if you're familiar with our blog at all, you know how head over heels in love we are with sweetart. this family operation is one of our standards, and we just can't get enough. sweetart has received plenty of glowing press in st. louis, but we have always been curious to know more about the brilliant mind at the helm of the business--reine bayoc. we've kept up with their blog and have been aware of some of reine's struggles balancing the restaurant, customers, and her family. there's a lot of love and consideration that keeps this place running, and it's almost palpable when you walk in. we were lucky enough to steal some of reine's precious time for an interview recently. not surprisingly, reine (pronounced "rain") has an easy-going disposition, and she instantly made us feel like part of the family. we loved getting to know her, and we know you will, too.
on discovering her talent:
you know, i was in editing--i majored in english and french in college and i was freelancing a lot of articles i had absolutely no interest in doing. the subject matter was a bore to me, and i just was losing passion for that. but i wanted to be a writer. i still consider myself to be a writer. i was looking for full-time work, and i couldn’t find anything that would fit the type of schedule that i had because i had three little kids. so i thought, let me do 8,000 part-time jobs and sell cookies, too. and i started tinkering with cookies, and then people started telling me, "oh! i’d like to buy some!" and i thought, "okay, i’ll sell you some!" then the cookies started replacing the part-time jobs one at a time. at one time I had four part-time jobs; i did some of everything. and slowly but surely, i started getting more and more orders, and that would take away a part-time job. then i did tower grove’s farmers’ market. and that was it!
on becoming a restaurateur:
my husband already had a studio on meramec in dutchtown, and we said we should have a place together--we’ll have one rent; we’ll just make it happen. i thought, i don’t know... it’s a lot of pressure! you put yourself out there, anybody can say they love you, anybody can say they hate you. you just have to have the thickest skin and go for it and deal with people and their issues. i didn’t think i was ready for it, but i thought if i didn’t do it now, i wouldn’t do it in the future. so i just said, "okay, we can try it and see." we gave ourselves four years. we started year three in december.
on how she feels today about it:
i'm still feeling great about the place. yeah! you know, every now and then you feel like, "is this working? does this still feel good?" and right now in this moment, it feels really good and it’s working.
on evolving from bakeshop to cafe:
i started just doing sweets. i've been a vegetarian for years, [but] i remember when we were going to open, we weren't going to have food; we were going to have quiche, brownies, cupcakes, that sort of thing. i understand why a lot of places open up and they're just baked goods: it's easier to maintain. but my girlfriend said, "you have to sell food," and i said, oh, maybe. and then people kept coming in asking for food. so i said, okay, i'll put five things on the menu. i thought, it'll just be food that i make at home. and she said, "you have to sell meat." i said, no, everybody sells meat. you can get a chicken salad sandwich anywhere. you can get a turkey sandwich anywhere. so i figure the people who really want that have plenty of choices. we, on the other hand--my kids are vegetarian, too, and cbabi's a vegetarian--we can't go everywhere to eat. so i thought, why not just make food that's vegetarian--people will either eat it, or they won't. everybody has a choice.
on her vegetarian family:
[my kids] have always been raised vegetarian. we also go vegan from time to time. it's usually by my doing. at home what they eat is mostly vegan food. i say [they're] "vegetarian" because when they get with their grandparents, it's hard enough to get my mom not to feed them white castle, so if she wants to give them a grilled cheese sandwich, i say go for it. it's better than giving them a pork chop, which she would love to do. at home our diet is mostly vegan, and the lunches that they take are vegan. it's very hard in the kitchen when we're experimenting with something new [for the restaurant] and we're trying to do it vegan, and we're trying to do it regular, and you have to taste it.
on the formation of the menu:
[when creating a new menu item] i try it on myself, and if it makes me giggle, i don't let anybody else taste it. because if it makes me giggle, i know it's the one. it's just so good that it makes me laugh, and then i'm like, oh, this is it. [giggles] nobody has to taste it.
but yesterday, we were experimenting with a turtle bar off of some cookies that our newest person left something out of... we didn't know what it was, but they weren't baking right. so we were trying to manipulate it, so we didn't waste what was already made. and we were tasting, and we were like, oh, it tastes a little burnt. so that way, i'll let other people try it. usually when we bake anything new, the other bakers will taste it so they know, one, what it tasted like, and two, whether it might inspire a different product. you never know.
conceptually [the menu is] all me. i like to say that we're not fancy, by any means, and nor do i want to be. we've had some press where people will say "pastry chef reine bayoc," and i just laugh because i am not a pastry chef. i'm making things my grandmother could do. i'm just using really great products, and i'm trying to get as much stuff local, as many things as we can organic. it's not fancy, it's just simple. so if i like it, i think other people will like it.
on staying true to herself:
i like to say i’m catering to vegetarians and vegans and meat-eaters--i don’t want to exclude anybody. i think our veggie burger is good even if you like steakburgers. i would think it tastes pretty good! but i have to be sure that people know that you must do what you love. i'm creating things that i love, and i get a lot of people who come in here and--"oh, they have vegan food!" and they want something 100% raw, and i have to direct them to vegadeli because they cater to that more than we do. it's good to have people out there who are giving options. so, yes, i want to feed vegetarians and vegans and meat-eaters, but i also want to stand true to the things that i eat and enjoy. and know that the kitchen is about the size of this table, so... the things that we’re able to get out: small miracle! you just do what you can.
it’s really hard to stay true to yourself once you become public. it was really easy for me to decide what i wanted to do when i was baking in my house. when you have a storefront, you start hearing, you should do this and this, and why don’t you do this? we just had someone come in and say, "you really need to put chicken on the menu." i always hear things from everybody. so we try to focus on what’s near and dear to us and what we love. coming in in the mornings and seeing my grandmother’s picture, [i think], would she eat this? yeah, she would eat this.
on her source of inspiration:
we try to do things that are homey. like you would go into your grandmother's house and feel like... i have a picture of my grandmother on my mantle. every morning when i come in, it’s pitch black dark because it's that early, and i go over to her picture and i say good morning. and whatever i’ve made that day that seems like it’d be something that she'd like, i'll take it and put it on a platter by her photo and tell her what it is. or if something breaks, i'll give it to her.
i lived in france for a short time, and i loved their desserts. i thought they were spectacular. my french housemother even taught me how to make some things that were wonderful, beautiful! but at the end of the day, i’d rather have a piece of chocolate cake. you gotta know what you love. at the end of the day, i don’t want the fancy french dessert that i love so much there. it was comforting there because my grandmother wasn’t there, my mom wasn’t there. so i ate that there. here--this is what i like, so you have to do what you love.
some fun quick-fires, just to get to know reine a little better:
strangest request at work:
sometimes people come in and they say, "my great-grandmother made this filling for every cake, can you make this filling?" and they give me the recipe, and there are no directions. it’s just x, y, z as far as ingredients, and you have to figure out what their great-grandmother did. i know a lot of people who just say, "no, we don’t do that, we don’t re-create." but if it’s near and dear to somebody, i’ll do it. i’ll just figure it out. and usually it turns out great. nobody’s called to say it wasn’t!
what she does for herself:
i meditate twice a day. and i usually fit in a walk or yoga every day.
favorite childhood memory:
i have three brothers; i’m the only girl [and] i’m just real tomboysy. my brothers [and i], we would have parties. we were very poor. every now and then we'd scrounge up a couple dollars and we'd go get those cheap little sandwich cookies...like the very generic oreos, and popcorn, and chips, and [we'd] mix together the popcorn and chips. we would sit and just have a party. my mom was very protective. we weren’t at people’s houses. there were four of us, so she just figured we could play together, so that’s what we did. we would just sit and have our little snack food, and we would have rapping contests. we would have a tape recorder and rap, or we would see who could write to 100 the fastest. i mean, you would think we were raised on a farm somewhere, the things that entertained us. that’s what we did. i’m still close with my brothers. i think that’s one of my favorite memories.
top two bucket list items:
i want to go to fiji. don’t know why. i saw it once on [the today show], and I was like, "(gasp) wow, that looks amazing!" and i want to take my daughter to paris because i experienced france, and i just want to be the first one to take her. all my kids, but she’s the oldest. so i see taking her to paris, just to have my daughter time. i remember reading this book not long ago, molly wizenberg's a homemade life. she had been [to paris] before with her family many times, but before she got married, her mom said, "i want to take you to paris because this is the last moment that you’re going to be my single daughter. soon you’re going to start your own family." i enjoyed france for the time that i was there. i think it's good to go somewhere else and see what living is like. i think here we work way too much; we're not enjoying life. i say that almost all the time to everyone else, and i have to remember it for myself, like, "okay, you’re supposed to be enjoying life! that’s really why you’re here!" you have to focus on what brings you joy. there are many things on that list, but those will be the top two for now.
reine is, not surprisingly, very modest about sweetart's presence in the st. louis food scene. to understand her approach to her business is to understand her dedication to family, doing what she loves, and loving what she's doing. when asked about all the new and exciting things happening in st. louis kitchens, reine encourages us all to take chances:
so many people are afraid to come in, and then they do, and they look at the menu. i don't have enough digits to count the people who come in and say, "there's no meat," and then walk right out. it's all about opening your mind and trying something new. you just gotta go, go, go. i think st. louis is really getting out there. i can't wait to see what happens.