Melanie Krygier-Lamastra makes her mark in the thousands of cakes she has baked and decorated since opening Melanie’s Sweets Unlimited in the Broadway Market in October 1978. Over the years her business added locations including a bake shop on Harlem Road and another in Theater Place, where she served up confections for 25 years.
Krygier-Lamastra is a pioneer among businesswomen, raising five children and following a trade she learned from her mother and father, who owned Walden Quality Bakery.
Her decorated cakes have been called works of art by customers. Some are currently on display at the Castellani Art Museum, 5795 Lewiston Road on the campus of Niagara University. The exhibit, “(Almost) Too Good to Eat: Marking Life Transitions With Food,” runs through Dec. 8.
She and her husband Sam Lamastra have been married for 27 years. At age 75, Krygier-Lamastra is contemplating retirement.
People Talk: Do you guard your recipes?
Melanie Krygier-Lamastra: I am protective. I wasn’t years ago. People would come to me and I was very free with my recipes. But after I see what all these show people – on these cooking shows – what they get paid, I said I’m not giving my recipes to anybody. So I stopped, but I do have a lot of written recipes. And a lot I just automatically know. It comes with repetition.
PT: Do you bake at home?
ML: Not really. Sometimes on a Sunday morning in the winter. Don’t ask me why. You know I worked 80 to 90 hours a week in the shops. So did I have time at home? No, I did not. But now that I only work 40 hours, on a Sunday morning I will maybe perhaps make something – a coffee cake, a crumb cake.
PT: Why did you decide to open your first store at the market?
ML: I was always smitten with the market. I would come and shop here when my children were small. I ended up buying Gold Ray Bakery. You know what? I was ahead of my time. I always said I was the original Gloria Steinem because I did things that were not fashionable for women to do back then in 1978. I came out independent of my mother and father. I opened up my own business. I loved the excitement of the market.
PT: How has your business changed over the years?
ML: When I first started, customers came in to buy a dozen doughnuts, two breads, a dozen rolls, maybe two coffee cakes. Today when they come in they want one doughnut or one roll or half a coffee cake. By far, the majority buy smaller amounts than they did years ago. I think it has to do with smaller families, split families. Seniors by themselves don’t need much.
PT: Describe the Buffalo consumer.
ML: Fortunate. People from other parts of the country do not have the food we do. My kids take sponge candy back home with them after a visit. That’s so synonymous with the Buffalo area. The Buffalo consumer is an educated one.
PT: What is your single best-seller?
ML: Outside the decorated cakes? I specialize in wedding cakes and birthday cakes. My single best-seller would be my homemade pound cakes. They’re Bundt cakes and they weigh more than a pound. Then there’s the German chocolate, the red velvet cakes. I sold loads of the red velvet cake at the chicken wing festival.
PT: Your cannolis won a ribbon at the Taste of Buffalo. What makes them special?
ML: To start with, I use the best cheeses. I use a mascarpone which is a finer cheese than ricotta. We sell most of our cannolis – about 95 percent – with chocolate chips. I don’t buy the ordinary chips. I buy true chocolate chips, and we make them fresh filled. A cannoli that is made and put on the counter loses its flavor. The shell gets soggy.
PT: Which of your cakes was your best work?
ML: As I go back – I must have made thousands of cakes – the most exciting was my Liberty Bank building cake because I just started cake decorating at that time. It was huge, enough for 800 people. It took me a week and a half to make and assemble. We delivered it all in one piece. The only things not edible were the statues. I sent my brother – who was working in New York City at the time – to buy two souvenir statues at the Statue of Liberty. I put them on top of the cake. I was adventurous.
PT: What is key to cake decorating?
ML: Patience. And the finer the work, the better the decoration. My mother was the finest cake decorator I’ve ever seen. My dad was a baker, but I have to be honest with you, I didn’t really bake with him. At holiday time I’d make cookies with him. The one thing he stressed, where people tend to make mistakes, is not baking long enough and putting out a raw product.
PT: What is your opinion on reinventing baking classics – like the cake, for example?
ML: Sometimes I think about decorated cakes, how they have evolved and how different they are from what they were years ago. Somebody would come in for a nice birthday cake. You’d make them a nice round cake, maybe a square cake with some flowers. Today everything is a photograph. It’s not unusual for people to bring me pictures off the computer. We’re dealing with an entirely different generation and they have different values.
PT: What baked good is ageless?
ML: Strudels are age old. The ones we had years ago remain pretty much the same. People now, I think, are looking for the old-fashioned quality. I think they are getting a little tired of the supermarkets.
PT: When do you plan to retire?
ML: I am close. I tell people it could be a day, it could be a week, it could be two months. I did tell the market I would not leave an empty spot, that I would work to bring somebody in. Hopefully, it will work out.