When you visit the Portland, Oregon and Vancouver, Washington area you probably will encounter Russian and other Slavic languages spoken in grocery stores and on the streets. Signs for “European Delis” are not uncommon and sometimes the signs are in Russian. If you want to experience and taste the products of Eastern Europe, enter one of these delis, coffee shops or bakeries. And when you do, you’ll encounter people who have come to the United States to practice their religion and fulfill their dreams. One of these success stories is Sweet Touch Café & Bakery.
In 2016, two brothers put their dreams into action and the result was Sweet Touch Café & Bakery in Vancouver, Washington. When you enter their café, you’ll find yourself transported to another world. You’ll be drawn to the long cases of colorful house-made European pastries, fluffy cakes, macarons and pastry savories. Italian coffees, kombucha, and specialty teas round out the offerings. They make crepes, too.
Inspired Brothers Fulfill Their Dream
And the brothers? Ben Mikhalets is 20 and his brother Slav is 21. Even though still young, Ben and Slav have taken charge of their dream and, together with friends and family, created a welcoming Northwest decor café with a decidedly European twist.
I met them at the Camas Farmers’ Market one Wednesday afternoon. I was immediately drawn to the fruit look-alike cookies and fresh apple pastries.
After they took care of a steady stream of customers I asked them about their business. I discovered more than 10 bakers and pastry chefs work behind the scenes at the bakery and café to create an impressive array of delectable treats. The next day I visited Sweet Touch Café & Bakery in Vancouver.
Their inspiration? Next door to the café is the 15-year-old Slavic bakery, deli and grocery store, Svitoch, owned by their parents, Olga and Yaroslav Mikhalets.
Their work ethic is no surprise when you hear their parents’ story. Ben explained that his parents came to the United States from the Ukraine 21 years ago with his brothers Anatoly and Slav. He was born soon after.
In 2002 his parents started the bakery and the store. “We never saw them until nighttime, they worked so hard,” Ben explained as he showed me the extensive European deli case in his parents’ store. “See that? The goose liverwurst is what I had most every day for a sandwich at home,” Ben says.
The deli case has an extensive offering of cold meats including the traditional goose liverwurst. There are colorful wrapped candies, freshly baked bread and meals prepared for take-out. The family watched their business grow, a business devoted to importing products that local Slavic families wanted. As I looked around, I heard Russian being spoken. It was bustling with activity.
A Pacific Northwest Café
But Ben and Slav had a different idea. Not only did they want to create a space where people originally from Slavic countries could gather, they wanted to attract everyone in the community. Ben’s enthusiasm is evident. “We are breaking the stereotype of a European bakery,” he said. “When our customers come in, they won’t recognize half the things here, but we enjoy teaching them.”
And, it appears to be working. Customers of all backgrounds were in the café enjoying a latte, savoring a slice of cake with fluffy creamy frosting and working on their laptops.
It takes a community of creative people and skilled crafts persons to turn a dream like this into reality. Ben and Slav proudly showed me the details. “The photographs of Mount Hood are from a photographer friend and see that wall? Our friends helped us put the tongue and groove lumber wall together overnight.”
Friends made the beautifully finished natural timber tables with glass inserts. The brothers made the simpler furniture by hand. Everything in the café has a story but it all works together to create a Pacific Northwest casual vibe.
Bakery Goods Take Center Stage at Sweet Touch Café & Bakery
Ben and Slav have not forgotten their heritage. Their pastry chefs and bakers are originally from mostly Slavic countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Romania and Moldavia. They explained that each baker has a specialty. “One baker for certain cakes, one person for the fruit cookies and baskets and another for cannolis.”
Their offerings run from an Egyptian take on baklava to French croissants. Most of the cakes and pastries are Russian, Ukranian, Georgian, Polish and Romanian. And, I was surprised to learn their mother had a hand in all of them. “Our mother wrote the blueprint for all of our pastries. They are all traditional but she has her own way of doing it.” And their mother has taught the bakers and pastry chefs her take on the traditional.
Friends who have traveled to Europe have taken a look at my pictures of the colorful cakes and pastries from Sweet Touch Bakery and exclaimed the offerings reminded them of what they saw in Paris or Berlin. Macarons are all the rage both in Europe and here. Sweet Touch has a beautiful selection.
After sampling several of the items at Sweet Touch, I have to say I appreciate that they are not overly sweet. To me, the sweetness is in the appearance. If there is fruit in an item, the sweetness comes from the natural fruit, not added sugar. And the brothers ensure that the freshly made pastries are not dry. There is quite a bit of turnover in the baked goods. People order for parties and family gatherings. Catering is part of the business.
When You Go to Sweet Touch Café
Expect the unexpected. Sweet Touch is not about standard sheet cakes with hard buttercream frosting. It’s about the art of baking and the beauty of the product. Some of their cookies and sweets are so beautiful they don’t look real. Look for local berries embellishing them. Now, that’s both real and fresh!
Find Sweet Touch Café & Bakery and Svitoch in the Vancouver Village Shopping Center anchored by Total Wine at 4804 NE Thurston Way, Vancouver, WA. It’s just off I-205 and SR 505. Follow the signs to the mall, which is just across the street.
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