Photographs by Rafael Tongol
The Glass Knife, which opened recently in that modern pink and black building on Orlando Avenue, is not, like many independently owned bakery/cafés, the love-child of some passionate pastry chef scraping by on a shoestring budget.
In this case, the creator is Winter Park resident Steve Brown, founder and CEO of accesso, a global technology company that serves the leisure industry. (Brown insists on the lower-case “a,” despite protests from persnickety copy editors.)
It’s not that Brown doesn’t love The Glass Knife just as he’d love a flesh-and-blood offspring. It’s just that most restaurant owners aren’t also successful tech entrepreneurs. “We worked with no budget. How about that?” he says of his investment without offering a specific number.
Answering to no one freed Brown and his team to design what made sense to them. And Brown’s business background facilitated the use of state-of-the-art technology to make customer transactions easier.
The Glass Knife has a cash-free policy, for example. First, Brown says, overnight workers are safer if the coffers are perpetually empty, so there’s nothing to rob. Second, cash slows down service, since touching money would require counter workers to replace their gloves after every transaction.
Brown and his executive chef, Stuart Whitfield, are Disney World veterans, so they’re well-versed in streamlining. “I bleed Disney,” Brown says with a laugh.
With all its high-tech and low-tech quirks, The Glass Knife is still, is essence, a neighborhood bakery/café — albeit a sophisticated (yet welcoming) one.
It’s named for pastel glass knives from the ’30s and ’40s that Brown’s mother collected in the family’s Lakeland home. Several vintage knives are displayed under glass in a communal solid walnut table in the dining room.
A flower design on one knife was recreated on the 3,278-square-foot building’s exterior. A star design encompassing three pastel colors adorns the restaurant’s terrazzo floor. Pieces of the Brown family’s heirloom collection of pastel Depression glass are embedded in those stars. “We have such a small floor, we don’t want to waste it,” Brown says.
Elsewhere, the dining room — modern yet feminine — boasts contemporary clean lines and light woods contrasting with blush pink and a bit of tufted velour fabric. It’s all reminiscent of an old-school pastry box.
Near the coffee station, there’s a replica of the patent drawing for what might be the first glass knife, filed by a man named John Didio from Buffalo, New York, in 1938.
Guests order at a counter, then have their purchases delivered to a long communal table, cozy booths, rounded banquettes or a spacious outdoor patio where the translucent roof lets in light while keeping inclement weather at bay.
To the right of the counter, a window to the kitchen allows visitors to watch as bakers ice cakes. Indeed, bakeries have an emotional pull for Brown, 49, as cakes were an integral part of his world as a child.
His mother created weddings cakes from the family’s home, and his aunt was a home economics teacher. So, food — especially confections — was always at the forefront.
For 16 years, Brown worked in finance for Disney. After starting accesso, he traveled the world to bring his queueing technology and point-of-sale services to foreign countries. All the while, he was percolating the bakery/café idea in his head.
Taking a break from meetings, he’d visit bake shops wherever he happened to be, taking note of what he might do, and what he might not do, if —more accurately, when — he opened an eatery of his own.
By the time he was ready to break ground on The Glass Knife, Brown had a solid vision: “I wanted an approachable version of a European bakery. In Paris, the baked goods are beautiful, but they don’t always taste good. I wanted to blend that European flair with sensible Southern hospitality.”
That’s why customers might order a lacy pink cake or a sophisticated “entremet” (a single-serving dessert with sponge cake and mousse; the Florida orange version tastes like a Creamsicle). But they also might chow down on an oversized cookie. At mealtime, they might enjoy a nostalgic taste of home with a pimento cheese sandwich or a chicken pot pie.
“Around the world, I never saw a bakery mix rustic products with fancy ones,” Brown observes. “I built a place where you can get a freshly made version of a Twinkie or Ring Ding, or just drink a cup of coffee. Plus, you can celebrate a special occasion with champagne and an elegant cake.” On-tap wine and beer are available.
The Glass Knife also offers breakfast, including such items as avocado and egg toast (a poached egg, sliced avocado, house-made tomato confit, arugula and pickled red onion garnished with lemon crème fraiche and pomegranate seeds on toasted sourdough bread).
You can also enjoy an Old South biscuit sandwich (an egg soufflé topped with bacon jam, Applewood-smoked bacon and aged cheddar cheese on a house-made cheddar biscuit) as well as waffles topped with apple compote and toasted pecans, and rolled oats topped with dried blueberries, fresh banana slices and house-made granola.
Lunch items include sandwiches (roasted turkey club, egg salad, and pimiento cheese) as well as salads and soups and an array of shared plates including meat and cheese and an artisanal pretzel served with honey cup mustard, beer cheese dipping sauce and pimento cheese spread. Chicken pot pie is the evening feature.
Baked goods change daily, but may include brownies, cakes, croissants, cookies, donuts, pastries, pies, scones and tarts. You never know what you’re going to find in the bakery case, except that it’ll be delicious.
Since Brown was thinking big during development, he hired an executive who knows all about volume. Whitfield worked as a member of Disney’s culinary team for some time after stints at prestigious restaurants along the east coast.
“At Disney, every single item must be as great for the first customer as for the 20 millionth customer,” Brown notes. “Stuart thought of that in recipe development. ‘How can we produce a premium product that can be made in volume?’”
That quest for Disneyesque perfection extends to the coffee service. The Glass Knife uses sustainably sourced, “farm-to-cup” Onyx Coffee Lab beans, and the baristas work with Modbar equipment hidden beneath the counter, allowing face-to-face interaction with guests ordering lattes and espressos.
The duo’s desire to streamline operations came in handy on the restaurant’s first Saturday, its second day in business: Customers ordered 300 slices of cake. “The cakes were fully decorated with multiple fillings and then sliced,” Brown points out.
That big start encourages Brown to believe that he’ll meet his goal: “I want The Glass Knife to be a place where people will sit a spell, maybe stop in for a cup of coffee, maybe have a cookie with it and maybe not; I don’t care. We want to fill that gap.”
How is it going so far? Piece of cake.
The Glass Knife
276 South Orlando Avenue, Winter Park