On the corner of Ascan Boulevard and Austin Street, sits Bonelle Pastry Shop, a staple of Forest Hills, Queens for the last 23 years. In between the bustling, four-way intersection of brisk-walking New Yorkers and car horns, the smell of fresh baked goods greets customers as they walk through the doorway, a comforting aroma in these cold winter months.
Bonelle Pastry Shop is owned by Rahita Raval, 53, a woman of Indian descent who was born in Kenya. She moved to the United States to study Communications at Pepperdine University, in California. She then moved to New York, completing her Masters at Pace University, and ended up taking an analyst job at Philip Morris. While Raval always had a passion for baking, it was not a career that she ever seriously considered until she had lost passion for her industry at age 30.
“In Kenya, at that time, a person with an oven was considered very special. My mother was always baking and taught me the basics,” says Raval.
Raval opened Bonelle Pastry Shop in 1992, taking over the current space from another bakery owner whose business was failing. The name is French in origin, but its backstory is not.
“There was a man who owned a bakery in Manhattan called Bonelle, and I liked the name. So when he closed the business that’s when I decided to name mine, and I told him that too,” she says with a smile.
Raval met another baker, Luis Brown, who helped show her the ropes of the business when she was starting out. With his tutelage, and the large collection of cookbooks she has acquired over the last quarter-century, Raval learned to hone her skills. After running the business for eight years, Raval was exhausted and needed a break. Her sister Devika, who was living in England at the time, came to visit and saw that that her sibling was struggling. She decided to join Rahita, and has helped run Bonelle Pastry Shop for the last 13 years.
“My sister is a workaholic,” says Devika Raval. She is here sometimes from 1 in the morning till 6 P.M.”
Raval’s typical day will involve hopping on the subway from her home in midtown, Manhattan in the wee hours of the morning. She will prep the bakery, roll up some dough, and bake the croissants that have properly risen from the night before.
“She loves it. You can see it. She has an MBA. She wouldn’t be here unless she really loved it,” said Ravika.
Bonelle Pastry Shop is tiny, clocking in at under 500 square feet. There are only two tables standing on either side of the counter, usually occupied by regulars.
“Many of my customers are mothers who come with their kids. And I’ve watched these kids grow since they were this big,” she says, motioning with her hand to the ground. “And a lot of the old people, senior citizens come here too.”
Raval said that because of this customer base, her prices have remained largely unchanged despite the economic downturn and recent recession.
“Many of the senior citizens are on social security and disability, and so they don’t have a lot of money,” she said.
On the other hand, Ravika, who works six or seven days a week, says that the low prices leave little room for profit. “Coffee has been a dollar since we opened,” she said. ‘We don’t even have health insurance.”
In the basement, Raval’s pastry chefs work non-stop from around 9 A.M to 7 P.M. They are two Latin-American immigrants that she literally pulled off the street and employed as dishwashers. Eventually, she taught them the trade, and they have been with her for over 15 years.
“They are really good guys, and hard workers,” she says. “And most importantly they are now good bakers.”
Besides being educated, Raval is also very cultured. She speaks 5 languages fluently; English, Swahili, Spanish, and two dialects of Indian. Raval knows many of her customers by name, and is never short on conversation.
Raval makes her customers feel very welcome. “I think its the sense of community,” says Yen-Wen Chen, a regular customer for the last 7 years from Rego Park, Queens. “It’s not a commercial place, its a place full of love.” First and foremost however, people are here for the baked goods. And patrons seem to be satisfied. “They have slamming key lime pie,” Chen says.
“The apple turnover is to die for,” says Marsha Rushing of Flushing, Queens, who has frequented the bakery for five years.
Some customers go even further back. “My favorite is probably the turnover. It’s something made different, its not a triangle like you see everywhere else, and it tastes special,” says Mark Kravitz, a customer who lives in the adjacent building and has been coming here since the bakery opened.
Raval says she has gotten good at guessing what people like based on how they look. A first-time customer walked in during a thursday afternoon and began scanning the rows of sweets with his eyes. Raval had already pegged him. “Are you familiar with our products?” She asked him. “No, I am not,” he answered. “What do you like, Apple turnover?” She asked, pointing to the middle row. “Yeah, that’s actually what I was thinking,” the man answered back excitedly.
Standing out from amongst the competition is something that Raval has done successfully during her time in Forest Hills. She says there’s no secret to her recipes, just a dedication to the craft and a commitment to using fresh, natural ingredients. “If something is sitting for a few days we give it away. We don’t make too many things at a time because we don’t want it to go to waste.”
Customers can taste the difference. “The freshness, the quality. You can’t even compare it with anything else,” says Rob Fisher, a resident of Forest Hills who has been coming to Bonelle Pastry shop for over 20 years. “I’ve never had anything here that I didn’t like,” said Rob, who added that his favorite was the eclair.
Like her patrons, Raval has a sweet tooth. Her favorite pastry is the rugula, a loaf with layers of jam, nuts and raisins sandwiched between buttered crust. Raval says it is important for people to support small business and mom-and-pop shops who make goods from scratch. In the Forest Hills area, there is a very large European-immigrant population, and Raval takes this into account when designing her recipes.
“You want to eat a cheese danish and feel like you’re back at home,” she says.
Currently, Raval is involved in a dispute with the landlord of the building, and faces the potential of eviction. For the last two months, a petition has circulated around the community, and has acquired nearly 1,700 signatures. Her story has been in several local and citywide publications and news channels. Raval says the support has been incredible. People from around Queens come in daily, asking for updates and to sign the petition.
“I was totally shocked when I read the article,” said Rushing, who had come in to sign the petition. “They’ve been in the neighborhood for a while, it’s not fair to small business.”
Raval says she is trying to work out an agreement with the landlord, and has no intention of moving. “I feel very much at home,” she says.”I feel like these people are my family, brother sister, whatever. I know them, I know their children.” she said.