Food Matters: What’s old is new again at Louis’ Swiss Pastry
Tradition rolls toward a new era of bread, baked goods, and worldly fare at Louis’ Swiss Pastry
On Saturday morning, Rene Tornare is in his happy place. Wielding a large, sizzling skillet as if an extension of his own arm, Tornare slides over-easy eggs onto piles of crispy hash browns on paper plates set around a café table. The evergreen-shaded clearing to the side of Louis’ Swiss Pastry in the Aspen Business Center is a new addition to the almost 40-year-old business — “a place for space” since the pandemic.
Yet today it welcomes a tradition that has lasted Tornare’s entire lifetime: family breakfast.
“Our parents did this for us, we carried it on,” says Rene, who brought the family bakery from Switzerland to Aspen in 1982 and ran it until younger brother Felix took over in 1997. Now in real estate, Rene has always been around to help, especially on holidays and weekends: “Saturday was the time that Felix had more time to sit down and talk (business).”
This morning, the brothers’ discussion is light; Rene narrates a family recipe (see sidebar) among old friends, including off-duty 35-year employee Germaine Wachter and Felix’s wife, Sarah. One week ago, the Tornares sold the business to longtime locals, chef Andrew Helsley and philanthropist Jill Soffer.
“It came from Switzerland: My mom would always cook us breakfast and lunch,” says Felix Tornare, the second-generation baker who recently sold Louis’ Swiss Pastry (named for his father) on Aug. 1. Though it’s never been a menu item here, the crispy shredded potatoes prepared by older brother Rene are a special treat for friends and family who gather at the bakery on Saturdays.
Here, Rene Tornare shares his method:
“(Use) Yellow Yukons, they have a lot more starch, so they stay very moist,” Tornare begins. “Boil them the night before, until they’re really soft. Refrigerate overnight. Shred potatoes while still cold. You can’t shred them (when) hot — they turn into mush. Put a bunch of butter in the (hot) pan, then re-crisp them (until) they get crust. It’s a Swiss thing!”
“I had to ask the boss if it was OK that we make breakfast,” quips Felix, who, as landlord, retains keys to the building. “(Helsley) would be here if he wasn’t working at the farmers’ market.” He pauses to ponder the significance of selling his company. “I can’t just take loaves of bread home anymore. I gotta ask!”
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The Longevity Project is an annual campaign to help educate readers about what it takes to live a long, fulfilling life in our valley. This year Kevin shares his story of hope and celebration of life with his presentation Cracked, Not Broken as we explore the critical and relevant topic of mental health.
Steeped in European tradition, Louis’ Swiss Pastry is the largest wholesale/retail bakery on the Western Slope, serving more than 120 wholesale accounts in Aspen to Glenwood Springs, Silt and the North Fork Valley. The 3,5000-square-foot AABC production facility pumps out a golden sea of baked goods: more than 30 kinds of pastries and many kinds of bread and rolls, cakes, cupcakes, cookies, pies, tarts, doughnuts, cronuts, bagels, substantial breakfast burritos, sandwiches and panini for breakfast and lunch, and hot items such as Chicago deep-dish pizza (Wednesday), roasted chicken (typically available Thursday/Friday, or order anytime), and grilled burgers on Friday (see sidebar).
Custom orders are constant, for wedding cakes decorated with fresh fruit and flowers to holiday confections such as the infamous Yule logs. European touches abound: Flaky strudel made with organic Paonia apples and soft pretzels, a Felix favorite since childhood. (Customers may even order dough to boil and bake pretzels at home.)
The bakery operates around the clock. Bakers begin work at 5 p.m. for the next morning; deliveries head out at 4 a.m. For the Aspen Saturday Market, “We filled up about 10 of those speed racks with pastries,” Tornare says. “There they sell probably double what we sell here (at the bakery) on a busy day. The month of July is $10,000 to $12,000 — hundreds and hundreds of $4 to $5 pastries.”
The coffee counter that welcomes a line every morning began essentially by accident. Tornare went to collect payment from a Basalt account that had closed; he returned instead with the restaurant’s espresso machine.
While Louis’ Swiss Pastry has weathered major dips over the years (9/11; the 2007-08 economic crisis; coronavirus), Tornare is happy to leave on a high note.
“Our local business here has doubled or tripled since COVID,” he says. Wholesale used to account for 90% of Louis’ Swiss business. “Now it’s probably approaching 60% retail,” thanks to the beverage bar, a new takeout window, ramped up social media presence, and a slew of Mexican- and South American-inspired items (bacon-wrapped jalapeño poppers, tacos, tamales, empanadas, pupusas, and salsas) prepared by the diverse 16-person staff.
The mulched outdoor seating oasis, meanwhile, is slowly being discovered by regular patrons.
On weekdays, the bakery sees a stream of painters, plumbers, builders, mechanics, AABC office workers, and Aspenites fleeing gridlock. Saturdays bring hikers and bikers (or skiers, in winter), weekend travelers, and North 40 families. First responders are frequent customers. “Today there’s a marathon, so (crowds) were here at 5 a.m.,” Felix shares.
While the Tornare brothers and friends gather on Saturday, friend Jason “Fuzzy” Harvey stops by, giant beef empanada in hand.
“This is the best place for us locals to get decent food without having to go into Aspen,” says Harvey, on break from the Aspen Motorsports Park in Woody Creek. “I’ll make long trips to Hotchkiss and back or go to Denver. You’re open at 4:30 (a.m.), so I can come hit this place up and get my coffee and (breakfast). Everything else opens at 7!”
Harvey’s empanada is stuffed with savory ground beef from a grass-grazing herd at Milagro Ranch, founded by Sarah and Felix Tornare in 1998 in Missouri Heights. “We like to say it’s called Milagro Ranch because it was a freaking miracle that we were able to buy (the land),” Sarah jokes. The recent bakery sale will fund new regenerative practices at Milagro Ranch.
Back when Tornare butchered 200 head of cattle per year, Milagro Ranch produced all of the beef for Aspen Skiing Co. properties, including The Little Nell and Ajax Tavern. Now, because of droughts, development, and, well, growing the bakery amid crises, that number has dropped to 15. (Skico has a different beef partnership now.) As Skico’s outgoing executive chef of mountain dining operations after nearly a decade, Helsley has run many restaurants supplied for years by Louis’ Swiss Pastry.
“He knows most of my people, all the restaurants, all the chefs,” Tornare explains. Helsley’s interest in specialty bread baking, as well as his appointment of a new employee, veteran hotel pastry chef Amanda Johansen, will bear new offerings: more gluten-free goods and wedding cakes. A new stone-hearth bread oven will turn out artisanal loaves including sourdough.
“We wanted to find someone who would keep running it as a local spot,” Tornare continues. “I’m so happy it’s going to continue — and probably get even better! It’s a perfect takeover.”
A 20-year valley resident, Helsley is thrilled to carry the torch. “The best part about it, for me, is that I don’t have to change anything tomorrow,” he says. “I have a lot of respect for the staff, who have been here 15, 20 years. There’s tradition layered upon tradition layered upon tradition. I’ve only been here a week and I’ve already started to see the same faces.”
A vintage sign that lights up at night reminds a visitor that what’s old is new again (and again) at Louis’ Swiss Pastry: Bäckerei Tornare Konditorei, the marquee that once hung over the family’s bakery and pastry shop in Switzerland.
When the 2007-08 financial crisis hit, Felix Tornare got the urge to grill. As owner of Louis’ Swiss Pastry, Tornare sought a fresh reason for customers to visit his family bakery in the Aspen Business Center. He also wanted to sell more grass-fed beef from Milagro Ranch in Missouri Heights, which he built from the ground up with his wife, Sarah, beginning in 1998.
“We had beef, we had bread,” Tornare recalls. “So we did Burger Friday at the bakery, and people started flocking in.”
Now 14 years later, Burger Friday at Louis’ Swiss Pastry remains a weekly tradition that attracts lunch-goers from near and far — workers hungry for a hearty meal and residents looking to escape downtown Aspen, especially. Laborers arrive by the truckful, and many companies “order huge amounts of burgers for their crews” by phone for pickup, Tornare says.
Served on a fluffy egg bun, each $10 burger is grilled to order (rare, medium, well) and piled with a choice of toppings (cheese, condiments, lettuce, tomato, onion, pickle, jalapeño; add extra-crispy bacon or a fried egg for an extra buck.) New owner chef Andrew Helsley clocks output at up to 200 per Friday.
Louis’ Swiss Pastry
Open Mon-Fri, 5 a.m.-3 p.m.
Sat 5 a.m.-1 p.m.
Milagro Ranch Burger Friday
11 a.m.-2 p.m.
400 Aspen Airport Business Center
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The Aspen Filmfest program, which opens Tuesday night with the Jessica Chastain-led drama “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” is a tribute to the founder, Ellen Kohner Hunt. The festival will also recognize the memory of Hunt with “Ellenfest” on Thursday.