Those who frequent local farmers markets know her simply as the Croissant Lady.
“The crazy croissant lady,” is how Sally Ohle describes herself.
The Akron resident, who started her home-based Summit Croissants business seven years ago, has made a name for herself selling between 400 and 500 croissants each week during the peak of the farmers market season.
And yes, she is a little crazy.
One would have to be to attempt baking the most famous French pastry — and one of the most temperamental — from a tiny kitchen in a Kenmore duplex with no air conditioning.
But her crazy doesn’t stop there. Ohle is crazy about quality and will go to extremes to ensure that her croissants are purchased and eaten at their best.
She has refused to sell to customers who are foolish enough to admit to her that they would subject her croissants to the microwave. She also will stop folks if she thinks they are buying more than they will be able to consume within one day.
While her practices may be a bit unorthodox, even counterproductive, for someone who is trying to earn a living, to her they are all part of quality control. If someone pops one in the microwave and ends up with buttery shoe leather, Ohle doesn’t want them to think it is because the product is inferior.
If someone is buying two dozen and they aren’t planning on having a party or at least putting them in the freezer, Ohle doesn’t want the customer eating stale croissants. She would rather see them buy fewer and deliver fresh ones to their home two days later.
Her personal brand of crazy has helped to solidify her croissants as stars of the local farmers market scene. She sells every week at the Countryside Conservancy’s Thursday market in Akron’s Highland Square and its Saturday morning market in Howe Meadow in Cuyahoga Falls.
The biggest complaint some folks have about Ohle’s croissants is that they sell out too quickly. She once had a young child begin to cry when the chocolate croissants were sold out before the girl got there for her weekly treat.
When a July market in Highland Square was closed due to storms, Ohle went next door, to the Highland Square library branch, sat down at a computer and put the word out on her Facebook page that she was willing to deliver anywhere. Her entire inventory was sold within an hour and she spent the next few hours driving around town to deliver them — something Ohle doesn’t mind doing.
She works 80 hours a week, creating as many as 40 varieties of croissants, including some, like whole wheat, that would make a true Frenchman cringe. Every once in a while she will take a tongue-lashing from a Francophile who is troubled by the way she bends the rules.
“One woman came up to me one day, looked at the whole wheat and said, ‘The French would be offended by that,’ ” Ohle recalled.
“I’m sure at the airport in Paris, they have my picture,” she said, tracing a circle in the air with her finger and placing a slash mark across where her face would be.
But Ohle pleases more customers than she offends.
Most of her customers tell her the croissants are as good as what they have eaten in France. Ohle can’t say for sure, since she’s never been there.
When Peter Reinhart was in the Akron area recently, he tried some of Ohle’s work and offered a professional critique. Reinhart, an internationally recognized baking expert, is an instructor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, N.C., one of the country’s leading culinary schools.
Reinhart said he was surprised that anyone would attempt to bake croissants out of her home. “Croissants are not easy to make consistently well,” he explained, noting that the dough is subject to weather conditions and all sorts of temperature variables. “I think it’s remarkable she’s baking out of her house,” he said.
Reinhart sliced open one of Ohle’s plain croissants to reveal the flaky interior. “There’s your money shot,” he said, showing off the layers.
Working in a home environment, rather than a commercial kitchen, every batch will be different and inconsistencies are inevitable, he said, pointing out that the blistering on the top of each pastry was slightly different.
Overall, Reinhart was impressed with the quality of the pastry. “She’s doing a very good job,” he said.
It is high praise coming from someone of Reinhart’s stature, and even higher praise considering that Ohle is completely self-taught.
Ask her where she studied baking, and Ohle likes to reply, “I.M.K.,” causing many to assume she is giving the acronym for a cooking school.
“In my kitchen,” she smiles.
Yes, she really just decided one day to try to bake croissants.
Ohle, 48, has always loved to bake and has always had “a fascination with things with layers.” She remembers when using her Easy Bake Oven that a simple two-layer cake was never enough. She was always making more layers so her cakes would go higher and higher, and her mother never discouraged her from getting in the kitchen to experiment.
Her first baking job was making cinnamon rolls for the Mustard Seed Market in Bath Township. For several years in the 1990s, Ohle operated the bakery at the Hart & Mather Bed and Breakfast that her family owned in Sharon Center Township. After the inn and bakery closed, Ohle went to work for a bank and took a break from food for a while.
Later, she began selling baked goods at a friend’s farm stand, and then moved into farmers markets, which were just getting started in the Akron area. “I didn’t grow anything, but I knew I could bake,” she said.
Ohle used to make a variety of baked goods, but found that moving from cookies to cinnamon rolls to muffins to whatever the next baked good was, had her doing little more than washing dishes all day. She decided to focus on croissants because it was one thing nobody else was selling at the farmers markets.
Her work week begins on Tuesdays, when she starts the multi-day process of making 20 or 30 batches of croissant dough, or more depending on how many orders she has to fill outside the markets.
The dough must be made in stages, with chilling between each step. Ohle tracks the progress of each batch on paper lists kept on the front of two refrigerators that occupy the upstairs kitchen where she bakes.
She uses organic flour, milk from Snowville Creamery in Pomeroy, and butter from Minerva Dairy in Minerva.
“I try to make use of local ingredients as much as possible,” Ohle said, explaining why she drives to Minerva from Akron each week to purchase the 36 pounds of butter she will need.
Each batch of dough is made from a pound of sweet butter, which results in about 18 croissants, depending on their size. Deftly Ohle will beat the butter with her rolling pin between parchment paper until it is flattened into a perfect square, about the size of a floor tile. The butter is placed on the chilled dough, which Ohle folds around it, forming a perfect envelope. She then rolls the package into thin sheets of dough, which will be chilled, folded and rolled another two times to create the light layers in her finished product.
Her recipe and procedure have taken years to perfect, and she has had to take into account plenty of variables, starting with the lack of air conditioning in her home. Ohle’s house was built as a duplex with identical layouts upstairs and down. She lives downstairs with her longtime partner Tim Zuver, and has converted the upstairs kitchen and dining room to her bakery.
Ohle also makes nearly all of her own fillings from scratch, including the lemon curd and almond paste. She makes more than 40 varieties of croissants, from the traditional plain and chocolate (filled with Malley’s chocolate), to her own creations of sweet potato or goat cheese and fig. She sells about 10 or more varieties at a time, but will bake any flavor, even just a few, to fill a customer request or special order.
She times her baking schedule so that the last batch of croissants is coming out of the oven just in time for her to load up and head to the farmers market. For the Saturday morning market, that means Ohle is up all night Friday rolling, filling and baking croissants so they are fresh for 9 a.m. Saturday.
It is a difficult way to make a living, but Ohle loves being at the farmers markets and interacting with the customers and other vendors there.
“When I get to the market and see all the people and the other vendors, I know this is why I stayed up all night,” she said.
Her dream is to one day have a croissant truck, so that she can sell sandwiches and other savory items that her home baking licenses don’t allow, and she could bake on site so that customers can have her croissants at their freshest. For now, she’s hoping to increase her winter business when the markets are not operating or are on limited schedules.
Special orders are never a problem. Ohle is happy to deliver and can’t understand why customers feel that they are inconveniencing her when they want croissants on non-market days.
“I want you to have it right out of the oven,” she said.