It's not exactly a meet-cute situation, but it is kind of sweet. In 2017, Christine Yen was working as the head baker at Baked in Tribeca, but, as she recalled to Gothamist last week, "I always wanted to branch out on my own, and started a side hustle called Bench Flour Bakers." She set up shop at the LIC Flea and the Queens Craft Brigade.
Meanwhile, Joe DeMato, a fourth-generation Astorian, was running a food truck called The Breakfast Shack on 30th Avenue. He picks up the story: "I saw Christine's post about her first market at LIC Flea and kind of fell in love with what she was doing, and her ideals when it comes to food. We asked her to bring some staples to the truck... and the rest is history. We developed a business relationship, became life partners soon after that, and in December of 2018 signed a lease for this place."
"This place" is Bench Flour Bakers on 25th Avenue in Astoria—a charming, almost small-town-looking bakery and cafe that opened a few weeks ago and already has the neighborhood lining up out the door every weekend, eager to wolf down Yen's accomplished baked goodies and DeMato's monster breakfast sandwiches.
It sounds like an instant hit, but it definitely hasn't been easy getting to this point. Yen and DeMato's initial plan was to open Bench Flour Bakers in March of 2020, right before the shutdown, and managed to hang on through those grim, early pandemic months by taking Instagram DMs for delivery and pre-ordered pickups. "My dad and I loaded up the truck and delivered for four or five hours at a time," said DeMato. "And if you drive in NYC, you know how miserable that can be."
Now that Bench Flour Bakers has settled in for a minute, serving a full menu for breakfast, brunch, and lunch, we can start to see just how ambitious Yen and DeMato are. The ingredients are seasonal and locally sourced whenever possible, "from farms upstate and urban farms right here in Astoria," says Yen. "It forces us to stay creative, and it also just makes everything taste better."
That's certainly true of the Cranberry, Almond Frangipane, and Chocolate Danish I ate on Sunday morning, a lovely flavor combination that boasted a nice textural balance as well, thanks to the sweet crumb topping. Even better was the Yuzu Matcha Morning Bun, the dough pleasantly chewy and redolent with that earthy tea, the citrusy bite of yuzu custard countered by a crunchy sugar-crystal coating.
Yen also makes loads of more basic pastries. There are several varieties of scones, biscuits, muffins, croissants, and cookies, including a delicious Salted Chocolate Chip made with rye flour. Or get a slice of pie, or quiche, or a braid, or a loaf of freshly baked bread. You can have a few slices of the latter made into French toast if you want, and if there's one of Yen's sweet, sticky Cinnamon Buns left in the case when you arrive, pounce.
Bench Flour Bakers has an equally strong savory side as well. It was 10 a.m. when I was there, so I got one of DeMato's Breakfast Sandwiches--you can build your own; mine featured sausage, runny fried eggs, spinach, and cheese on a milk bun, and it ruled--but there's also a M.A.D. burger with asiago and onion jam, a Wild Game Burger with venison, duck, toasted goat cheese and cranberry jelly, and a tempting Char Siu sandwich.
The space is cute and country feeling, with raw wood, exposed brick, and seating for about ten before you hit the large ordering counter/pastry case/open kitchen. And there's more to come, said DeMato. "We're very close to getting our beer and wine license, and we're going to put up outdoor seating when it gets warmer, stay open at night, do drink pairings with desserts, maybe offer a small food menu...."
For now, though, the couple is just grateful for where they find themselves after three years of hard work getting it off the ground. "We opened on Halloween, and it's been crazy," said Yen. "It sounds so cheesy but it's like a dream come true. We've been doing this for a long time and we've always wanted a shop of our own, and to have the response that we've had, people lining up... it's amazing. You can't help but cry happy tears."
Bench Flour Bakers is located at 43-18 25th Avenue, just west of 44th Street, and is currently open on Thursdays and Fridays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., and on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (@benchflourbakers)