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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. Fresh-brewed coffee.

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 eight hours.

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.”