Despite the name, Le Mouton Noir is anything but the black sheep of local bakeries. In fact, it’s the talk of the town, joining a treasured group of establishments making and selling fresh bread onsite.
Owner and operator Francisco Arias, 35, opened his Bakehouse in the Channel District on a Thursday at the end of September. By the following Saturday there was a line out the door.
“I wanted to open quietly, with a small staff, and slowly grow the business,” Arias said. “I thank God every day we are busy, but it’s definitely been a mixed blessing.”
In 2009, Arias decided to leave his job as catering manager at the TradeWinds Resort on St. Pete Beach to pursue his dream of opening a bakery.
“My vision was to open a place people would come for fresh bread, a few sweets and coffee,” Arias said. “I figured, either I do it now, or it will be much harder to do later on.”
The Harbour Island resident, a member of the nearby Powerhouse Gym, noticed the retail space in the Ventana condos at the corner of Kennedy Boulevard and Channelside Drive.
“I knew I wanted to open in the Channel District,” Arias said. “It finally has the energy behind it, it’s really up and coming.”
At the time, the Ventana's retail spaces were all empty; now every unit is spoken for. On a late Saturday afternoon, the district is bustling with foot traffic, and almost everyone is toting a long baguette-sized paper bag.
Raised in El Salvador, Arias learned about baking from his mother.
Her influence is evident in his alfajores, a popular Latin dessert (with many variations) consisting of two biscuit-like cookies filled with dulce de Leche and coconut. His family is very supportive of his endeavor; in fact, on the day we speak his mother is in the kitchen baking.
Natural light bathes Le Mouton Noir's interior, an open space with high exposed ceilings. A ladder is decorated, Christmas tree-style, with ornaments and white lights. The restaurant's mascot, a life-sized black sheep, grazes nearby. The ambience is rustic, but with a modern edge. Glistening glass cases display golden brown chocolate croissants, coffee cakes, and pies.
Arias stresses that, despite the French name, Le Mouton Noir is not a French bakery.
“The Black Sheep was the right name but sounded better in French,” he says. “Although I think we have the best croissants.”
His French-Moroccan bread baker arrives around 3 a.m. every day to start making each of the nine or so breads. The aroma of traditional and rosemary baguettes, olive loaves, multi-grain bread, rye, sour dough, whole wheat and artisan breads wafts through the air.
“People on early morning runs stop and grab a bite,” he says. “It’s just so mouth-watering to smell fresh bread baking.”
His personal favorite is the multi-grain bread and his mother’s French baguette with rosemary.
In addition to bread, Le Mouton Noir also offers a menu of artfully crafted cakes, pies, cupcakes, and pastries. Buddy Brew Coffee is on tap, using a bean that originates from Arias’ homeland, El Salvador. For lunch-goers, there’s now a limited selection of sandwiches and soups.
“Customers always have a say in how things take shape,” Arias said. “We have great bread for sandwiches. It makes sense.”
There’s talk of Le Mouton Noir’s breads being sold at neighborhood bodegas and local markets. Cakes are already available at Brew-D-Licious at the Hollander Hotel in St. Petersburg. Word is traveling fast and the business is growing faster. But for now, all Arias is concerned about for the afternoon is his almond croissant recipe.
“It’s almost there,” he says. “But I’ll be playing with it until I get it just right.”