Country Sweets = Sweet Dreams
By Judith Pannebaker BCC Editor
"A bakery is all I have ever wanted to open," said Leslie Hefner. "This has been a dream of mine for a long, long time."
As is said, her dream has now come true. Hefner not only owns The Olde Forge restaurant on Main Street but also the newly opened County Sweets Bakery, located on Hackberry Street, across from the Bandera County Courthouse.
Hefner and her major domo - and chief baker - Anna Maria DeGroot are exactly where they need to be at exactly the right time. Hefner confessed, however, "I'm sometimes a little jealous of Anna Maria. She gets to do all the baking while I run the restaurant."
Country Sweets celebrated its grand opening and ribbon cutting on July 11, but opened for business on Memorial Day weekend. "Since the first day, we've had nothing but good response from the community," DeGroot said.
And, why not? With its constantly rotating array of delectable goodies, Country Sweets offers everyone an opportunity to indulge their secret - and not so secret - cravings.
The list of pastries, pies and cakes baked fresh daily is endless. This is not an exaggeration; step across the threshold of County Sweets and take a peek.
Hefner and DeGroot offer four kinds of cinnamon rolls, puff pastries, cream cheese and fruit Danishes, apple turnovers, individual fruit kolaches with seven different fruits; and four kinds of meat kolaches, but that's not all. "We're making icebox pies for summer because they're so cooling," Hefner said.
Then there are the melt-in-your-mouth cakes, old-fashioned fruit pies, sumptuous cheesecakes; and, my personal favorite, cranberry and blueberry scones, light and crumbly topped with just a hint of crunchy sugar, as well as glass canisters filled with cookies - plus anything else DeGroot can dream up and pop in an oven. "Our display cases are always changing," she said. "We constantly test the market to see what appeals to customers."
For example, one customer requested a dairy-free cookie, which inspired DeGroot. "I like a challenge."
Hefner honed her baking skills during a 30-year stint as a rancher in southwestern Texas. "When you live in the country, you have to bake everything," she quipped. For holidays, she shipped baskets filled with her homemade pastries, cookies and cakes to grateful family and friends as far away as Washington State and Alaska.
After relocating to Bandera two years ago, Hefner served as a chef at the iconic Dixie Dude Ranch before purchasing The Old Forge.
After the Forge opened, DeGroot responded to a "Help Wanted" sign, applying for a waitress job. After learning about DeGroot's background, however, Hefner had other plans for her.
DeGroot's parents had owned one of the largest cake supply houses in San Antonio and, for 14 years, she taught cake decorating classes there and also for the Department of Tourism, Hospitality and Culinary Arts at St. Phillip's College in San Antonio. At 19, DeGroot started Anna's Angel Cakes bakery in San Antonio, and for 21 years, she owed a business that manufactured wedding cake toppers.
There are now four generations of bakers in her family. "My daughter has my original Easy Bake Oven and her daughter will eventually inherit it," she said.
Back in the kitchen
After selling her cake topper business and moving to Bandera, "boredom" prompted DeGroot to apply for a job with Hefner. "After learning about her background, I said, 'There's no waitress job for you. You're going to be my baker'," Hefner recalled.
"Since I hadn't baked commercially for a while, I went home and baked about a dozen cakes and cut them into quarters for distribution around town," DeGroot said. The quarters she brought to The Olde Forge were offered to food distributor representatives, who just happened to be there. "They told me if I didn't hire her, they would," Hefner said. "So I did. Anna Maria is my angel who fell from the sky."
DeGroot presided over the bakery shop at The Olde Forge until they literally "... ran out of room. We were also missing a lot of foot traffic and had to fight for oven space," Hefner said. "We weren't able to do the kind and volume of pastries I would have liked."
When 1210 Hackberry Street became available, Hefner couldn't resist. "I just fell in love with this little building," she said.
"It has lots of character and good bones," DeGroot added.
After painting and upgrading and installing a professional kitchen, Country Sweets became a reality. "When I first arrived in Bandera, I baked cakes from my home, doing business as Country Sweets, so the name was a natural," Hefner explained. The pair hit the ground running and hasn't stopped yet.
To market their new endeavor, Hefner and DeGroot have printed out coupons for the Bandera Cattle Company Gunfighters to distribute. "Every child at the gunfights will receive a coupon for a free sugar cookie," Hefner said, adding, "It's a way to pull people from Main Street over to us."
"I bake sugar cookies all day on Friday," DeGroot said. "The gunfighters stage two shows on Saturday. On a big weekend in Bandera, we expect to give out about 200 free cookies."
Hefner and DeGroot not only look after kids, but also their customers with special dietary needs. DeGroot bakes gluten- and sugar-free treats on Fridays and - for the not-so-carbohydrate-challenged - bread on Thursdays. With advance notice, her beautiful and delectable cakes are also available for birthdays, anniversaries and small weddings, among other happy occasions.
Biscuits are available by the half dozen, plain and jalepeno cheese. "Our prices are not outrageous. I think we give good value for the buck," DeGroot said.
Clearly, Country Sweets caters to their customers - both locals and tourists. "We want repeat customers," DeGroot said. "This is a happy place that people will enjoy. We want them to have fun and come back again." And the bakery's super smooth coffee and free WiFi doesn't hurt a bit.
Although Country Sweets opens at 6:30 am during the week, DeGroot said, "Once the cases are set up, I turn on the lights." The bakery ostensibly closes about 2 pm, but Hefner expects to stay open until about 4 pm in the near future. And, for the record, DeGroot begins making her magical dough at 3:30 am, so plan to arrive early so no one will be disappointed. Telephone is 830-796-3060.