Patrick O’Neill loads fresh bread onto the shelves.
Story and photos courtesy of
Signature Brandywine Magazine.
The aromas wafting around The Big Sky Bread Bakery and Cafe
in Brandywine Hundred make you think you’ve wandered into a
Norman Rockwell painting. Oven-crisp breads. Bubbling soups.
The names on orders at this artisanal bakery read like a who’s
who in Delaware, and the lunch crowd looks like a J.Crew catalog
come to life. But a van also pulls up every evening to take
60 to 100 pounds of owner Patrick O’Neill’s handcrafted breads
to some of Delaware’s poorest citizens.
“We pick up at least two very large bags of big, crusty breads
every night,” Nathalie Thomas, food service manager at the Sunday
Breakfast Mission in Wilmington. “They don’t save it for the
next day like some places. The make it fresh every day, so he
gives it to us.”
O’Neill, a Culinary Institute of America grad, was a personal
chef on mega-millionaire Meshulam Riklis’ jet when Riklis, 54,
was married to actress Pia Zadora, 23. It was more adventure
than job. He met DiMaggio and Merv, and he plated his veal and
peppers for Sinatra.
After stints at Winterthur, Kennedy Center, Longwood Gardens
and a St. Thomas resort, O’Neill opened Big Sky Bread about
11 years ago with an emphasis on health.
At first, the European breads he loved from his childhood in
the Woodside section of Queens were the centerpiece of his business,
flanked by other handmade loaves with names like Alpine Whole
Wheat Sunflower. Then, bread was blacklisted.
Late in 2004, the NPD Group, a market research firm, reported
that 9 percent of Americans polled were on a low-card diet.
It was a problem of jumbo proportions for bakeries, even those
whose fat-free products do double duty as health food.
“Most Americans newer finish a diet book,” O’Neill says with
a smile. “If you read the South Beach and other diet books,
they say to eat healthy grains. They never read that part. They
read ‘no carbs,’ and that’s the end of it. The Atkins diet changed
my business a lot. It cost me about 40 percent of my bread business.”
Big Sky successfully retooled itself as a bakery with a café.
Healthy comfort food. Turkeys roasted daily. Chicken salad that
starts with Purdue breast meat. Potato chips made in-house.
Four to six soups du jour. Sandwiches served with chips, fruit
or sweet California carrot sticks. And, for kids, upscale peanut
butter and preserves that are a perennial winner in the International
Fancy Food and Confection Show.
O’Neill especially likes it when parents tell him their children
ask for bread instead of sweets at snack time.
Mark Soja of Brandywine Hundred, a self-described foodie whose
hobby is cooking, has been buying bread at Big Sky since it
opened. “The breads are whole-grain. Their Italian peasant is
very crusty on the outside with an airy, chewy center,” he said.
“They do a great job with the breads, and the granola is great.
I like the fact that they use whole almonds in the granola.”
Granola is one of Big Sky’s most popular products. One customer
buys 25 pounds of Big Sky granola at a clip, and eats it for
breakfast daily. O’Neill has photos of American soldiers eating
it in Iraq.
Bog Sky products are shortcut-free, with no chemicals or hydrogenated
oil. Customers note the brevity of ingredients on its labels.
The one on the Italian peasant bread reads: “Flour, water, salt
and yeast.” The flour is stone-ground at a Montana mill.
O’Neill says he does with ingredients, mixing, temperature and
fermentation what mega-bakeries do with oil and chemicals. It
takes a staff off 11. His Italian peasant bread ferments for
For Big Sky’s owner, the best part of his business is working
with his hands – and handing the product over to a happy customer.
“You can feel something and know it’s right,” O’Neill says.
“It’s very satisfying.”