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Gourmet Collaborators Pair Craft Coffee with Homemade Muffins and Cookies

Diane Sikorski processes walnuts for chocolate chip cookies
Diane Sikorski processes walnuts for chocolate chip cookies

Collaboration has been key to the growth of Cleveland’s local foods economy.

And it’s not just about chefs partnering with the region’s farmers. It’s also food entrepreneurs cooking up cooperative ventures in community kitchens.

In today’s Quick Bite, WKSU’s Vivian Goodman visits a shared space in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood where a coffee company is  expanding into baked goods.

TheHildebrandtBuilding on Walnut Avenue is a former sausage factory that’s now a hub for artists and food producers.

When he’s not flying all over the world, coffee connoisseur John Johnson works here. “I’m a partner and the green coffee buyer at Rising Star Coffee, and I kind of do a lot of everything.”

Rising Star supplies its coffee shops in Ohio City, Little Italy and downtown Cleveland from this central high-tech roastery.

“We can track in real time the temperature of the bean, the temperature of the drum, the rate of rise, the gas pressure, a number of different data points that really help us nail down what we’re doing and really create repeatability,” says Johnson.   

Rising Star General Manager Robert Stockham pours a cup for green coffee buyer and partner John Johnson.
Rising Star General Manager Robert Stockham pours a cup for green coffee buyer and partner John Johnson.

He travels to South America and Africa in a constant quest for the best beans, and MatthewMonachino, roasts them.

“John buys super crazy high-quality beans so that makes my job really easy.”  

Quality pastries to go with thecoffee

Butnow there’s new work to do at Rising Star. Last month, the coffee company started making muffins, biscuits and cookies here, too.

Johnson says Rising Star had long wanted munchies as good as its coffee, which he claims customers drive across town for.

“Our coffee is a draw based on quality, and we want the bakery to be at the same quality, so that it’s actually the reason you’re going to the coffee shop instead of just out of convenience or because you really need to wake up before your presentation or whatever.” 

Quality vs. quantity

Johnson fully realizes that 50 companies sell 70 percent of the coffee sold in U.S. shops. But it doesn’t phase him.

“We’re not trying to make Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts and compete with those big guys. We’re trying to make really good stuff. We’re trying to be the steakhouse compared to the McDonald’s.” 

For a hand-crafted, freshly ground pour-over or a frothy cardamom latte at a Rising Star café, customers have been willing to pay anywhere from $3.50 to $6.

The coffee company was founded about six years ago when the economy was jittery, but business has been steadily percolating.

The shared kitchen opened a newdoor

Andnow, with access to theHildebrandtbuilding’s shared commercial kitchen, the coffee makers can make baking part of their core business.

Fresh ground ginger and lots of it are part of the magic of Diane Sikorski's vegan molasses cookies.
Fresh ground ginger and lots of it are part of the magic of Diane Sikorski's vegan molasses cookies.

“Instead of finding a building, identifying all the equipment, purchasing all the equipment, figuring out how to pay for it, we could just start,” says Johnson. “That was very, very helpful.”

Food trucks and farmers’ market vendors prep in the Hildebrandt building’s kitchens, side-by-side with start-ups based there like Wake Robin Fermented Foods, Metro Croissant and Storehouse Tea.

It’s a large space with state-of-the-art equipment, but her first week in the kitchen was challenging for Rising Star’s new master baker Diane Sikorski. She had no staff.

“I had people from the roastery come over. It was a little bit like that Lucille Ball sketch in the candy factory.” 

No rapid rise just slow and steady

Now, with a few trained helpers,Sikorski’sbaking steadily, but starting slowly with just a few items.

“We’re doing a coffee-cake muffin, a version of the Morning-glory muffin and a few different cookies; recipes that people are familiar with, but with a little bit of a tweak to make them extra-special.” 

Her vegan molasses cookies are thick, chewy, and loaded with ginger.

“High-quality, fresh-ground ginger; really high-quality black strap molasses, and I think it’s a little tastier even than my grandmother’s molasses cookie.” 

In the last few weeks, she started baking buttermilk biscuits for the coffee shops, to be served with homemade raspberry, apricot, tomato and bacon jams.

Rising Star partner John Johnson says he wants it gourmet, but unpretentious.

“Not overly complicated, not ridiculously fancy or whatever. Just kind of like a comfort food done really well."

Cookies and muffins are among the initial offerings but donuts may be coming.
Credit ROBERT STOCKHAM / Rising Star Coffee Roasters
Rising Star Coffee Roasters
Cookies and muffins are among the initial offerings but donuts may be coming.

A well-known baker

Sikorskiwas a natural choice for head baker, well known in the local foods community.

She’s not professionally trained, just a home cook who was lovingly taught. “Italian grandmother on one side, Czech grandmother on the other.”  

About nine years ago, Sikorski established Humble Pie Baking Company in her Avon Lake home kitchen, baking wares to sell at farmers’ markets.

 “I could not find a pie locally that I loved, and I wasn’t proficient with making pie crusts and I wanted to master that. That’s where it all started.”

A stickler for local ingredients, she needed non-hydrogenated shortening, specifically lard from pasture-raised pigs.

Fresh Fork Market, a farm-food-buying cooperative, had what Sikorski needed. 

A well-appreciated palate

That’s how RobertStockham, who helped launch Fresh Fork, metSikorski, whom he calls a “super taster.”

Stockham is now Rising Star Coffee’s general manager and still a big fan.

“If you’ve ever tasted a Humble Pie Baking Company pie and compare it to any other pie in the marketplace, she’s a winner hands down.”  

Diane Sikorski bakes fresh muffins daily for Rising Star Coffee's cafes.
Diane Sikorski bakes fresh muffins daily for Rising Star Coffee's cafes.

He saysSikorski’sas fussy about ingredients as Rising Star is about beans.

“She uses a particular type of butter because she knows what the particular farmer is feeding their cows.” 

Her go-to butter is Minerva Dairy’s high-fat spread, made in old-fashioned churns with milk from pasture-raised cows.

“It’s one of the finest butters on the market, and it just tickles me that it’s from a local source.”  

Other new venturesbrewing

RisingStar’s ready to capitalize on its fledgling bakery program. General Manager Stockhamhopes to open acaféat theroasteryand make it a tourist stop.

“We can get Lolly the Trolley or other tour bus to stop here. And what Diane is doing dovetails nicely into that because we can have pastry here. We can have samplers. We can give them a tour of the roastery.” 

The roasters also sell their coffee wholesale. They hadn’t at first considered doing the same with the baked goods.

“But in just a month, we’ve had several inquiries already,”says Stockham. “So now we’re starting to rethink: Is it worthwhile for us to approach some other businesses that are in the search for good quality pastries?And who knows where you might see stuff in a year.”

But for right now,” says John Johnson, “only in our cafes.”  

Copyright 2021 WKSU. To see more, visit WKSU.

Vivian Goodman
Vivian is a native Clevelander who grew up mostly in Beachwood but spent part of her adolescence in Glasgow, Scotland, where she attended Hutcheson’s Girl’s Grammar School. She graduated from Beachwood High School in 1966. She later became one of the first inductees to its Gallery of Success.