In the opening scenes of the movie A Christmas Story, our young, four-eyed hero stands with nose blissfully pressed against the Higbee’s toy store window, dreamily absorbing the object of his desire: the Red Ryder BB Gun. A similar wonder exists at a storefront in Cincinnati, where a special brand of delectably displayed goods will surely stop would-be passers-by for lingering, mouth-watering stares.
Skirtz & Johnston Fine Pastries and Chocolates is both a bakery and a cafe overlooking Findlay Market’s main complex. The bakery’s floor-to-ceiling window showcases breathtaking delights on a scale as grand as Higbee’s, where glass shelves are stocked with baskets of fresh-baked breads and lined with tantalizing plates of sugar-dusted cookies, artisanal chocolate morsels, towering cakes, flaky pastries, gargantuan scones, crunchy-shelled cannoli and hearty croissants.
Flush with the success of their two-year-old business, co-owners Stefan Skirtz and Andrew Johnston snipped a yellow ribbon last month, ushering in their second venture, S & J Cafe at the Main Library, located on the downtown library’s mezzanine level. The new cafe enjoys an extended sandwich menu along with selections of homemade soups and market-fresh salads, a perfect vehicle for highlighting the signature breads and pastries that have made their Findlay Market location such a hit.
Just six years ago, Chefs Skirtz and Johnston met and quickly bonded at the Midwest Culinary Institute, where they’d honed their craft in a two-year bakery and pastry program.
“We were the only two guys in the program,” Johnston says with a chuckle, recalling a class of mostly female students.
Afterward, the dynamic baking duo teamed up and honed their bread and dessert-making skills at an assortment of area restaurants.
“We started doing some small catering on the side and then the catering and the cakes grew to the capacity that we could open our own place,” Johnston says.
Since unveiling the Findlay Market location in 2010, Skirtz & Johnston has enjoyed a harmonious, symbiotic relationship with fellow Findlay merchants, including Daisy Mae’s and Churchill Teas.
“That’s one of the whole reasons to be down there,” Chef Skirtz says.
“We can go across the street, we can go to the Market House. …we buy our meats from Eckerlin’s, from Mackie Meats, from Busch’s, Lukens Fish & Poultry; we buy our cheeses from Silverglades and from Krause’s.”
The pair’s commitment to quality, locally sourced ingredients hasn’t been lost on their loyal patrons, who repeatedly return for baguettes and signature scratch-made breads, including Skirtz’s own Mediterranean recipe.
“I’d started working on a couple bread formulas, and one of them was a Mediterranean bread that has poppy seeds, sesame seeds and Za’atar, which is a Lebanese spice blend. I think it’s one of our more popular breads — it’s uniquely ours,” Skirtz says.
Both cafe locations offer a robust breakfast and lunch lineup featuring their signature breads, including the Salted Rye, Buttercrust, Sourdough, Nine-Grain Wheat and Sunflower varieties. One strikingly peculiar-looking bread is their Purple Wheat Raisin, made from an ancient grain nearly lost to history.
“It used to be milled back in the day and then it kind of died out,” Chef Johnston says. “It’s just starting to get brought back to the forefront again. The grain itself is actually purple, so there’s no artificial coloring or anything in it.”
Chef Skirtz says the new Main Library location has been a great success, offering patrons an array of fresh, wholesome, scratch-made products with an accessible price point and convenience most on-the-go downtowners can appreciate.
“You can buy your lunch, get something carry-out, go back to your office with a really great product,” Skirtz says. “If you’re buying a sandwich from us, it’s on bread that we make, sauces we make, the rubs on the meats ... everything is something we either buy from Findlay Market or we make ourselves, and I think that puts us in a different position than a lot of other lunch places.”
While you won’t find fruitcake at the cafe, plenty of holiday-themed cupcakes and sugar cookies will be available alongside S & J’s other instant classics, like the dense, fudgy flourless chocolate torte or their delicious handheld breakfast: a blueberry pancake cupcake topped with maple frosting and a chocolate-dipped bite of bacon.
Skirtz & Johnston’s breads, pastries and desserts are reason enough for anyone to forget that Red Ryder this holiday season. That’s right, Ralphie. Leave the gun, take the cannoli.
S & J Cafe at the Main Library
Go: 800 Vine St., Downtown (Main Library)
Hours: 9 a.m.- 4 p.m. Monday-Friday