The first day of September was a big day for the Mack sisters, Katie and Krissy. That was the one-year anniversary for their popular little pastry shop, Broken Tart, on Chicago Avenue in Oak Park.
“Oh Man,” Katie, the older of the two sisters, said, “One-year. It’s just crazy to look back and think we’ve been doing this for over a year.”
But of course, they have been doing Broken Tart much longer than that. They say on their website that the store was “a dream eight years in the making.” That was eight years spent planning and dreaming, raising capital and finding a space, gutting the place and rebuilding it to their specifications — and all the other myriad things you have to do to get a business ready and make sure you can keep it running after you open.
Katie and Krissy, who first conceived Broken Tart in 2014 as a “very part-time” online business, focused at first on wedding cakes, and then expanded to other kinds of cakes and cookies. Krissy took full control of the operation when she moved for a time out of Chicago. This side hustle allowed her to follow her bliss – creating and baking pastries and cakes and other sweets.
Krissy said she had always loved baking. “We had a lot of great cooks in my family,” she recalls. But she only began to consider seriously a career in food preparation during a trip she took to Europe after college.
“I was in Greece, I was in France, I was in Switzerland,” Krissy recalled, “and I was just eating amazing food and pastries everywhere I went.”
For example, in Lisbon, Portugal, Krissy encountered “these little egg custard tarts,” pasteles de nata, which she remembers fondly to this day.
“It was just a really eye-opening time for me,” she said.
After Krissy returned home, she devoted all of her free time to making all the interesting pastries and desserts she had encountered on her trip.
Krissy also started a food blog with her sister, Katie, and a cousin. Krissy cringes a little when she talks about the blog, but it was clearly formative. “I would make a recipe and take a terrible picture of it.”
Katie didn’t do much baking, but she was living in New York at the time. “So, she would like go-to a bakery and then review the product. It was called Cookie Confessions. And I’m really glad it’s not on the internet anymore. It was horrible.”
It may have been horrible, but it solidified her interest in becoming a professional pastry chef. Krissy enrolled at the San Francisco Baking Institute and worked at several restaurants in the Bay Area. After graduation, she returned to Chicago to work for Boks Restaurant Group and Hogsalt.
It was around this time she and her sister opened the original, online version of Broken Tart. It blew up quickly. The online following skyrocketed to more than 6,500 followers on Instagram and had earned a place on Zagat Chicago’s 30 Under 30 in Food and Hospitality List. But that success was not enough. Krissy and Katie dreamed of having their own brick-and-mortar version of Broken Tart.
They knew they made a great team. Katie had more experience on the business side of things. She had worked for several startups, including the media site, Refinery29 and Conde Nast.
Plus, Katie’s natural pragmatism balanced well with Krissy’s creative bent.
They were also lifelong collaborators. Only two-and-a-half years apart, Katie and Krissy were close as kids. One of things they loved to play at was running pretend businesses. Stores. Restaurants.
“We made a cafe at our aunt’s house,” Katie remembers, “That was like our first like food thing.”
Krissy and Katie, both Oak Parkers, began gathering capital – and searching for a space in their adopted hometown.
As part of their fundraising, Krissy and Katie opened up a page on indiegogo.com. Their goal was to raise $65,000. Their indiegogo.com proposal was a dead ringer for their current place: “a modern bakery and cafe inspired by the broken-in-yet-always-enchanting delis of Europe.”
Katie and Krissy made only $25,455 USD on the site, but that little bit of starter cash, plus their own savings, was enough to bring Broken Tart out of cyberspace and into the real world. The trick was where to build it.
“Oh, man, we looked for a while,” Katie said, “We were stalking this block. [The stretch of Chicago between Harlem and the Frank Lloyd Wright studio.] We actually looked at a space a few doors down, and it was really pretty, with the original press tin ceiling, but it was too narrow, so we couldn’t make it work. We were devastated.”
Then one day Katie was driving down Chicago and noticed a for lease sign in front of a space formerly occupied by a coin operated laundry. She called the landlord and was told he had literally just put the sign up. The space turned out to be just what they wanted. It was tiny, for sure, but had enough space for a great kitchen, a large display case, and even room (barely) for a few tables.
They signed their lease in February 2022, and spent the next five months building it out.
On any given weekday morning, even before the front door opens for the day, you will find people loitering nearby, queuing at the door, or hanging out in nearby parked cars, listening to Morning Edition. And throughout the day, traffic never seems to slow. Scads and scads of customers file in and out, picking up their morning coffee and a pastry or two, or a little lunch, or a box of scones, before scurrying off for work, or home, or the park. And on the weekends so many show up, a line snakes out the door.
Are the sisters thinking of expanding?
“We get asked that every single day,” Katie laughed.
For now, they’re planning, such as what to swap into their menu for November. “We have a pumpkin muffin that one of our bakers developed that’s really delicious.” Krissy told me, her voice fluttering with excitement.
“It’s kind of a smaller size, but it’s super kind of rich. We toss it in melted butter after it’s baked and then roll it in sugar. So, it kind of mimics a donut. And we have a honey cake that is like a brown butter cake that’s soaked with honey-thyme apricot syrup. And then it has a light frosting of dulce honey whip.”
Katie jumped in: “Sometimes we just take a step back to like, whoa, we did this.”