WILLCOX—When it’s time for something sweet, Willcox residents know where to turn, and it isn’t in their cupboard.
On the corner of Haskell Avenue and Maley Street sits, almost hidden, a place where you can lunch on a Cuban sandwich and follow it, if you have the room, with the most luscious, moist cinnamon rolls anyone ever created. Or perhaps you prefer a lemon-poppy seed muffin. Either way, you won’t be disappointed.
For three years now The Bakester’s Pastries, owned and baked by Leigha Burris, has been feeding the sweet tooth, and every other tooth, in the mouths that belong to Willcox.
“I used to do painting and I used to do clay work, and I craft, and I make things,” she said. “(Baking) is just a different media ... Baking is a different creative outlet for me.”
Burris has been baking for as long as she can remember. Her grandmother, who with her grandfather owned a number of restaurants in Toledo, Ohio, taught her to bake.
“I grew up around my grandmother doing things,” Burris said. “She made bread. She made a lot of traditional Italian dishes because my grandfather was Italian from Italy. She baked cakes. She baked pies. Lemon meringue was always my birthday cake because I always asked for it.”
In fact, Burris’ first memory is of helping her grandmother in the kitchen.
“It felt like it was a holiday and we were making bread pudding,” Burris said. “She told me, ‘OK this is how you chop the bread, and you don’t stir.’ ”
Burris was allowed to cut the bread with a butter knife and stir the eggs.
“She never let me measure anything,” Burris said with a laugh.
Fast forward 35 years and now Burris can be found in her commercial kitchen, baking for that day’s sales. Her day begins at 3 a.m. and doesn’t end until 7 in the evening, even though the store is open from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m.
“Food service is not a 9 to 5,” she said. “It’s a 3 a.m. to 7 p.m. It’s sometimes earlier, sometimes way later, but I feel like it’s more rewarding because you’re making people happy. Food is euphoric ... It’s a different experience than sitting behind a desk writing policies.”
Best sellers: cinnamon rolls, followed by Danish.
“We make our own puff pastry here,” Burris said. “We do not outsource. There’s a lot of things that we don’t outsource. We make our own bread for sandwiches. We make our own cinnamon rolls. We make our own Danish. We do our own cookies.”
Recipes for her creations come from her family, but that’s just her starting point. She’s been working on them, tweaking them, for years. That accounts for their superb flavors.
“A lot of these recipes are recipes I have created or that my family has had in the family recipe book, on both sides,” Burris said.
Burris is no stranger to owning a business. Before she owned Bakester’s, Burris was an insurance agent and owned a Farmer’s Insurance Agency for seven years. At Bakester’s, however, she has five employees depending on her for their living. It can be a weighty matter.
“It is a little overwhelming because we are pretty close; I almost feel like we’re a family,” Burris said. “I care about them ... This is my family away from my family so it’s a little scary sometimes. I feel like, OK, if I can’t make it here doing this, that means that it’s trickling down to them so none of us are going to make it if I can’t make it.”
It’s that particular weight that inspires Burris to keep creating.
“It gives me inspiration to come out with new sandwiches or add things or move things around,” she said.
Although she opened during the pandemic, Burris said the Willcox community was good to her.
“Honestly, we opened at the peak of COVID-19, and we did so well (with) lots of community support,” Burris said.
Three years down the line Burris is on a good journey.
“I feel like I’m going somewhere,” she said. “I can see the change in my methods ... I can look at something and say, ‘This isn’t right. That doesn’t look right or that looks perfect.’ It is experience, I guess, the growing part.”
The other best seller?
“Our Cuban sandwich,” Burris said. “That’s why we’re always sold out. We have people who come in every day and that’s all they will order. They’ve tried other stuff, but the Cuban, they always go back to it because we make our own hoagie. We cook our own pork roast here in our own marinade, and we slice it here.”
Chachi Klump works the counters at Bakester’s. She doesn’t bake, but she will take your money. She’s been working there practically since it opened, and is at the point where she recognizes her regulars.
“We have a lot of regulars who come through here; they’re very sweet, very kind,” she said. “It’s my favorite thing.”
But what is her favorite food there?
“I’m just not a sweet tooth kind of person,” said the tall, curvaceous Klump. “I’m a foodie person for sure, and our menu for the meals, breakfast, lunch, by far is my favorite. I think my (very) favorite is going to be on the lunch menu, and I’m going to say it’s probably a toss-up between the Cuban and the spicy Italian because both are completely amazing.”
But these are sandwiches, and sandwiches at Bakester’s are a story for another day.