Suzanne Lombardi isn’t always known by her name, but by her talents and her deeds.
And in case this is a name that you do not know automatically, you will most surely know her as co-owner and baker of the iconic Dancing Deer Bakery. No one who lived in this area in 1994 did not know about Dancing Deer.
Suzanne’s career has been a little like Alice in Wonderland—through the looking glass and running through the chessboard, not knowing what direction she was going in.
As a disinterested but “creative kid,” in her own words, she went to art school with the hopes that it “would channel my energy and creativity, and hopefully I’d find my way into something.” During this time she worked part-time as a prep cook for a bakery in Jamaica Plain called Today’s Bread.
Serendipity played her a good hand. Out of art school, knowing nothing of food styling, she became Sheryl Julian’s food stylist at the Boston Globe. Suzanne learned she had a great eye, could make anything. “This job with Sheryl empowered me totally.”
But this was short-lived. Only a year later Suzanne’s husband got a job offer in California and she went with him. Always looking for new skills, she began baking bread at an Italian bread company in Palo Alto called Il Fornaio. Then, with that baking ability now under her belt and using her newly acquired “Sheryl Julian gumption,” she sold herself to a bakery that needed someone to make cakes and cookies. It was trial by fire but as always she prevailed.
When they returned to the East Coast, well-exposed to the coffee culture that was abounding on the West Coast, Suzanne predicted that the culture would soon follow east. Her idea was to bake for the coffee houses and cafes that were opening and sell delicious coffee cakes, gingerbread, chocolate pumpkin swirl cake with cardamon, that would enhance the fine cups of coffee.
So began Dancing Deer, naming it after her grandmother’s antique shop in Maine. Suzanne delivered everything warm in the early hours of the morning after baking in a rented kitchen every night. Realizing that in order to grow the business she needed some business advice, she took on partners and the fledgling bakery took on a life of its own.
Dancing Deer basically created a new template for “today’s” business. Their credo was to do what you love and they did. At the same time that the coffee shop culture was beginning, a natural gourmet food culture was also starting to take root. Dancing Deer Bakery was definitely gourmet. Natural, home-baked, handmade, and artisanal were new buzz words in those days, not part of our daily culinary vernacular.
They were way ahead of the curve for creating a brand out of love of the product, and for growing a tiny business and a huge talent into a multi-million dollar business. Their distribution expanded from the coffee and gourmet shops to include Whole Foods and Dean & Deluca, as well as hundreds of specialty stores across the country. This is the dream of every artisanal specialty product owner. But few can take it this far. These were heady times.
But all good things must come to an end, and though Dancing Deer still exists, the partnership dissolved in 2001 when Suzanne sold her shares. Pregnant, and with some money, Suzanne stayed home for two years and developed “a candy thing” as she puts it—something she’d always wanted to do. “Candy was magical. It’s always sugar, water, flavors—depending on the temperature you cook it to,” still marveling. She began playing with confections and called the company Tiny Trapeze, now known for her their tiny flavor-packed marshmallows. She used a turn-of-the-century candy-making machine. She then sold Tiny Trapeze to Whole Foods and stayed around to run it for three years.
“And after this,” Suzanne continues, “I went, okay, what’s next? I’m so bad, I never look back.” The one thing she knew she wanted was to get back into a kitchen, and build a small team to do... yes, retail. Which brings us to her six-month old neighborhood cafe in Milton called The Plate.
“I wanted to make food that people craved,” said Suzanne. And she’s done just that. Her fresh egg, breakfast sandwich on house-made English muffins has become the “it” item, and she’ll easily sell 70 on a gloomy Sunday. A few take-home products are appearing: granola, mac-and-cheese; and very soon, on Thursdays and Fridays, there will be a Dinner-to-Go Program. She has assembled a community of talented young people and is giving them the room to see how and where they might fit in the scheme of things at The Plate.
After a lovely late breakfast, my daughter and I stood to pay and looked around for a tip cup. She’d worked at an ice cream stand for six years, and I knew when there were young people around to always look for the tip jar and be generous. We had to ask.
There isn’t one, we were told by the 16 year-old boy who waited on us. “Keep it and come back,” he said as he returned our change. That sums up The Plate in many ways. Except that until this visit, Suzanne was unaware of the charming and gracious bon mots her employee dispensed.
It makes us wonder what he’ll be doing in eight years. And makes us glad we know what Suzanne Lombardi is up to these days.
The Plate 27 Central Avenue, Milton 617.698.8900 the platekitchen.com
Rachel Travers is a freelance food and lifestyle writer who has been contributing to the Boston Globe for 16 years—and to Edible Boston for its proud six! She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org