“The building is from 1864, so everything is a little wobbly,” says Blair Fornshell, baker and owner of the soon-to-open Brown Bear Bakery on E. 13th St. in Over-the-Rhine. “The speed racks, when I’m trying to pull things out of the oven, they run away from me. I’m like, ‘Wait!’ So I have little blocks that are leftover pieces of wood to stop things.”
She’s referring to the hardwood floors in the space, just one of the building’s many original details Fornshell was adamant should be retained during renovation.
Fornshell graduated from the Midwest Culinary Institute at Cincinnati State with a degree in pastry arts in 2012 and went on to continue her education at the University of Cincinnati. That same year, the lifelong baker debuted Brown Bear Bakery at The City Flea’s Holiday Market to make money during school.
She worked part time at markets and pop-ups until after graduation when she began baking full time to supply local coffee shops like M5 Espresso Lab and 1215 Wine Bar and fill corporate orders. She was baking out of her home kitchen and various rental kitchens, but a larger, permanent kitchen and a brick and mortar of her own was always a dream.
The renovation and design of the Brown Bear space was exceedingly intentional and personal. Fornshell and her partner Chaske Haverkos, who handles the business end of Brown Bear, engaged local architect John Hoebbel and firm the Drawing Dept. Keeping its original charm and character was of utmost importance, but Fornshell also had particular ideas in mind, including one quite familial.
“One of the first things you’ll notice is the bakery case is incredibly in your face. I wanted people to be jammed in here and it to be really intimate,” she says.
The counter is covered in luminous aqua-green tile reminiscent of Rookwood Pottery, handmade by Fornshell and artist Christie Goodfellow of cgceramics. The women met and became friends during a City Flea when their booths were next to each other. Goodfellow had never made tile before, so the two simply took raw clay, rolled it out —much like cookie dough — and used rulers for measuring and cutting.
“I was like in this vortex of trying to find tile that I liked for the space and everything I liked I would see in other restaurants or something similar, and I just wanted something different,” Fornshell says. “And then my grandmother, the rolling pin she gave me is wooden and it has these faded green handles, and that was the color I wanted to use — something green like that — so we just tried to match.”
Off-white tile covers the backsplash, and wooden counters by local design and furniture company the Brush Factory line the room. The whole space is the perfect blend of old and new and has a very Lower Manhattan vibe. In addition to indoor seating, there will be outdoor tables to take advantage of the tree-lined street’s pleasant view of Old Saint Mary’s Church across the street.
The charming setting will of course showcase Fornshell’s comforting, home-style pastries and pies as well as cakes by full-time baker Sami Crittenden. There will be a set menu with around 12 items to start, and Fornshell is planning to extend to 20 items once she gets comfortable with her new retail life. Customer favorites such as matcha cakes, salted chocolate chip cookies, Callebaut brownies, galettes and savory scones and little tarts will always be available. She also eventually hopes to return to markets like The City Flea, but the shop is the focus for now.
“I know after doing this for five years, the things that at every market people come and want,” Fornshell says. “There are eight staples that we’ll have every day, and then with the seasons and the changes with produce and holiday specials we’ll switch probably bi-weekly or monthly.”
There will also be very pretty, seasonal, tall cakes-by-the-slice from Crittenden as well as 2-inch cakes that people can come in and share after dinner or a date night. Crittenden will also bake custom cakes for weddings as well as other special occasions.
Fornshell draws her creativity from books and what’s available seasonally in stores and at Findlay Market. She’s very careful when it comes to the balance of sweet and savory in her baking.
“I want to make sure you have both,” she says. “A lot of people think that you go to the bakery to get a sugar bomb, but even my sweet stuff is pretty salty and balanced. But we’ll have a lot of savory.”
The shop will also serve hot and cold coffee, fizzy water and eventually tea — nothing “too crazy,” says Fornshell, as to not compete with the baked goods.
As for the name of her company, Fornshell says that growing up everyone called her “Bear,” although her name was Blair, and that even today her nieces and nephews still call her “Auntie Bear.”
“I started doing research on bears to see a little bit about the animal,” she says. “And they’re very commanding creatures; they stand up against adversity, they’re courageous, and I think that being a woman-owned business, you need all those traits and characteristics that a bear has.”
Brown Bear’s doors opened for a sneak peek this past weekend, but Fornshell isn’t planning a big-hoopla grand opening. “I think we’ll just quietly take the paper down and roll out our menu,” she says. “I wanted when you’re walking by with these beautiful windows for you to just walk in and just see. How can you pass up this giant counter full of baked goods and pastries?”
BROWN BEAR BAKERY is located at 116 E. 13th St., Over-the-Rhine. More info: brownbearbakes.com.