Six years ago, Ruby Vanags knew nothing about making cakes. This month, she opened Ruby’s Cake Shoppe & Pastries at 415 B, East Dover Road, in Easton. If the long lines at her business are any indication, she not only succeeded in learning, she’s mastered the art of baking.
To get to today, you have to go back to six years ago, when Vanags received a special birthday cake her husband bought from Desserts by Rita in Ocean City. It was a mixture of mangos and strawberries, flavors that reminded her of her Philippines heritage. She became obsessed with it, hoping that a bakery closer to the Eastern Shore could replicate it (and preferably make it cheaper as well). Her search was unsuccessful, and Vanags decided to learn how to make it herself. When store-bought cake mixes didn’t give her the results she wanted, she went online and tried variations. Each attempt was a failure.
Fortunately, at the time, Vanags was working for the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge and asked for help from her pastry chef friend. “I want to master chiffon cakes,” she told him. “But my cakes keep overflowing. So, he said to me, ‘honey, you have to find a deeper pan.'” That was the beginning. “I failed nine times,” she said, “but I got it right on the 10th try.”
Vanags suddenly found herself a new hobby. Friends and family began to ask her to bake for special occasions, birthdays, anniversaries, and even weddings. And she got really good at it. “Every time I wanted to create something, it just clicked. Every time I wanted to learn something different, I wouldn’t stop until I got it right. Baking is very time consuming, and you need to be patient, and I was patient.”
Even though Vanags was willing to remain patient as she learned all she could about baking, some of her friends urged her to open up a store. One, in particular, asked her to explore how much it would take to start a business. “I can’t afford it,” she told him, and he said, ‘You know what? Get your s— together and come back to me. I will help you out.'” And that’s how Ruby’s Cake Shoppe & Pastries came to be.
In January, Vanags left her job at the Hyatt and began construction on her shop. And then COVID-19 hit, and everything was put on hold. Everything except the rent she had to pay. That was difficult, she admitted. Recently, after she got final approval from the health department, she was able to fulfill a promise she made. “I’m going to bake a lot of cupcakes and bring it to the hospital and the frontline workers. So that’s what I did.”
On July 11th, a ribbon-cutting ceremony was held, and as Vanags admits, she’s been slammed ever since. She thinks she knows why. “You cannot find around here, what I’m selling. People haven’t tried the kinds of flavors that I make. Some of them are Asian based flavors, like fruits that you would find in an Asian market.” There is the Purple Yam cake, the Mango Cake, the popular Strawberry Pretzel, the Mocha pie, and a version of the Tiramisu. She says she also makes a great carrot cake. Sure, you can find your yellow cake with buttercream or chocolate frosting, but don’t expect it to be just average.
What she enjoys are the custom orders for items not on her regular menu. “I ask the customer to name me the flavor they want,” Vanags said, “and then I look for ways to make it. It has helped me improve my skills.
One cake she learned to make is the classic Tres Leches, a cake popular in the Mexican community. Vanags first made it for a birthday party. She recalls how a few days later, a new customer came in talking about a cake she had tasted, hoping that Vanags could replicate it. When Vanags realized what she was describing, she showed her a picture of the Tres Leches cake on her cell phone. “Is this the cake that you’re talking about? The customer jumped up, spun around, slapped her forehead. and said, ‘Oh my God, you made that cake!’ I now get slammed with orders for Tres Leches.”
Since all of her cakes are made from scratch, and since she’s had requests, Vanags is working on a dairy-free and gluten-free version of her desserts. “It’s not a big deal for me, and it’s going to happen. I want it to be fair for everyone.”
For now, you will have to stop by the shop to buy a slice or a pie from her display cabinet. There is no written menu. You can also call ((443) 205-3979) and place an order. Ruby’s Cake Shoppe and Pastries has a Facebook page, but no website yet. They’re open Tuesday – Sunday from 10 AM to 6 PM.
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.
There was a lot in common with the Avalon Foundation, the Tidewater Inn and Wylder Tilghman Island before COVID-19 came knocking on their doors. All three have always been heavily dependent on the summer months for special events, weddings, and seasonal crowds all eager for entertainment and hospitality services. But after the coronavirus crisis hit, most of those long awaited plans were left in the dust in the wind as stay-at-home orders came down from the Governor’s office.
Nonetheless, the desire by all three to partner on a creative way to create new revenue was almost immediate. With the Avalon’s Suzy Moore, using her eighteen years as its artistic director, securing popular local bands, coupled with chef Jordan Lloyd at Wylder and chef Daniel Pochron at the Tidewater on the food front, the team has formed a dinner and music program that has already become a huge success on Tilghman Island and in downtown Easton.
The Spy asked Suzy, Jordan and the Tidewater’s Lauren Catterton to spend a few minutes to talk about this new alliance and how Wednesday and Thursday nights have been turned into the Sunlit Summer Song Series, an al fresco style dinner and some of the region’s best performers.
With limited opportunities to experience the ‘normal’ things in life, the Spy has been on the lookout for fun or interesting things to do, close by, that can be enjoyed outdoors. We heard about Family Affair Farm from someone who said they had encountered all three, while also picking a gallon of delicious strawberries, and learning about the Farm.
It seems that the name, Family Affair Farm, is very appropriate to how owners, Donna Saathoff and friend Nicole Barth, think of their business. First, there’s Saathoff’s husband, Bobby, and their son, who help prepare and plant 10,000 strawberries and other crops. Then there’s a daughter who lives in Pennsylvania, who comes down to help pick, as does Bobby’s aunt Sharon. There are Bobby’s 80-year-old father and 78-year-old mother who plant pumpkin seeds, along with Barth’s parents and… Well, you get the picture. The Farm is a family passion.
Family is how the whole idea started anyway. Saathoff recalls how she picked strawberries with her grandmother every year when she was a little girl. They would sell the berries, make a little money, and a lot of memories.
When the Saathoffs, who had a farm that grew corn, wheat, soybeans, sorghum, decided to change direction seven years ago, they considered at the possibility of a ‘pick-your-own’ opportunity. With Barth as a partner, they discovered they would be the only ones in Talbot County. This is how Saathoff sees it: “This millennial generation is very interested in where their food comes from. They’re also more interested in having experiences with their children, rather than spending money on them. So, I thought it was a great idea to have them come out and pick berries and learn about how they grow. Kids are more likely to eat something they know about and pick themselves. So that’s how this kind of started. And then that just bloomed into the next thing and then into the next thing…”
The blossoming into the next thing is how the Farm has expanded from strawberries to blackberries and blueberries, to pumpkins, interactive autumn corn mazes, fall festivals, nursery school tours, kids’ birthday parties, trolleybuses, etc. And in expanding, Saathoff has watched families make their own memories. “Our farm has always been a place where families come. We’ve had the same kids that were in their mom’s bellies that are still coming. They get their picture taken by the same sign every year that shows them how much they’ve grown. They pick their own, and we see these cute little red juicy faces running out of the field. The kids remember, and they ask, ‘Can we go pick strawberries at the strawberry farm?’ it’s something that’s become a tradition for them.”
Drive by anytime during the season, and you’d see 30-60 people picking fruit anytime they were open. Half of them were kids, of course, who were doing more eating than picking. Afterward, there were picnic tables, playgrounds to explore, and farm animals to pet. And these families became part of the Family Affair Farm, as well.
“I support Governor Hogan a hundred percent,” says Saathoff. “I totally understand the 10-person restriction. But if Nicole and I are there, we also count in the 10. So now I’m down to 56 people per day when we usually had 50 to 60 people per hour. But we’ve been doing it and doing it successfully because at week six, and we’re still doing it.”
Success does not necessarily mean they’re happy with the decisions they’ve had to make. Part of the decision was to close off the playgrounds and picnic areas. The bigger problem were the strawberries.
Having decided to expand their production last year, they were faced with thousands of pounds of crop possibly going to waste. Unlike the larger farms in the area, Family Affair didn’t have the staff to pick the berries and then sell them. “So, we had to come up with a plan, says Saathoff. “I lost a lot of sleep over it. I thought about it, prayed about it, thought about it some more. And the only thing I could come up with was to only allow adults to pick.”
Saathoff and Barth acknowledged that a few families were upset they couldn’t bring the kids, but most were grateful to be out in the sunshine, away from crowds, while also getting local and fresh produce. Once they announced their decision, the pair started booking eight appointments every half hour on the hours, all day.
And then, something unexpected happened. “By week three or four into this, parents became okay about coming by themselves,” says Saathoff. “Because at that point, they were working from home, they were homeschooling their kids. They were exhausted, and they needed to get out of the house. There were those who either had a job or didn’t have a job at all, and there was all this stress of worrying about it all the time.”
They began to see a lot of healthcare workers, doctors and nurses, that were coming out to the Farm as a release from what they were experiencing daily. When Saathoff and Barth realized that the fields were a comfort place for some, they started making sure that everyone who called and wanted an appointment was able to get in at some time. That has presented its own set of challenges, says Saathoff.
“I tease people; I’m like, we’re not a nail salon, so you can’t just call and say I want to pick berries on Friday at 10 o’clock. Well, that’s great that you might want to, but that’ll depend on how many berries were picked on Thursday. It might take a whole day to ripen up that next set that’s on there. It’s getting people accustomed to appointments and helping them to understand that this isn’t like Giant or Acme where you go in the back, and you pull more out. When the red ones are done for the day, they’re done for the day.”
The whole strawberry season is almost done, they tell us. Meanwhile, they use social media to let people know when the next batch of strawberries has ripened. Within half an hour, they will have received 30-50 calls, and begin scheduling visits.
Next up are the blackberries and blueberries. The pair know they will continue making appointments but haven’t decided what their game plan will be. There is a lot that is still up in the air. Governor Hogan has not announced when or what or how the next phase will be. So, for now, they’re not putting too much planning into it. Of course, they can’t help but wonder what the fall season, their most successful time, will be like this year.
For now, Saathoff and Barth are grateful to all who make up the Family Affair Farm. Their own family, of course, who work the Farm and keep it operating, and the ones who have become like family returning year after year, making memories, even during a pandemic.
Family Affair Farm, 30091 Rabbit Hill Road, Easton, MD 21601, is open by appointment only. Check Facebook page for availability. Phone: 410-310-1331
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.
When word got around that three of Cambridge’s most popular restaurants closed in less than three months this past winter, townspeople people began to worry. Would Cambridge’s energetic food scene suffer?
A recent walk around downtown Cambridge has dispelled this concern. In fact, we’re glad to report that a new wave of cool places has energized the area. Katie Clendaniel, Executive Director of Cambridge Main Street, agrees. “We are marketable as a destination, and even though business come and go, the reputation stands, and we continue to build on that. We have already built a reputation as a food destination thanks to various places – Bistro Poplar, Ocean Odyssey, and even more casual establishments like Carmela’s Cucina and our dockside establishments. Also, events like Taste of Cambridge have helped launch and sustain the connection with Chesapeake Bay foodway focused on Blue Crab and now giving exposure to Snakehead Fish.”
So, if you haven’t gone to Cambridge lately, here are some places that have opened recently that you need to check out.
Ava’s and Theos
Who is not familiar with the award-winning Ava’s Pizzeria & Wine Bar or the all-American classics served by Theo’s Steakhouse? Both have been a staple in St. Michaels– Ava’s since 2008 with Theo’s opening three years later. To the delight of many fans, Ava’s in Cambridge has just celebrated their first anniversary, and Theo’s opened just last month. Says owner of both restaurants, Chris Agharabi about the decision to open in Cambridge: “First, the three restaurants that closed, had nothing to do with the town itself. What it comes down to for us is that at the end of the day there are a lot of good people who live and work there and they needed some options. Cambridge has a historic and cool downtown. Business is good and not as seasonal as in St. Michaels. We have a lot of locals who are regulars.” One regular is Elyse Camozzo from Easton, who is impressed with the friendly and pleasant atmosphere and prefers the Cambridge location. “Food is consistently good, and they have a nice wine selection. The wait staff is knowledgeable. Good service.”
Some of the crowd’s favorites at Ava’s includes their Detroit deep dish pizza, meatballs, and fresh mozzarella. As much as possible, they use fresh, locally sourced produce and make their food from scratch. This includes all the pizza dough and mozzarella. The menu is basically the same as St. Michaels, but the Cambridge location is larger and has a big event room capable of accommodating a group of 30.
With Theo’s recent opening, the menu is not as extensive, and there are a few differences from the one in St. Michaels. They are also still working on the wine list. But, according to Agharabi, he’s been pretty happy with the response from customers. “We put some money into the restaurant and have brand new equipment.” Despite their sleek and upscale environment, shorts and boat shoes are welcome.
We spoke with Anna Tiernan from Doylestown, PA, who ate at Theo’s the weekend they opened. “I had a yummy salad and the best crab cake sandwich! We had great service. This was a relaxing and really enjoyable meal.”
Ava’s: 543 Poplar St, Cambridge
Open seven days for lunch and dinner at 11:30 am
Theo’s: 305 High St, Cambridge
Dinner: Wednesday-Sunday at 4:30 pm
Happy hour daily starting at 4:30 pm
There is a reason this eatery is being included even though they are not located in the downtown area. That’s because most people we spoke to, mentioned this Indian restaurant as being one of their new favorites in Cambridge. Bombay Tadka (Tadka meaning a type of cooking technique), has been open since April 2018 and has seen a steadily growing repeat business.
Owner Rohit Shinde thinks he knows why. His customers, he says, are eager to try foods from different cultures. He describes Indian cooking as covering all six tastes that create the flavorful and complex food found on his menu: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent. Additionally, Indian cooking contains a wide range of vegetarian options such as Saag Paneer or Gobi Manchurian, as well as meat-eater favorites Chicken Tikka Masala and Lamb Chettinad.
As the ambassador of this cuisine, Shinde has been offering a weekly Sunday buffet. Last month he held an Indian Street Food Festival, bringing a varied selection to a sold-out, standing room only crowd. To assure that more people have the opportunity to experience some of their specialties, he’s extended this month’s Ganesh Festival over a three-day period. Shinde recommends keeping up with their specials on social media, particularly Facebook.
For those who think Indian food is spicy, Shinde wants to assure them that all food is cooked to order and they will accommodate any level of spiciness. Ben Lee, who works in Cambridge, agrees. “Every dish I’ve had there has been excellent. The owner is really good at recommending you a dish you’ll enjoy based off of your previous visits or tastes. Also, the paratha is to die for. It’s one of my favorite flatbreads I’ve ever had.”
Late-breaking news: Bombay Tadka is looking to open a carry-out location in Easton. Stay tuned.
Bombay Tadka: 1721 Race St.
Lunch: 11 am to 2:30 pm
Dinner: 5 pm-10 pm
Closed on Mondays
Maiden Maryland Sweets & Treats
In March, when Tammy and Tracy Lynndee opened their gift shop featuring goods made by local artists and artisans, ice cream was never part of the plan. They had an extra room at their shop and thought about selling craft sodas, and Maryland made snacks. But then a friend gave them this advice, ‘if you’re going to sell anything, you need to serve ice cream. That’s the real missing link in Cambridge.’ He was right, and their business exploded. In only the two months since they rented additional space and opened Sweets and Treats, they have sold over 1600 gallons of ice cream.
The shop sells Hershey’s ice cream, chosen after much research. “It’s a known and great product, says Tammy Lynndee, “and it allows us to keep our price point low so that we’re community-friendly. Tracy and I have been single moms, we’ve felt the pinch of having to provide for our kids. So, we didn’t want any family to feel like they have to mortgage the house to bring the kids out for ice cream.”
To serve their dairy-free customers, the pair has gone to Cream Cruisers out of Baltimore. “Through them, we get sorbet push-pops that are so good,” says Lynndee, “We have them in watermelon and strawberry-lemonade flavor. Plus, we also sell Hershey’s lemon sorbet.”
Whatever you’re craving, chances are one or more of their many flavors can satisfy. As proof, the shop is always packed with smiling customers. Lyndee thinks it’s because Cambridge has a lot to offer visitors. “Cambridge has become a destination; not just locals are coming to our town. We see people from DC, Philly, and Virginia. We have people spending a week here on their vacation from California, Colorado, and Wyoming. If you’re coming to Cambridge, you’re getting something different; you’re not getting something that you can find in any city.”
Maiden Maryland Sweets and Treats: 315 Gay Street (corner of Poplar)
Monday-Thursday noon-8 pm.
Friday & Saturday noon-9 pm.
There is a certain nostalgic atmosphere about Blue Ruin. It’s part New Orleans, part Cheers, part cocktail lounge, and part neighborhood bar. Which is precisely what owner Doug Kyle and “Head Mixologist” Paul Dendorfer hopes you take away from your visit. After all, the name Blue Ruin, refers to the nickname given to homemade (bathtub) gin during the 1920’s Prohibition. To further add to this nostalgia, Blue Ruin is currently working with a distillery to make their own blue-tinted gin.
The cocktail bar, located on the corner of Race and Gay, opened at the end of July. “There is something for everyone, we’re not just a cocktail bar,” says Dendorfer. “You could get cocktails. You could get a glass of wine, a draft beer, or a 2.50 can of beer.”
And that’s only part of what makes them so different from others in the area. Blue Ruin serves classic cocktails; mixtures that most bartenders will need to consult in their how-to guide: Rickeys, Manhattans, Old-Fashioned, and Side Cars. They also pay homage to their town with Cambridge inspired cocktails with names such as Underground Railroad and Long Wharf Punch. “And then there is stuff that I play around with,” says Dendorfer. June Cuddy, Western Shore resident and first-time visitor to the bar was enjoying one of his specials, the Cocoa’s Essence cocktail. “This drink is beyond delicious,” she said and mentioned how much she liked the overall vibe of the bar. “I’ll be back.”
Another difference worth mentioning is freshness, not typically a word associated with a bar. “We make our own fresh-squeezed grapefruit, orange, and, lime juices,” says Dendorfer. “We use all fresh local herbs. We make all our own syrups, limoncello for cocktails, and vanilla bourbon. I make my own tonic for gin and tonic. We don’t have any flavored spirits; you’re getting natural flavors going into your cocktails.”
Blue Ruin is being mentioned in this compilation of new eateries in the area because it’s about to start serving food. Not tapas says Dendeorfer, but shareable plates. “You won’t be getting an appetizer, salad, and entrée. You’ll be able to make a meal out of it, but it will be different.” Also, look for their current menu of 33 cocktails to double in size by next month. Something tells us this is just the beginning.
Blue Ruin: 400 Race Street
(Starting September 9th)
Sunday-Thursday 4 pm to midnight
Friday and Saturday 4 pm to 2 am
Friday & Saturday 11 a.m.-9 p.m.
Sundays 11 a.m.-7 p.m.
While opening dates remain far from confirmed, it is quite likely that over the next 18 months Chestertown will have four new restaurants in its historic district to call its own. After a few years of suffering the loss of several popular dining venues, including the beloved Brooks Tavern, Blue Heron, and the Lemon Leaf, a culinary renaissance is starting to take place.
The very first of this new wave will begin with the opening this spring of 98 Cannon Street, former home of the Fish Whistle and the Old Wharf restaurant, located at the town’s new marina.
As one might imagine, the Spy was beyond curious to this extraordinary explosion in culinary options. So much so that we tracked down the new owner 98 Cannon Street to understand what he and his team have planned for this iconic site on the banks of the Chester.
A financial advisor by profession, with a successful firm based in the Philadelphia area, Joe Elliott and his wife made the very deliberate decision to find a more rural environment for the couple and their three young daughters to gather on weekends. That’s what led him to Kent County a few years ago, but there was no desire to have any commercial interest in the town at all.
That started to change as Joe began to fall in love with his family’s new hometown. Going against a lifetime bias against owning businesses like restaurants, including his consistent advice to his clients to stay far away from these “opportunities,” Joe started to see a waterfront dining establishment as a personal challenge rather than a return on investment.
We caught up with Joe a few weeks ago at the Spy HQ to learn more.
This video is approximately four minutes in length. The new 98 Cannon Street design work is being done by M3 Architecture of Rock Hall
Germaine Lanaux celebrated the grand opening of Germaine’s, a carryout with a New Orleans twist, with a ribbon-cutting ceremony and serving complimentary beans and rice and corn muffins on Friday, June 15.
Germaine grew up in New Orleans, daughter of a Creole native and Baltimore transplant. She spent her childhood and youth moving between in the French Quarter of New Orleans and her father’s Tongue Oil orchard, all the time exposed to the fascinating cuisine of the Bayou and Bourbon Street.
Germaine’s is open Monday-Friday, 10-6, and serves carryout lunches and dinners from a menu that runs from her renowned gumbo to crepes.
The Spy was taken by surprise this morning when it was noted that Buzzfeed used Yelp’s Top USA list to highlight that Marlena’s Mediterranean Deli in Middletown, DE. was to become a destination restaurant. Yelp determined Marlena’s standing by using an algorithm that takes into account the number of reviews and star ratings for every new restaurant.
We are eager to hear from Spy readers if they agree with this assessment. In the meantime, you can find Marlena’s on 10 West Main Street in downtown Middletown.