorate, and two hundred sticky buns to bake . . . along with her usual assortment of pastries. In the wee hours of the morning, Mitterer, who just about lives in Crocs and an all-purpose-flour-covered apron, begins to fill muffin tins with batter. She pulls scones from her freezer, slices them in half with a serrated blade, and then fills them with ingredients such as sundried tomato, mozzarella, and basil pesto.
WildFlour’s space is small and there is only room for one oven. “I long for a walk-in,” Mitterer says as she fishes through her refrigerator for a specific plastic quart container. The walls are mostly blank except for a few signs that serve as affirmations for customers to snack on her outside-the-box artisan sweets. “Life is short. Eat dessert first,” reads one. “Save the Earth. It’s the only one with chocolate,” reads another.
Even though the bakery is loved by locals, it can’t survive on the retail sold in the storefront alone. Mitterer’s sweets are scattered around Charleston, available at fine dining restaurants such as Red Drum, Next Door, O-Ku, Carter’s Kitchen, and the Macintosh. She provides muffins, turnovers, and cookies for cafés like Muddy Waters, Hope and Union, and Black Tap.
Mitterer does not claim to know everything about baking, yet she possesses such professional versatility that she can make any dessert idea happen. “We do so many different types of desserts,” she says. “Places can come to us with concepts, and we have enough knowledge to make their ideas happen.” She believes this breadth of repertoire is one of the reasons for her success. Mitterer has been recognized for her pastries both nationally and locally and has been nominated twice as a James Beard semifinalist for Best Pastry Chef, a recognition that few and far between ever receive.
Her first employee, Laney Cowden, enters at 5:30 a.m. Within minutes, six types of gourmet muffins are strewn across the bakery’s tabletops. As Cowden packs them inside white boxes to deliver to hotels like Indigo Inn and Jasmine Inn, Mitterer keeps baking. She pulls sheet trays stocked with sticky buns, pecans, and sticky sauce resting in tin saucers out of the oven. She rolls more dough and puts the uncooked buns on speed racks to proof.
Right before 8:00 a.m., regulars start arriving. Some ignore the bakery’s still-locked door and sneak in through the patio. A full staff of five now finishes opening the store, organizing displays, placing minute-old muffins and scones on cake stands. To say Mitterer’s days are insanely crazy would be an understatement. On Sticky Bun Sundays, there’s usually a line out the door. Mitterer consistently works twelve-hour days, waking up to a phone filled with text messages full of restaurant orders. As head chef and owner of WildFlour, which is about to turn three, her work is never done.
A familiar disabled man from the Elliotborough neighborhood walks in the store soaking wet from last night’s rain. Mitterer hands him one of the over-ripe bananas she keeps for baking bread. She hugs her customers and knows many by name. “A few of my customers have become my closest friends,” Mitterer says. Be it the warmth radiating from her one oven or the comfort derived from noshing on a savory scone, no amount of hustle and bustle can keep a Sunday morning at WildFlour Pastry from feeling like a cozy home.