For the month of February The Heights will be highlighting Black-owned restaurants and businesses throughout Boston.
With an urban charm, the French Press Bakery & Cafe in Needham Center looks both chic and delicious. The minimalist furniture, limited decorations, and neutral color palette add a modern flair and energy to the center. Pristinely organized pastries and baked goods line the shelves of the French Press dessert case.
The warm scents of its house-made breads and freshly brewed artisan coffee create the stable and homey, yet simultaneously energized atmosphere that we’d hope to expect at any French-inspired cafe.
But, French Press is not your typical coffee shop. Jay Spencer opened French Press in 2015 with the intention of bringing the “French bistro” to the suburbs of Boston.
In typical “bistro” fashion, French Press serves everything from traditional croissants, macarons, and coffee to fried chicken sandwiches, empanadas, and imported wines.
Spencer — who has degrees in mechanical engineering from Case Western Reserve University, mathematics from the University of Edinburgh, and business administration from the University of Michigan—spent much of his early career traveling the world, which motivated him to find a way to meld the styles of New York City, London, and Paris with affordable eating to create his bistro.
“Having a technical background, you know whether or not something is right, and a French cafe slash patisserie was the right thing to do,” Spencer said.
While traveling in Europe, Spencer said he would frequently stop at places like French Press, which inspired him to bring that same welcoming, social atmosphere—paired with high-quality food and drinks—to Boston.
“Our goal is to have the highest customer service possible and also have delights that not only look good, but also taste good,” Spencer said.
Spencer said he prides himself on serving food with local and fresh ingredients without trans fats or high-fructose corn syrup and makes everything he can in-house at French Press. When he can’t make a certain ingredient, Spencer said he imports it from the source.
The bistro’s famous chocolate croissants are filled with chocolate that Spencer imports from France. He said he believes in staying true to tradition when it comes to cooking authentic Italian, Spanish, or French cuisines at French Press.
Spencer said that he enjoys exploring new creative flavor combinations with his team and experimenting at French Press by frequently offering specialty desserts or various weekly dinner specials. French Press has always presented exclusive holiday menus, such as its most recent Valentine’s Day menu featuring a red velvet heart gâteau.
Spencer said that having such a talented and creative team, both in the kitchen and the bakery, has been especially helpful during the pandemic when people aren’t going out as much as they used to.
“We try to do combinations that are interesting and unique to us,” Spencer said. “Our goal is to put out different items, sometimes weekly or a quick pop-up. We do a wide variety and that’s what keeps people coming back.”
Two of the most recent specials at French Press were a rose-flavored pastry, titled “La Vie en Rose” by Spencer, and a raspberry lychee rose le gâteau macaron for Valentine’s Day.
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Spencer has been invested in making French Press more technology-focused with changes such as an order-ahead app called French Press Bakery & Cafe with scheduled meal pick-ups.
Spencer has added “Fried Chicken Friday” to the French Press schedule, which he said sells out almost every week, and a donut pop-up every Tuesday featuring a different set of flavors weekly.
French Press has featured over 50 different donut flavors ranging anywhere from the classic Boston cream to more unique options like blueberry cheesecake or red velvet.
“It keeps us relevant,” Spencer said. “Everybody’s looking forward to what’s coming to the donut store this week, so you have a built-in loyalty base by doing things like that.”
Spencer said that thinking creatively has helped him and the rest of the French Press staff expand the products they offer and broaden their customer base.
Despite having professional training from the French Culinary Institute in New York, Spencer said that his grandmother, who cooked for him throughout his childhood, is still one of his biggest inspirations and reasons why he fell in love with French cuisine.
“She would cook everything from salmon croquettes to her own traditional french fries to chocolate bonbons,” Spencer said. “I cherish the time I had with her and the things she taught me and the inspiration she gave me to go out and try different things.” Spencer said he is proud of his “melting pot” heritage and is grateful for the different perspectives it gives him when creating new dishes.
“Growing up in my household, you’d be able to get different cuisines ranging from Asian to European to American to traditional Black cuisine, so I feel advantaged from being able to have that view and that different flavor profile,” Spencer said.
Spencer said he enjoys being able to put a soul food perspective on traditional French recipes as a way to celebrate his Black culture.
Looking at the future of French Press, Spencer said he wants to add an espresso bar to the bakery space and expand its wholesale business to share its fresh artisan ingredients with members of the Boston community.
For adventurous eaters who are missing travel amid the pandemic, French Press might just satisfy their cravings. Located at 74 Chapel St. in Needham, Mass., French Press is open Monday through Saturday from 7:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. and Sundays from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought a whole new set of challenges to the already difficult task of owning a restaurant, but Spencer said that the faith he has in his concept and the support of those around him has helped him stay motivated.
“You are the best advocate for whatever you want to do … if you believe in yourself then don’t let anybody put you in a box and tell you you can’t because it’s not something you traditionally do,” Spencer said. “You control your fate. You control your destiny. If you put in the hard work and you understand what needs to be done to get there, then you can succeed.”
Featured Image by Francesca Giangiulio / Heights Staff