The Sweet Details Behind DONNA BELL’S BAKE SHOP
By Jonathan Metzelaar
As much as I enjoyed the time I spent living in Hell’s Kitchen, I always felt the neighborhood’s businesses were a bit lacking in diversity and character. I’m sure that a large part of the reason that I felt that way was because I lived right where Hell’s Kitchen meets Midtown, and the corporate tendrils of Times Square reached prominently into my immediate surroundings. Walking up Eighth and Ninth Avenue, I couldn’t help but feel a strong sense of déjà vu. Chipotle, Starbucks, Subway. Generic French Bistro, Starbucks, Subway. Rinse, wash, repeat. The neighborhood itself was great. It just felt at times like it was missing something.
Cue Donna Bell’s Bake Shop. To be honest, I couldn’t help but feel a slight twinge of sadness the first time I visited Donna Bell’s, because I realized that this was the kind of place I had wished there were more of when I was still living in the area. A cozy hidden gem of a business, Donna Bell’s specializes in “homemade Southern desserts and savories,” and everything is made on-site, with the kitchen practically in full view of patrons. The décor is warm and inviting, not unlike co-owners Matthew Sandusky and Darren Greenblatt, who are both about as hospitable and passionate about delicious food as they come.
Don’t just take my word for it though; the proof is in the pudding—or, in the case of Donna Bell’s, in the “gooey chess bar,” which was incredible. In between my munching on their delicious pastries, I was fortunate enough to talk a little bit with Matthew and Darren about Donna Bell’s.
Jonathan Metzelaar: How did you guys end up meeting, getting together with Pauley Perrette–whose mother the bakery is named after–and deciding to open a bake shop?
Matthew Sandusky: I met Pauley soon after arriving in Los Angeles in the late ’90s. We became very close, and she coined me “Uncle Matthew,” because I would watch all of my friends’ pets–including hers–whenever they had to leave town. I met Darren through Pauley, and we became long-distance friends. I was known for the giant Thanksgiving dinners I would make for anyone who didn’t have family or couldn’t get back home during the holidays. I always loved to cook, bake, and host, and it was always my dream to open up some type of food establishment. Darren had opened a food truck in New Jersey, and that was the original Donna Bell’s, which was named after Pauley’s mom. I told Pauley I thought it was a great idea, and she relayed that back to Darren. The two of them discussed opening a shop right in Manhattan and expanding on the Donna Bell’s food truck theme. Darren urged Pauley to convince me to join in. At first I was hesitant, because I had just decided to go back to school after 15 years. I had already received my B.A. in Political Science, and I was all set to start a Masters program. After a few days of realizing how much fun owning and operating a shop would be, my inner spontaneous spirit took over, and I decided to pack it up and move to NYC.
Darren Greenblatt: Pauley is like the sister I never had. She’s been my best friend for over 20 years. We’re as close as family. We met in Hell’s Kitchen, New York, where we lived on the same street. I met Matthew about 12 years ago, while visiting Pauley after she had moved to L.A. As Matthew said, the bake shop idea first culminated in the form of a food truck at the Jersey Shore about four summers ago. I was selling southern desserts from a vintage truck, and it was a huge success. Months later I proposed the idea of opening a shop to Pauley, saying that Matthew would be the only person I would want to do it with.
JM: How conscious are you of sticking to the “Southern” theme, and does that ever restrict any of your decisions when it comes to adding new menu options?
DG: We like to think about everything in terms of WWDBD: What Would Donna Bell Do? Donna Bell was a mother, a southern housewife, a gracious hostess, and a wonderful cook and baker, so there’s a lot of room to explore and develop the recipes.
MS: I’m not from the South, so my research and menu is based on both friends and recommendations. In keeping with the theme, sometimes we start with a popular Southern food and change it around a bit. Take chess pie for example, which is a Southern staple that we turned into a bar to make it more user-friendly. Though the end result might not technically be authentic, its roots are always Southern-inspired.
JM: Do any of your creations have interesting stories behind them? Were any based on family recipes, or created by accident, or surprising with regard to how good they turned out?
MS: What I found is that many of my family recipes adapt very well. I am originally from Pittsburgh, so that’s where my “comfort food” approach comes from. I have used my grandparents’ zucchini bread recipe, my dad’s minestrone soup, and my Aunt Linda’s jello cake. And if we ever expand, the first thing I’ll add will be my mom’s raisin bread recipe.
DG: I am always amazed with what Matthew creates. I want Matthew to have free reign in the kitchen to do what he does naturally. I purposely stay away from the kitchen, so it can’t be said that there are “too many cooks in the kitchen.”
JM: What moments make you guys feel validated during the course of your respective daily routines? In other words, what aspects of running Donna Bell’s are the most rewarding?
DG: The happy faces and daily compliments from our customers. Also, getting to see the gorgeous food that we present each day is rewarding.
MS: For me, hearing somebody say things like, “I lost my grandmother two years ago, and this reminds me of her,” while tears gather in their eyes; that is the biggest compliment. And that’s because we built this place with family in mind. Donna Bell was a real person, and the mother of our dear friend. My parents put the wallpaper up in the shop, and sometimes Darren’s daughter comes in and runs around, looking for a cookie from “Uncle Matthew.” Our staff never goes home hungry because I am always feeding them. We close the shop every Thanksgiving, and I continue my dinner tradition right here in the bakery. These are the things that are rewarding and make this such a special place for all of us.
JM: Donna Bell’s is situated near a pretty highly-trafficked area of Hell’s Kitchen, right on the periphery of Times Square. Consequently, you guys are in close proximity to some pretty big-name coffee shops and bakeries, notably Amy’s Bread, Starbucks, and Crumbs. Are you conscious of any sort of “competition” between these places? What do you feel sets Donna Bell’s apart from them?
MS: The vision of this shop was never to be in direct competition with a specific company. I think that outlook helps us succeed. The city has been bombarded with large corporate chains, and the same faces on every block. I think the locals find us a refreshing change. If you come into our small shop you can see the kitchen, and everyone knows it was baked right here. I do commend any business that survives New York City though. I say the more the merrier, because that’s what makes this city great.
DG: In terms of food, there is nothing very similar to us that is close-by. I think about it like this: People have to make a choice every day about where to get their coffee, breakfast, sweet treat, or lunch, so in reality every food establishment close-by is our competition. It’s important to continue to provide unique and delicious food that feels like a luxury at a decent price. What sets us apart, besides our pastries and baked goods, is that we offer things that no one else does, like our made-to-order, drop-biscuit breakfast sandwiches, or the hearty homemade soups we offer every day.
JM: Do you have any future goals or plans for Donna Bell’s, or are you trying to take it one step at a time? Are you enticed at all by the idea of expanding and opening other locations?
DG: We did for a hot-minute when we first opened, but we quickly realized that we have so much we need to do out of our little shop before we tackle anything else. We will have been open for two years this upcoming May, and I think the next step would be a cookbook so we can share our best recipes. A cookbook would also be a great thing for Pauley’s fans all over the world who don’t have the opportunity stop by the shop.
MS: We always think big, but we stay within our limits. In the end, we are a mom & pop shop. As Darren said, I believe a cookbook will be our next endeavor. If we ever do expand, we can honestly say it will be easier the second time around. We have met every speed bump along the way, and we take our lessons learned very seriously. With this in mind, wouldn’t a “Donna Bell’s Kitchen” be awesome? One shop for food, and another for desserts!
Matthew Sandusky and Darren Greenblatt are friends and co-owners of Donna Bell’s Bake Shop, which is named after actress and mutual friend Pauley Perrette’s mother, and serves Southern-inspired savories and sweets.
Written and Edited by Jonathan Metzelaar
Photography by Coco Alexander
Design by Marie Havens
Co-Owners Darren Greenblatt & Matthew Sandusky, Donna Bell’s Bake Shop, New York City, Photography by Coco Alexander