Food writer Carolyn Wyman wrote a feature for Philadelphia City Paper that probed the stories behind some of Philadelphia's most popular dishes. Alas, City Paper ceased publication. We're proud to continue Carolyn's fine work here at philly.com/food.
Peak Jersey strawberry harvest season is still about a month away. And so it might seem it's about a month too early for a story about Tiffany's Bakery's famous strawberry shortcake. But you'd be wrong.
That's because Tiffany's shortcake is made with Florida or California strawberries that are available year-round. (Local berries aren't as consistently pretty and can make a cake soggy.) And its peak sales season is Valentine's and Mother's Days for reasons Tiffany's Bakery owner Frank Pantazopoulos struggles to explain.
"Strawberries are red" is all he can come up to explain the spike at Valentine's.
"Because Mom's not baking on Mother's Day?" he almost asks, in trying to account for the 200-plus strawberry-studded, whipped cream frosted yellow cakes that will pass over his counter this May 6 to 8. Even if some of today's dads bake, "having this cake for Mother's Day dinner has become a tradition that has made a lot of local families associate this cake with that day," he explains.
The out-of-season popularity of their most famous cake is only one way in which Tiffany's defies expectations. Some others: It's a Greek bakery that doesn't make baklava or any other Greek dessert started by a man with no baking experience as part of a chain that is now a model of a local family business.
Frank's dad, Tony Pantazopoulos, was an executive at Sears in Chicago in the late 1970s when he decided to open a Tiffany's Bakery franchise in Philadelphia's then spanking-new Gallery mall in order to be closer to sisters living in the Philly burbs. The Philly Tiffany's soon became the most profitable store in the 300-bakery chain and was one of only a handful of Tiffany's to survive when the parent company went under in the early 1980s.
Pantazopoulos started out using franchise recipes but soon added other desserts that he saw selling well elsewhere in Philly. That included strawberry shortcake, then a fixture at Bookbinder's restaurant and Termini Bakery.
Tiffany's strawberry shortcake uses regular birthday-style yellow cake instead of the shortbread or sponge used in other versions; fresh strawberries as the decoration and between the cake layers, instead of strawberry jam or compote; and real whipped cream instead of whipped topping (that can be frozen to extend the cake's shelf life, but doesn't taste as good, Frank Pantazopoulos, believes).
And Tony offered it in low-cost single slices (to encourage trial) as well as full cakes and, within a decade, chocolate, red velvet and Neapolitan variations (which are now sold on weekends and by special order).
The original was an immediate hit, for reasons Frank finds easy to explain.
"It's the epitome of freshness," he says. And also of simplicity, like many good and popular dishes. So simple that the YouTube video posted on their website showing the whipping of the cream, the slicing of the strawberries and the piping of the cake hardly seems necessary.
That website is one of many updates Frank made to Tiffany's since buying the business from his parents five years ago. (Frank had a successful career as an accountant in the insurance industry but says he was ready for a change right about the time his parents were ready to retire.) He also added credit cards, La Colombe coffee and a fancier brand of raspberry cookie jam that has gotten some hate for its discernible seeds. (Frank has kept the new brand but will make cookies with the old jam by special order.)
Frank wasn't in charge more than a few years before PREIT and Macerich announced plans to turn Tiffany's Gallery home into a fashion outlet mall. As the only surviving original Gallery business and also one of its most financially successful, Tiffany's did not have to fight to stay, but it did have to move from Ninth to 10th Streets last summer, right around the corner from the Jefferson Station entrance. With most Gallery businesses shuttered, suburban rail commuters are now pretty much the only potential new customers.
That explains the gourmet coffee and jam and the giant video screen with a SEPTA train schedule, a slide show of Tiffany's treats and a slogan ("There's Still Time ...") tempting people to miss their trains.
At the same time, Frank says, "I get calls every day" from established customers who've heard about the Gallery closings "asking where we are or when we're coming back."
The answer is, they're open and have been every day except for the one last June when they moved their baking equipment from their old storefront to their new.
Which is probably berry good news to those who count on Tiffany's shortcake to be the centerpiece of their Mother's Day celebration.