You don’t think of Clarendon as a center for revolution. It’s a pleasant, clean, nonthreatening place, with a nice mix of comfortable chains and local spots. But revolutionary? Not really. And yet, when you visit Bakeshop, Justin Stegall’s new bakery at 1025 N. Fillmore Street, you realize that big things are happening.
Stegall just opened Bakeshop this January, but he ran his business online for several years prior, selling to local shops and individual customers and building up a cult following through word of mouth. And it’s quite the following. Bakeshop is currently up against Georgetown Cupcake one of the final two bakeries in the Washingtonian’s Cupcake Cup, an online contest where readers vote for their favorite DC cupcake. Considering that Georgetown Cupcake has a sophisticated PR machine, while Stegall only publicized the Cup to his Facebook and Twitter fans, he must be making some seriously good cake.
In fact, Stegall has been perfecting his cake recipes since childhood. “My mom let me play with a flour sifter as a child,” he says. “I loved it – I would mindlessly sift flour all over the place.” After getting a degree in Business from Viginia Tech, Stegall decided to get serious about his baking game. He already knew how to bake from his mother, but he needed to perfect his finishing skills and learn how to run a bakery, so he headed to New York. There, he worked as a finisher at Baked in Brooklyn, piping frosting, cutting finished baked goods, and packaging. While Stegall entertained the idea of opening a store in New York, he ultimately wanted to bring a great bakery to the DC area. “It has long been my intention to open a bakeshop in Virginia,” he says. “I wanted to add something special to my hometown.”
What Bakeshop brings to the pastry table is indeed special. Think American- style desserts that are unfussy and delicious. Stegall isn’t a fancy guy; he calls himself a “baker,” forgoing the more formal title of “Pastry Chef.” And he admits that white cake with white frosting and a glass of milk was his favorite dessert growing up, which is a pretty good insight into the type baked goods make him tick.
Right now, his top sellers include the oatmeal cream pie – a homemade version of the Little Debbie classic – and his red velvet cupcakes, topped with vanilla buttercream. Also on the menu are a variety of cookies – ginger cookies with fresh grated ginger, oatmeal blueberry cookies, and chocolate chunk cherry cookie studded with toasted nuts. Stegall is particularly fond of his coconut cake and his devils’ food cake with strawberry frosting, but his ginger snaps are a personal favorite. “When I make ginger snaps I usually end up eating half of the batch,” he says. “They’re so good with coffee.” Stegall also makes layer cakes, but you won’t see any crazy Ace of Cakes-type styling. Bakeshop is a fondant-free zone. “I refuse,” Stegall says about fondant. “It’s not my expertise.”
Given Bakeshop’s popularity in the Cupcake Cup, it’s important to note that Stegall takes a decidedly differently approach to the cake-to-frosting ratio on his cupcakes than other area bakeries (which Tim Carman pointed out in the Washington City Paper). Stegall’s cupcakes are topped with a small swirl of frosting that compliments, rather than overpowers, the cake. It’s something that Stegall has given a lot of thought to. “The cake to icing ratio is a big deal. It can make or break a cupcake or slice of cake,” he says. “I have worked hard to perfect the ratio on my cakes and cupcakes.” While Stegall thinks the cupcake frenzy will eventually die down, he admits there’s an inherent power in a cupcake’s single-serving size, saying that they’re “the perfect take-away dessert.”
Cupcakes may be garnering a lot of interest these days, but Stegall is focused on expanding Bakeshops’ other menu items, including adding breakfast products and some gluten-free options. But before he can ramp up his business, he first has to get a handle on running his shop. Besides a friend who comes and helps him in the mornings and evenings, Stegall’s alone in the Bakeshop kitchen. “I want to pay my dues in my shop,” he says. Still, he knows that he’ll eventually have to hire staff – especially as his menu and hours grow. In the spring, look for pies with fresh local fruit to be added to the menu. For summer, look out for ice cream cakes.
As for the long term? “I have often thought about doing something in Brooklyn,” he says, “but that is for the future.” For now, the Bakeshop revolution will have to confine itself to Clarendon.
Want to learn more about DC’s pastry chefs? Check out my interviews with Josh Short of Buzz Bakery, Tiffany MacIsaac of Birch and Barley, Santanna Salas of Bourbon Steak, David Guas of Dam Good Sweet, Anthony Chavez of 2941, Genevieve So of Againn, Travis Olson of 1789, Theresa Luongo Pinelli of Treet, and Carri-Anne Hamer of Zola.