First Look

A Hand in Every Cookie Jar at JW Pastry

Jonathan Grotsky pauses when he speaks, filling sentences with long, pensive "ummms" and "you knows." Sometimes he straight out says, "I'm trying to find the perfect word for this," staying put in that moment until the perfect word appears. He is a man who calculates each step meticulously, right down to word choices. This characteristic leads to long, drawn-out conversations. It can be a distracting trait in others, but when you consider Grotsky's notable 20-year career as a pastry chef, it is easy to overlook — and to await what comes next.

Grotsky's interest in pastry began in the late '80s, when he was a middle schooler taking home economics in Rockland County, New York. By high school he had set his sights on culinary school, but not just any culinary school: the Culinary Institute of America.

As a teen, he started working at Carousel Cakes, a local bakery that has since catapulted to stardom after two of its cakes were chosen for Oprah's coveted "Oprah's Favorite Things" list several years in a row (Red Velvet cake and Memphis cake, if you are getting ready to make an online order). Grotsky started out there before the glitz and glamour.

"There was no online stuff, no internet, nothing," he says.

"I am growing my customer base one by one, whether I sell one cookie or a cake for 300."

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He stayed on after high school, helping out with all aspects of the business, from driving the delivery truck to assembling boxes to baking cheesecakes in his free time. That experience helped get him into the CIA. When it came time for his six-month externship, West Palm Beach's exclusive 4 Seasons Hotel beckoned.

That was a while ago. Grotsky returned to New York to finish his studies and landed several prestigious positions throughout the Northeast after he was done. But when his first marriage ended in divorce, he again thought of the Sunshine State.

"I was ready for a change, and I thought of South Florida."

In 2003, he got a job at the Boca Resort as p.m. Pastry Supervisor. From there, he worked in several elite hotels and restaurants, the last of which was the Hard Rock Cafe, where he was executive pastry chef. Along the way, he met and married his second wife, Jessica, a special-education teacher, and started a family. He found himself losing interest in working the big restaurants and hotels.

"I wasn't really inspired to do another executive pastry chef [job] somewhere. I really didn't want it anymore. It's a hard place to work, and the corporate life, during those years, it's different. You didn't know if you're going to have your job, you know, the next day. So I kind of felt, at that point, I was ready to move on. I didn't know what I was going to do, but I was ready to move on."

He considered teaching and looked into a position at West Palm Beach's Lincoln Culinary Institute but ultimately decided not to go that route.

"It didn't feel right for me. Students don't show up and you gotta write them up. You lose focus on what you want to do — you want to do the pastries!"

Which is when he decided to start something on his own.

His wife, a former resident of Plantation, told him she had heard something about a farmers market starting there. Grotsky went to check it out and found a produce tent, a honey guy, a hummus guy, and nothing else. This was before the farmers market had become vogue in South Florida, but he knew it had potential and did not waste time in getting his licensing taken care of so he could sell.

"I didn't know anything about markets. I was always in hotels and restaurants," Grotsky admits.

There was one problem: He needed a place to bake. Actually, there were two problems: He needed a place to bake, and he needed to make money fast.

"I found myself thinking, 'What am I going to do here?' I have no money, my wife was laid off, we had two kids — my son was 4 at the time, my daughter was 2 — ummm, and there was one more coming!"

Grotsky is telling me this story inside the tiny storefront he shares with a family-run pie company. We sit at the sole round bistro table with a chipped mosaic top. He is restless in the chair that is too small for his tall, lean frame.

"What did you do next?" I ask. I am quickly learning Grotsky isn't only a talented pastry chef, but he's an inventive problem-solver who doesn't quit.

"On a whim, I entered [a neighborhood bakery] and asked the owner if I could rent time in his kitchen."

The owner agreed.

Grotsky began with five products: Rice Krispie treats, cookies (snickerdoodles and raspberry oatmeal thumbprints), banana bread, and orange bread.  It was July 4, 2010. He remembers the date precisely.

"It was summertime, a holiday. I knew it was going to be slow, you know, but people came out, and I did okay! It's funny because I took pictures of customers back then, and I look now and it's the same guys still coming!"

Loyalty comes with quality, and Grotsky has quality down pat.

"I am growing my customer base one by one, whether I sell one cookie or a cake for 300. Everyone gets the same attention. That person buying that one cookie can turn into a longtime customer."

Today he offers over 50 items, all made by him (the original five items remain). He formed a co-op with some of the other venders and has taken over the management of the Plantation Farmers Market as well as many others from Delray Beach to Miami. Under his watch, they have become a big success.

"We wanted to run the markets from a vendor's point of view. We're in it for the long haul. We want to build it up, build a customer relationship."

He also found his own place to bake: a cozy spot in a quiet Davie strip mall. He also rebranded last summer, switching from his original company name, Cookielicious (a name selected by his kids), to JW Pastry.

"Cookielicious is a catchy name, but I do so much more."

Ask what his best-selling item is and you'll get a pensive pause.

"A lot of breakfast pastries: croissants, apple-stuffed brioche, Danishes, chocolate-almond croissants. I started doing pumpkin-almond croissants for the season, you know; they love it. And there's people that come just for the cookies! And there's people that come just for the banana bread! And there's people that come for the orange bread! Everybody's got their favorite, and I hate to take anything off because then they'll always ask for it!"

The croissant is light and flaky — none of the heavy, doughy crescents lots of people try to sell off as authentic. Pick it up and there are major crackling sound effects, a sign of the real deal. The inside is visibly layered with butter. It's airy and crisp and plays tricks on you because before you know it, the entire thing is gone.
Grotsky offers baguettes, mixed-grain ciabatta, walnut-raisin bread, kalamata-olive bread, and roasted-garlic bread with rosemary. They are artisanal European-style loaves you would expect in small villages of France. They come frozen and just require ten minutes in a hot oven for that crunchy crust to come to life.

He now splits his time between baking at his shop in Davie, where he has all the Farmers Market offerings as well as more delicate items that require refrigeration (tarts, rice pudding, cheesecake, and bread pudding), and going to the markets.

"I also make cakes," Grotsky adds with a nervous laugh.  "Whatever people want!"

The menu?

"Ah, seven years and no menu!" he says.  "That's really one of the things that's in the works, but I never really wanted to be tied down to a menu."

Which means he offers pretty much everything  you can think of.

On top of managing numerous markets, baking a vast array of pastries (and breads) on his own ("I do everything myself; it's just kind of easier that way"), and helping to care for his children (now 9, 7, and 5), Grotsky tells me he has just recently picked up an account with none other than Nordstroms.

"I wholesale to them. I deliver every morning over there."

He's also experimenting with online purchasing (pick-up at the store, for now).

"I really enjoy doing everything, you know, because it gives me so much to do so much. I've been in the industry for so long, and I remember wherever I was and what I did and how it got better and how I made it better. I remember all those things. And that is in everything I make — twenty years and all the good things."

JW Pastry. Tuesday to Saturday 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. 5665 S. University Dr., Davie; (954) 251-4243;

Alona Abbady Martinez lives in Plantation. She writes about food and family on her blog, Culinary Compulsion, and is currently working on her book, My Culinary Compulsion, a global food memoir with recipes. You can follow her on Instagram and Twitter.
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