Making some dough in Milford: Several small bakeries thriving downtown

Fortunata’s Bakery’s co-owner Patrick Clifton weighs the dough for Danish pastries. Special to the Delaware State News/Ariane Mueller

MILFORD — Three small bakeries downtown are quickly becoming the bread and butter of the city.

Within about a mile of each other, Fortunata’s Bakery, Dolce and My Sister’s Fault are each independently owned.

“It’s kind of a peculiar thing, because we’re not that big of a town,” said Ruth Clifton, who owns Fortunata’s on Southeast Fourth Street. “We’re surprisingly supportive of each other. … It’s a real community feel, which is nice.”

Stephenie Tatman, who co-owns Dolce on North Walnut Street with her husband, Dean, said the relationship between the three businesses is not contentious.

“It’s a really supportive environment,” she said. “Even though the other bakeries could be considered competitors, we’re all really friendly with each other. I don’t think you’ll find that in a lot of other towns.”

Angie Robles, who co-owns My Sister’s Fault with her sister, Rous, said the small bakeries in Milford have their own unique products and that many out-of-towners come to experience the variety. The sisters’ eatery on Southwest Front Street specializes in the Puerto Rican-style sweets and meals they grew up with before they moved to Delaware in 2009.

“All the bakeries in this town are amazing, and they are all diverse. People often visit all of us,” she said. “The more people that come to our town because we have good food, the more everybody is going to win.”

All three women said they sometimes recommend the other bakeries to their customers.

Fortunata’s specializes in traditional hearth baked Italian breads and rolls. Owner Ruth Clifton operates the oven built in the 1950s.

“The three of us are different, we offer different things, so I don’t think there’s straight-up competition, and I do know that some of my customers frequent the other bakeries,” Ms. Clifton said. “I’m a very competitive person, but it is nice to know that we kind of look out for each other.”

In 2015, she took over the Bread and Butter Bakery, where she had worked for years, when her mentor, Armand Argenio, a South Philadelphia native with deep roots in the Italian-American baking tradition, retired. She renamed it Fortunata’s, after a local stray cat Mr. Argenio had taken a liking to.

“We are the only bakery (in Milford) that makes true Italian breads and rolls in a South Philly style,” Ms. Clifton said. “We cover the sweets a little,” including sticky buns, scones and danishes, “but we really focus on fresh breads and rolls.”
Although Ms. Clifton said she has no Italian blood, her products are deeply authentic.

“Armand Argenio was enough Italian to have it spill over to me. He was really, really Italian,” she said. “The oven that I use is the same oven that was originally there, from 1950.”

Ms. Clifton said that when Mr. Argenio took over the bakery space in the late 1980s, there were no other independent bakeries in Milford. But that changed in 2005, when Dolce opened on North Walnut Street. Dolce’s founders moved out of state in 2016, selling the operation to Ms. Tatman and her husband.

“It’s always been a dream of ours to own a coffee shop and bakery,” Ms. Tatman said. “We were actually inspired by Dolce because we were customers there for a long time.”

In addition to their fair-trade artisan coffee, Dolce offers a wide array of pastries, including cookies, cakes and a specialty Ms. Tatman calls a “stick in the mud.”

“It’s a brownie, and it’s got a layer of marshmallows on top and then a layer of melted chocolate, and then we put a chocolate stick inside of it,” she said. “We try to take comfort food and make it fun and reinvent it a little bit.”

Just a year after the Tatmans took over Dolce, Ms. Robles and her sister opened My Sister’s Fault right around the corner.

Ms. Robles said her sister, Rous, the “sweet” one, is in charge of the pastries and confections. And as the “savory” sister, Ms. Robles is responsible for the empanadas, sandwiches and other meals.

Fortunata’s Bakery store associate Cassandra Schreiber, left, helps customer Alfonso Medina choose from the broad selection of Italian breads.

“We started off baking at home, and then, one day I got sick, and I started researching how to open up a bakery,” Ms. Robles said.

After hearing through word of mouth that a bakery had just closed in town, Ms. Robles and her sister jumped on the opportunity in 2017. Since then, they’ve outgrown their kitchen and plan to build in a new space on a lot they bought on Walnut Street, adjacent to Jesus Love Temple.

She said the savory options at the shop are generally Puerto Rican-inspired, but that her sister’s sweets take a more global approach.

“We are very popular for our keto items, which are sugar-free, gluten-free and low-carb,” Ms. Robles said.

Because keto is My Sister’s Fault’s specialty, Ms. Tatman said Dolce is “focused on providing gluten-free desserts or refined sugarfree desserts, so we’re not competing with what My Sister’s Fault is doing, but we’re complementing to offer something unique.”

Ms. Clifton said the light, friendly level of competition that exists between the three bakeries has likely led to higher standards for artisan baked goods across Milford.

All three women said their fresh-baked products, which start with high-quality ingredients, are a cut above what’s available at the average grocery store and that bakery departments at Walmart or Redner’s and coffee chains like Starbucks or Dunkin’ Donuts don’t detract from their business.

“You’ll probably get something for half the price at Walmart,” Ms. Tatman said, “but there are also clients who prefer the taste and the quality of the product we provide.”

Ms. Robles has no problem sending customers in search of something cheaper out to big chain stores, but Ms. Clifton said there’s a lot of people in Milford who have high standards for their baked goods.

“At this point, (we have) a lot of people coming from elsewhere, be that New York, New Jersey, Philadelphia, but also Mexico, Puerto Rico, Guatemala, and they’re all used to buying fresh-baked goods,” she said.

Ms. Tatman said the success of Milford’s baking community is a byproduct of the town’s strong support for its small businesses in general.

“Milford does have a sweet tooth, but it really goes back to the unique sense of community. There’s a lot of hometown pride in our Milfordians,” she said. “They love us and wrap their arms around us. When one of our businesses is hurting or has a catastrophe or something like that, Milford does an amazing job of coming to the rescue.”

An earlier version misspelled Armand Argenio’s name.

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