BALTIMORE — The coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions that followed have devastated businesses large and small, but they didn’t stop Keiller Kyle from following through on bringing a bread bakery to Little Italy’s renowned food scene.
For Kyle, opening during the pandemic was more than unforeseeable — he had planned to open the bakery in 2019.
“Unrealistically, I was going to be opening in the fall of 2019 or the early winter of 2019,” Kyle told the Washington Examiner. “That continued to get pushed back as some of the nuances of this particular space, which has been occupied since 1947 as a business, as a very kind of iconic type of corner store for many people not only still living in Little Italy but that have since moved away.”
“I really liked the idea of the community here in Little Italy,” Kyle continued, occasionally interrupted by the clamor of a bustling kitchen. “The community and the neighborhood are very centered on food and very good food, and I felt, and so did Joe, that Little Italy really needed a bread bakery, seeing how that is what I was really focused on.”
Joe Gardella owns Joe Benny’s, another newcomer to Little Italy’s food scene that serves Italian food with a modern flair and one of the driving forces behind Kyle’s decision to open Ovenbird in Little Italy.
By the time Kyle was ready for the storefront to open in July, the coronavirus pandemic was in the middle of the summer surge. And just last week, Kyle was forced to close the store temporarily to deep-clean after one of his workers tested positive for COVID-19.
But despite the problems associated with the pandemic — Kyle said that as cases surged at different times in different parts of the country, it became difficult to find some ingredients, particularly meat and dairy products — in some ways, the pandemic helped him ease through the growing pains of being a first-time business owner.
“I kind of forget about it sometimes because we’re so busy, but we just, we are a child of the pandemic, as a business,” Kyle said.
“There’s two parts to this,” he continued. “The first is, we opened in the middle of a pandemic — oh my God. We’re making it work. But I would also argue that, oh my God, we opened in the middle of a pandemic, and I don’t know what I would have done without the extra room that we have gained by orienting our retail perspective the way we did.”
To avoid negotiating the shifting state and local restrictions on in-person dining, Ovenbird pushed its cases of baked goods and the register around the front door and operated on a strictly to-go basis, with a few outdoor seats during the summer. Those business tweaks have helped the bakery serve as many as 250 guests per day on the weekend, far exceeding Kyle’s expectations for the first year.
While Ovenbird itself has managed to skate around the worst of the pandemic’s effects on the food industry, retail operations are only part of its business. Kyle’s bakery sells bread and pastries to a number of Baltimore-area restaurants, including Little Italy’s La Scala and Aldo’s Ristorante, Hampden’s Grano Pasta Bar, and Harbor East’s Aveley Farms coffee — and when they have to limit capacity or temporarily close, Ovenbird feels it.
“It has affected us business-wise when our business customers, our restaurant customers, are trying to navigate that, and we are seeing our sales to them fluctuate pretty drastically when they are open or partially open to when they’re closed,” Kyle said. “It certainly makes a big difference in terms of what we’re producing for them.”
Ovenbird is the product of Kyle’s passion for at-home baking (he said he was first inspired to bake pastries after watching The Great British Bake Off with his wife), but his hands are just two of the many that have contributed to his dream’s success.
“It’s not just me here. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have found amazingly talented people to join the team early on,” Kyle said. “Shadee Holden has been just one of the main driving forces for our bread work. … The collaboration that he and I have put together has been just wonderful. He’s bringing his vast experience, and we’re adapting my home recipes that we’re putting together to create a really nice breadth of different breads, bread types.”
There’s also pastry chef Chanelle Hicks and Michael Cab, who makes the bakery’s breakfast and lunch orders.
“Maybe I started it, but people have really caught on to the vision and are making it their own in terms of what they’re producing,” Kyle said. “Michael, with the sandwiches, is just killing it. The amount of Instagram posts I’ve seen about a lox bagel that this guy is producing, it blows me away. Each of our staff members has really added a color to the portrait that is the bakery, so it’s really filling in around and being influenced by our staff.”
In the end, Kyle says he’s optimistic about coming out on the other side of the pandemic and stressed Baltimore’s resilience in the face of adversity.
“There are a lot of things out of my control — I’m sure everyone is feeling this way,” Kyle said. “I’ve noticed people are incredibly resilient here. They stand in lines to get to a bakery that they really like, and they do it happily. … I feel incredibly grateful that people understand that we are going through this all together, and for that, I feel a great sense of humility and appreciation for that.”
“It’s such a clear indication from our city that they want this,” Kyle added. “They like it. They want it, and they want it in their neighborhood.”