Along with being the star of one of the most popular procedurals on television, Pauley Perrette also found time to launch a small business, the idea of which was anything but half-baked.
“Me and my two best friends took my mother’s recipes and all of her inspiration and opened a Southern country bake shop in Manhattan called Donna Bell's Bake Shop. That was her name — Donna Bell,” says the actress, who plays the quirky forensic scientist Abby Sciuto on “NCIS.”
Perrette’s inspiration for the bakery, which opened in April 2011, came from her southern childhood, where she spent plenty of time in the kitchen with her mother, decorating cakes and feasting on Southern specialties such as Red Velvet cake, corn bread and shortcake. Her mother, who passed away in 2002, left her recipes in good hands.
Darren Greenblatt, a longtime friend and now business partner, inherited many of Donna Bell’s recipes. He and Perrette met while living in Hell’s Kitchen almost 20 years ago, “and bonded almost instantly,” says Greenblatt. “She had just finished school and was modeling, bartending and getting her master's degree. I had just finished fashion school.
“Pauley spent the Jewish holidays with my family in New York," he continues, "and I would spend holidays and time with her parents down in Alabama. I used to say to Donna Bell, 'I'll be your sous chef — whatever you're doing I'm following,' because I just love Southern food. She had a grace about her and a hospitality that I loved.”
Eventually his and Perrette’s notions about opening a bake shop built around those recipes started to take shape. As the idea became more of a reality, Perrette urged another friend, food specialist Matthew Sandusky, to come aboard as the third partner. He had been living in Los Angeles, so it took some work, but Perrette sold him on the idea.
“I had always planned to open a small place, maybe later on in life, but then I said ‘Why wait?’” says Sandusky. “ ‘Let’s just do it now,’ because it was a good opportunity.”
Greenblatt and Sandusky split duties. “Matthew has the kind of hands-on, day-to-day restaurant operations experience, and I had the bigger picture in mind," says Greenblatt. "I wrote the business plan and did the financials.” Greenblatt also found the space: He chose the 49th Street location, situated between NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen and the Theater District, because it was familiar territory.
The intention, the partners agreed, was to create a business with a bright and bountiful future. “This was not a vanity project,” says Greenblatt. “This location has the cross-section of tourists who know Pauley, hardcore New Yorkers who love food and actors from every Broadway show,” he said. “And, we're at the base of a skyscraper that has thousands and thousands of employees.”
Doing it right, however, meant a substantial investment upfront. “Is this a small mom and pop business that you can open on $10,000?” he adds. “No, because we had to get a lease in a skyscraper in Manhattan. We had to gut renovate what was once a nail salon and turn it into a bakery. But we were really focused and really smart about how we spent the money, We kept it within reason.”
Perrette says the Midtown crowd has definitely embraced her mother’s menu of indulgent items, including popular favorites like the Magic Bar, which combines Reese’s Pieces, cranberries, pecans, white chocolate and milk chocolate. Some of the handwritten original recipes are framed on the wall, including a personal notation from Bell that’s become something of a motto at the shop: “You’re gonna love this. It’s a lot of trouble, but it’s worth it.”
Greenblatt said they assembled a crew of dedicated bakers to help interpret the original menus. “We're not doing French pastries,” he says. “The food and the shop looks like something your grandmother would've made — rustic and humble.”
Sandusky says Donna Bell’s Bake Shop seems to have tapped a previously undiscovered culinary desire, at least in Manhattan. “People get very emotional. They'll say they lost their mother, or their grandmother, and this reminds them of their childhood and the food they grew up on. Or, that they are from the south and they can't find this anywhere in the city.”
And nothing is sacred. “We keep creating new things. We've been making a really great strawberry shortcake for a week and a half, and it's usually gone in less than an hour. Our red velvet cheesecake brownie has probably been our best seller,” he says, closely followed by “our really big, gigantic chocolate chip peanut butter cookies.”
While Perrette leaves the baking to the shop’s staff, Greenblatt claims she’s involved in nearly every other aspect of the business. “Pauley is so hands-on,” he says. “She knows every employee. She knows the food costs and what we do to try and keep things under control.”
Perrette’s ‘NCIS’ shooting schedule in Los Angeles limits the time she can spend in the bake shop, but Sandusky – who, along with Greenblatt, spends countless hours a week there – reveals how he gives the actress’ die-hard admirers a special thrill. “Sometimes I'll send her a text message telling her she has fans in the shop, and she'll call my phone,” he says. “I'll act like it's a coincidence and I'll go, 'Oh, Pauley is on the phone,' and I'll put her on the speaker and she'll say hi.”
While the shop has not yet been open a year, the partners are pleased so far with the results, and are thinking ahead. “We're such a small, small place that we're going to run out of room just to be able to bake,” says Sandusky, who says the savory food has become so successful that he’s thinking there might be a Donna Bell's Diner in their future. Greenblatt adds that a cookbook could be next, as well as other branding opportunities. But only when they are ready.
“We have a beautiful face to that brand: a real woman who had this full and rich life, who left an amazing archive,” he says. I feel that the shop should be bigger than our little 500-square-foot gem in the middle of the theater district, but we're not on some sort of clock or time calendar.”
Perrette says she's happy they've made it to this stage. "We're so proud of it, and just to pay homage to my mother is fantastic. She was great.”