WINTERSVILLE - After nearly a decade in Columbus, the road to entrepreneurial independence brought Stephanie Pethtel-Eygabroad back to her roots here in the Ohio Valley.
Pethtel-Eygabroad, who grew up in East Springfield, was working as a chef at the Hyatt Regency in Columbus when opportunity knocked on her door seven years ago.
"I got the news that the Knoxville Volunteer Fire Department wanted a caterer," her mother, JoAnn Meyer, said. "She was doing OK in Columbus, but she wasn't doing as well financially (as I would have liked). So I called her and asked her if she'd like to own her own business. It took her a day or two to decide what she wanted to do, but she did decide."
PUTTING ON THE FINISHING TOUCHES — Patrons sitting at the lunch counter watch as Stephanie Pethtel-Eygabroad puts the finishing touches on one of her specialties, a white chocolate raspberry cake, at A Touch of Elegance in Wintersville. Pethtel-Eygabroad, who opened the cafe and bakery in August, said she likes working in the open so her customers can see what she’s doing. - Linda Harris
Pethtel-Eygabroad admits her initial reaction was that she couldn't leave her job and friends in Columbus, "but never say never," she advises. "I knew I wasn't strong on the business end, the bookkeeping, but my mom said she'd handle that part," she said. "Who wouldn't want the opportunity to own their own place? And if it didn't work out, I could always go back."
So Pethtel-Eygabroad packed her bags and headed home to oversee catering operations at the Knoxville VFD. She was there for four or five years, then moved on to Richmond VFD where she did more of the same. While she enjoyed what she was doing, "When you're catering, you do so much volume at one time that you don't realize the little stuff you do day after day probably amounts to more," she said.
"When we pulled the books, 85 percent to 90 percent of our business was cakes, cookies and pies," her mother added. "So we decided, 'Give the public what it wants.'"
That's when they decided to strike out on their own, opening a bakery and cafe, A Touch of Elegance, at 299 Cadiz Road, Wintersville. They opened for business in August to rave reviews.
"People have told me they've circled the block, waiting for a parking spot to open up," she said.
She said 90 percent of the food she serves is made from scratch. If it's on her menu, it's passed the taste test - her taste test.
"I can taste quality in a product," she said. "If I don't like the taste of something, I won't sell it."
Her favorite workstation is an island behind the lunch counter, so customers can watch her work while they sit at the counter sipping coffee, nibbling a pastry or eating lunch.
"People really enjoy watching me work, and it doesn't bother me at all," she said. "I'm sure of myself, I know what I'm doing ... I've been doing it for years now. I was doing a quarter-sheet cake once - I didn't know it, but they were timing me - it took me 12 minutes from start to finish."
But baking comes naturally to her: Her mother's aunts, Bertha Burris and the late Florence Tortorice, owned the Korner Kupboard Bakery on North Fifth Street in the 1960s, operated the tea room in the old Hub department store for many years and partnered with Al "Blue" Ricci in the Federal Terrace, an upscale restaurant on North Fourth Street in the '60s and early '70s.
Though she'd had her heart set on following in their footsteps, after graduating from Edison South High School in 1993 she enrolled at the Pittsburgh Culinary Institute and instead spent the next two years learning how to be a chef, earning an associate degree in specialized culinary arts. She completed an externship with the Hyatt Regency in 1995; they kept her on full-time and she spent the next nine years honing her skills.
"When we started here I wanted to keep it simple," she said. "And I wanted to be different, so I don't have a deep fryer."
No deep fryer means no french fries or doughnuts, which, from her perspective, is a good thing.
"I make a lot of my own sauces and use different cheeses," she said. "I try to (offer) different things that people don't see all the time."
A Touch of Elegance is open from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and closed Sundays. The menu offers a range of breakfast favorites, sandwiches, salads and sides, along with her cakes, pies, cupcakes and pastries. She does cater for small private parties in the evenings after the cafe closes, and during the holiday season she took orders for 600 dozen Christmas cookies.
"When we were at the fire departments, it didn't feel like my own business," she said. "It was their building, I had to follow their rules. Here, it's mine: My landlord gives me a lot of latitude. If there's something new I want to try, I can, and if there's a recipe I want to test, I can test it. I could do that before, but having my own storefront I get more feedback from the public than I could as a caterer."
She admits, too, that her mother was right about coming home.
"I always said if I ever had kids, I wanted them to have the same childhood I did," she said. "Being back in the valley has given me that I have a son, he's 2. It's a good feeling to know the people I've known my whole life can see what I've become ... my teachers from school, friends of the family...it's just nice for them to see what I've become, to know they're proud of me."