Pastries and patter Bakery's faithful flock to back room

April 18, 1993|By Adriane B. Miller | Adriane B. Miller,Contributing Writer

Every town has its magnet, a watering hole that draws people of influence, elected officials and self-appointed community watchdogs. In Bel Air, the magnet with the strongest pull is an unlikely place with peeling wallpaper, no windows and a commode that's perpetually out of order.

Despite its humble appearance, the back room of the Bel Air Bakery on Bond Street is the coffee spot of choice for the town's chief of police, the mayor, trash collectors, computer technicians, the unemployed, attorneys, surgeons, the county sheriff and people who sell balloons for a living.

It's a lively place most mornings, when conversation can turn from the weather to interest rates to cars to Hillary Rodham Clinton -- in five minutes.

The outer part of the store looks like any other bakery: display cases and shelves full of doughnuts and pastries, coffee pots steaming on the counter, newspaper racks against the wall.

But on the other side of the newspapers is the back room, just enough space for a counter, stools and a half-dozen small tables. Here, real and imagined decision-makers launch military coups, leveraged buyouts and rescue operations with the wisdom and confidence afforded by a comfortable chair, hot coffee and a few sugar twists.

The folks here all seem to know one another. Strangers don't stay anonymous long, even if they want to.

"You have to have a sense of humor to sit in the back," Bel Air Bakery owner Jim Hamilton says. "People say this is the only place they pay to be ridiculed. That's true. We play a lot of jokes on people." He's been on the short end of a joke at times, too.

On just about any morning but Mondays, when the bakery is closed, the air is thick with political jokes, blond jokes, ethnic jokes, feminist jokes, Clinton/Gore jokes and tobacco smoke. Along the walls, Mr. Hamilton has taped food for thought: notes and headlines torn from the news with comments invariably scribbled in red above or alongside.

"Maryland Ranks Sixth (worst out of 50) in Nation in Personnel Growth," one note reads. "MD No. 1 in Closing Costs on New Homes & No. 2 in Cancer Rate," reads another.

The chance to speak openly -- no matter how far the conversation ranges from the politically and socially correct -- is what appeals to his regular patrons, Mr. Hamilton says.

"I'm a super-conservative and we're very outspoken here," he says. "But that's why you can have the doctor from Fallston Hospital sitting next to the trash man. Everyone comes in here and they know they can talk."

Male enclave

Most of the people in the back room are men. Many women who come in, Mr. Hamilton explains, tend to get offended by the jokes. They usually stay quite a bit east of the newspaper racks.

Mr. Hamilton admits an unwritten law of his clientele in the back room used to be that no women customers were allowed there before 8:30 a.m. Stanley Getz, a Bel Air attorney and back room regular for decades, says the humor still tends to be a bit sexist.

But Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, R-2nd, and Harford County Executive Eileen M. Rehrmann have been known to stop in and sit for coffee and a debriefing in the bakery's back room now and then.

"It's all in jest," says Charlie Ruszala, a Bel Air bakery regular, of the joking. Mr. Ruszala stops in most mornings for coffee, the newspaper and conversation. "It's all in fun. A lot of people don't understand that."

"I'd say 75 percent of our customers never come in the back," Mr. Hamilton says. "They peek around the corner and see something going on here, or they hear the laughing, they buy their doughnut and go out the door.

"Sundays are different. We have a lot of families with kids who like to come in and sit on Sundays."

Mr. Hamilton starts every morning at 4 a.m. in the bakery, joining employees who arrive hours earlier to begin mixing and forming doughnuts, breads, pastries and cakes.

"It's hard work," he says. "You have to sell a lot of doughnuts to make a thousand dollars."

He and his mother started the bakery about 1949, first in Aberdeen, moving to Bel Air six years later. Back then, they served breakfast, lunch, dinner, and always cakes.

The bakery is still a family operation, with Mr. Hamilton's son Jimmy now doing the baking, daughter-in-law Kris working the front, and wife Rose keeping an eye on the books. Mr. Hamilton employs 12 people in all.

The food business is tough, he says, but he has never considered doing something different, from the time he began washing pans at his mother's restaurant at age 12. "I love what I do," Mr. Hamilton says.

He's heard evidence of the recession from others who come in to tell him how they and their families or businesses are faring. But the Bel Air Bakery doesn't seem to be negatively affected by the downturn.

"Actually we're very lucky," he says. "We've laid off no one. But we do a great job, our prices are fair and we're the only bakery in town."

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