A little more than a year after starting a bakery in her home kitchen, making Russian, French and Eastern European pastries for customers who placed orders by phone or via the internet, Veronika Baukema is almost ready to open a brick-and-mortar pastry shop on Montana Avenue.
The self-taught baker said she learned a lot from books and YouTube videos, but she thinks her passion for baking is the most important thing she has going for her.
“And I practice,” she said. “I practice. I practice.”
She is moving into a small storefront at 2513 Montana Ave., next door to the Lilac café in a space most recently occupied by H Bar Hat Works. If all goes well, she will open by mid-July.
It will be a cash-and-carry operation, she said, meaning takeout only. Baukema plans to offer French almond croissants, Danishes, cannoli, brioches and vatrushki, a kind of Russian sweet bun. She will also have savory pastries like ham and cheese croissants, piroshki and Uzbek samsas, made with flaky pastry dough and a meat filling.
The samsas were familiar to Baukema in her hometown, Tashkent, Uzebekistan, a Central Asian country that was formerly part of the Soviet Union. After the breakup of the U.S.S.R. in the early 1990s, Uzbekistan was plunged into, if not chaos, a prolonged period of uncertainty when it was hard to make a living.
Baukema was in her 20s at the time and her Russian mother, knowing how much her daughter liked to bake, said selling pastries might be a good way to make some extra money. It was, and her mother helped out by selling her baked goods at local markets.
“That’s how I got this little seed in my brain,” Baukema said—“that that’s how people can make some money.”
She later worked as an accountant, but life was difficult and she was a single mom with a young daughter. She said her father, who has since died, advised her to move somewhere she and her daughter would have more opportunity.
“My dad said, ‘Pick the best place in the world,’ so I picked the United States.”
She also picked Montana because she had a friend here and she had heard good things about Billings. But when she arrived in 1999, she said, she knew very little English. Even after she began learning it, she had some puzzling encounters with the language.
She remembers in particular the first time she heard the phrase “you betcha.”
“It drove me nuts,” she said. “I knew it was good because the person was smiling, but I had no idea what it meant.”
She knows what it means now, and she has learned a lot else besides. Her first job in Billings was at Wal-Mart, working at the jewelry counter. It wasn’t like the professional work she had done in Uzbekistan, but it was a start.
“Wal-Mart gave me confidence to communicate with the people,” she said. “I always had that personality where I need to grow. I need to be better.”
Her next job was with the Ponderosa Inn, now the Best Western Plus Clocktower Inn, where she interacted with customers all day and honed her English skills. After that she worked at a collection agency where a friend was employed. She spent one year in the collections division and then two years in the company’s legal department.
Part of that job involved running legal documents to the Yellowstone County Justice Court, where she made a few friends and eventually was invited to apply for a job. She worked as a Justice Court clerk for eight years, getting a paralegal certificate on the way.
Her next job was with the county attorney’s office, but after a couple of years there she was ready for something different. That was two years ago, and her husband, Toby Baukema, told his wife that with his retirement from the Montana Highway Patrol a year away, she should think about pursuing her passion for baking.
“I said, ‘Can I do that?’ He said, ‘Why not?’”
That was the beginning of her home-based baking business, which had the same name that will be borne by her Montana Avenue store—Veronika’s Pastry Shop. She didn’t know what to expect when she started the business, she said, and she was soon overwhelmed with customers.
She figures she had 50 regulars and many more occasional customers. As for that other, ubiquitous measure of success nowadays, she had more than 1,000 likes on her Facebook page. She started looking for a storefront last year.
After deciding she wanted to be downtown—which had made so much progress since she had begun working at the courthouse—her real estate agent showed her a variety of locations, none of which really clicked.
“When he showed me this,” she said, referring to the shop at 2315 Montana Ave., “I said, ‘Yup!’”
That was in February. It took a few more months to determine if the space, which had never been used for a food-based business, would work as a bakery. In April, her contractor and architect told her she was good to go, and she closed on the space. She said she also received invaluable help from Big Sky EDA, the county’s economic development arm, and the Downtown Billings Alliance.
As the remodeling has continued, Baukema has been buying all the equipment she’ll need, including a baker’s oven, a proofer, mixers, prep tables, three sinks, a commercial refrigerator and freezer and a dough sheeter, which she said was one of the most important pieces of all because she’ll need it to make puff pastries.
All that equipment is in her garage at home, waiting for the move downtown. Baukema said she never uses frozen dough, saturated fats or margarine. She also did a lot of looking to find just the right flour, settling on Dover flour, a Canadian pastry flour that she can buy only in Washington state.
“We just came back a couple of weeks ago from Spokane,” she said, and she and her husband are thinking of buying a truck to haul enough flour for the new, expanded bakery. Traditional flour is fine for things like bread, donuts and bagels, she said, “but for my pastries, it doesn’t work.”
When she was working out of her house, she made a lot of cakes and one-time specialties, including little treats made with light vanilla mousse and three-berry confit on an almond buttery crust, made to look like little Christmas tree ornaments.
There were French cream puffs with a nutty amaretto crisp, whipped mascarpone and mango, and bouchons, French treats named for the wine-bottle corks they resemble. Baukema doesn’t know how many of those will end up on the menu at her new bakery.
She wants to keep her options open, to respond to customer demand and to let her imagination guide her technical skills. Her father was an artist, she said, and he taught her how to harness her passions and expand on them.
“Maybe from him I learned how to create,” she said.