Byen Bakeri: A Slice of Scandinavia in Seattle

The Swedish Gooey cake (Photo credit: Byen Bakeri)

Byen Bakeri, a cute little Scandanavian cafe in Queen Anne, is a slice of Nordic heaven. While we might not be frolicking about in Northern Europe for some time, we can embrace their charming concepts of winter wellness, and enjoy their delicious baked treats (we already have the gray skies!)

The Scandinavian bakery was originally opened in 2013 by Brian and Michelle Morck and current owners Larry and Rachel Antalek  started out as happy customers. They now run Byen Bakeri ((Byen means “city” in Norwegian) with their two sons, who serve as official taste-testers. “We were customers, and had great respect for the quality of the pastries. When we started looking to get into owning a bakery, we knew we could take the amazing foundation and bring more modern Nordic culture to bear in the service, décor and in new menu items,” said Antalek. 

Byen Bakeri truly epitomizes the feeling of ‘hygge’—a meaningful Danish concept. The Scandinavian concept of hygge has been misunderstood in today’s day and age, it isn’t very complicated and doesn’t need us to buy those aromatherapy candles and luxury rugs we see on pinterest (although they do look luxurious!). Antalek deconstructs the concept for us, “Hygge has so many dimensions… it’s really a mash-up of cozy and warm and homey. But we also like to think of it as the ‘absence of any annoyance’—it’s the little things, like someone refilling your coffee or making you feel very special.”

The one thing Antalek wishes people knew about Nordic culture? Pat says, “it’s a lot like what we value here in the PNW—celebrating our local bounty, being kind and true to your neighbors, and using a little Fika (the art of having coffee and a treat, often with your loved ones) to get through the longer grey days of winter.”

We’re really in need of Hygge, now more than ever, in these stressful times. A trip to Byen Bakeri would be just what the doctor ordered. Here you can enjoy a cozy coffee, indulge in a pastry, and erase your cares away for a little while. Specialties include handcrafted Scandinavian delicacies—think Swedish Gooey Cake, an ooey gooey fudge-like cake that literally melts in your mouth, the Kransekage, a multi-ringed marzipan cake and the kringle, an enormous flaky almond-filled Danish pastry. Savory items include earthy rye-based breads, fresh caprese sandwiches, and special smorrebrods.

We spoke to Antalek about traditional Swedish baking, their specialties and their scandinavian connection….

Seattleite: Could you tell me a bit about your growing up days (both you and Larry) and how it led you to where you are?

Rachel Antalek: For me, I’ve been a baker since I can remember and learned from my grandmother. I was lucky enough to do a pastry apprenticeship in Germany in my early 20’s and have had a lifelong dream to have a bakery. Larry is a Pacific Northwest native and fourth generation Norwegian, and married me in part for my baking and cooking

Seattleite: What is your connection to Scandinavian food and culture?

Rachel Antalek: Larry is the main connection to Scandinavia—his great grandparents came from Lillehammer Norway and settled in Scandinavia, Wisconsin.  Later generations made their way to the PNW. For me, I learned to bake professionally in Germany where the ingredients (like marzipan) and techniques (like “laminating” layers of dough for croissants and danish) are similar. We intensively study Scandinavian bakeries, both traditional and modern and we add a Pacific Northwest spin.

Seattleite: How is it owning a business with your spouse? What are your core competencies?

Rachel Antalek: We love working together—Rachel is the “creative”, working closely with the baking team on new menu items. Larry runs the Bakeri operations and oversees the books. We also have two fantastic leaders who manage the kitchen and hospitality teams respectively. 

Seattleite: How did experience at Starbucks (As Vice President of Concept Innovation) help you with your business, looking in retrospect? 

Rachel Antalek: What makes Starbucks great is the level of service and connection the baristas provide, plus a great product. For us, we strive to have a level of service that is as good as the quality of our pastries. It isn’t more complicated than that. That said, I also learned how to create a clear point of view with a concept, and we’ve tried to do that with Byen.

Seattleite: What are your biggest specialties? How did you decide what items to keep and what to reinvent?

Rachel Antalek: We have so many amazing baked goods, it’s hard to pick just one.  We’re best known for our large selection of morning danish and croissants (lingonberry cream cheese danish and twice baked Almond croissants are the most popular). And we’re known for the Princess Cake that you tried, and the Kransekake (traditional Scandinavian celebration cake that looks like a tower of almond rings). We have the truly traditional items, like the Swedish Rye Bread (Limpa) and Cardamom Braids.  And sometimes we find opportunity through what’s locally available…we found a farmer in the Skagit Valley working hard to grow lingonberries (not easy and she’s the only one in the PNW), so we take those and turn them into more modern, Scandinavian inspired things like a Gingerbread Lingonberry Cake for the holidays, or a candied lingonberry almond tart for dessert.

Seattleite: What do your boys love the most at the bakery? Could you tell me a little about your family and how everyone pitches in to help?

Rachel Antalek: They love the chocolate croissants and the cheese puffs (savory cheese filled baguette rolls). You’ll often find my oldest, Veni (17), behind the counter on the weekends, and my youngest, Radi (13), loves to make cookies and is especially known for molding each of our Marzipan Pigs by hand during the Christmas season.  

Seattleite: What’s your customer like? Do you have a lot of Swedish expats coming in? 

Rachel Antalek: We get a really broad range of customers. Many have no idea we’re a Scandinavian bakery, they just like us…. but we are also a destination for the Scandinavian community. Lots of folks drive from a few hours away and buy enough to stock the freezer for a few months, and we head every few months to Poulsbo (AKA “little Norway”) and “pop up” in our friend Nordiska (Scandi gift shop).  We’re exceptionally lucky to see our friends from the Leif Ericson Lodge (Sons of Norway), the Swedish Club and the Northwestern Danish Association on a regular basis.

Seattleite: What is traditional Swedish baking like?

Rachel Antalek: Simple, pure, ingredients. Lots of butter, cardamom and almond. And using the bounty of what grows in Scandinavia – more rye than wheat for breads (given the colder climate) and cold weather berries like lingonberry and sea buckthorn (which we use in winter). 

Seattleite: What is the most gratifying and most challenging part of owning your own business?

Rachel Antalek: The people are the most gratifying. We have an amazing team, and work hard to make sure we have a great culture and work experience because they pay that forward to our customers. And bringing our customers joy is what makes it super gratifying for us. Challenges are always there: equipment breaks or supplies don’t show up, but they’re all surmountable.

Seattleite: What is your personal favorite menu item?

Rachel Antalek: I love our candied lingonberry tart. It’s a chewy (wheat-free) almond tart base, a bit of silky vanilla pastry cream, and the bright sweet-tart candied lingonberries and fresh blueberries. I also love our Apricot Mazarin, which is a twice baked almond tart with a frangipane almond base, and a chewy almond and sweet apricot swirl on top. So delicious with coffee!