The Forest Hills visionary who has big eyes for classic American sweets and values his four decades of experience is George Stertsios. He is the founder of what has become a slice of the American Dream at 70-28 Austin Street, and a fine relatively new “mom & pop shop” addition to the diversity of Forest Hills.
Martha’s Country Bakery opened in 2007, and moved next door in June 2012, bringing it up to 2,900 square feet, with room for 70 seats, 12 pastry counters, a new coffee bar area, and a significantly larger kitchen for tasty creations.
Martha’s Country Bakery is a family-owned and operated business, which can be distinguished from other bakeries by its diverse treats and ambiance. Stertsios’ mission was to be a bit of a bakery supermarket, which then evolved to a bakery coffee shop.
“We are the only bakery where you can come in the morning to buy a danish and coffee, return in the afternoon to purchase a cappuccino and cupcake, and then return in the evening with friends and hear music,” Stertsios said.
Martha’s Country Bakery is named after Stertsios’ mother and now his daughter, who is also named Martha. Two other branches are located at 36-21 Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria, which opened in April 2004, and at 41-06 Bell Boulevard in Bayside, which opened in May 2009. In the near future, Stertsios plans on opening another branch in Manhattan.
Generations sitting side by side dominate the ambiance on any given day.
“We are a happy place where grandparents feel comfortable bringing grandkids, mothers come in with strollers, and young people bring their dates,” Stertsios said.
On an average Saturday, Martha’s serves about 2,000 or more patrons. The bakery caters to birthdays, Sweet Sixteen parties, and customizes its treats for holidays by offering challah and Irish soda bread.
Customers indeed take pride.
“This is a great place for dessert, and I enjoy everything,” said Mariam Buchman, a Forest Hills resident since 1965 and a patron since 2007. “Since there are more seats, the waiting time is not as long.”
Brenda Zuckerman of Forest Hills has been taking her children to the bakery for two years, and boasted how tasty the cupcakes, tarts, and cookies are.
Stertsios, 46, is a Douglaston resident who came to New York at age 7 from Konitsa, Greece. He grew up in the bakery business alongside his father, who operated a small bakery at 53rd Street and 9th Avenue, which was where Martha’s originated in 1972. Stertsios began working at age 12 on weekends.
“I witnessed everything from sweeping the floors and washing sheet pans, to learning how to write on cakes and design flowers for cakes,” he said.
Some of the first treats he prepared were pound cake, linzer tarts, and hamantaschen. One of his earliest recollections is the days it took to put an icing on a black and white cookie.
“My father told me to make sure the fondant was always perfect and shiny, and the chocolate part doesn’t go over the vanilla part,” Stertsios said, whose father still works at the Astoria location.
Martha’s has a recipe for success.
“As an owner, it involves 17-hour days, 7 days a week,” Stertsios said. “You need to have your own recipe, ideas, and believe in yourself. My father and I struggled for many years, and success didn’t begin until five years ago.
“Success wasn’t just handed down,” he added. “We learned what it was like to struggle. If you are willing to do everything, then you should consider opening a bakery business.”
Stertsios said the work is fulfilling.
“Nothing is more rewarding, especially on holidays, when you sell thousands and thousands of pies,” he said. “I can’t believe how we came from a tiny place to serving about 50,000 patrons during a holiday.”
In addition to having the financial vision, Stertsios visualizes the design of each cake and location, and is the unique designer.
“Everything at Martha’s goes through my hands,” he said.
He coined his style as “Country Chic,” or a warm country feel with a touch of modern. It took him a few weeks to design the Forest Hills store, and it was built in three months. Atop the wood floors sit illuminated pastry counters with gaslight-style fixtures. Traditional wood seating contrasts the whitewashed rustic brick wall with a decorative shelf with mirrors. O collectibles are nearby.
Stersios’ wife designed bakery-inspired signs with slogans like “A balanced diet is a cookie in each hand.” The coffee bar is in the back. Wood beams echo Forest Hills’ Tudor character.
“When I was younger, I would always visit Forest Hills,” said Stertsios. “Once we opened our Astoria location, I knew I could expand. There weren’t many bakeries around Forest Hills.”
It was indeed a sad note when local classics such as Jay Dee Bakery, Evelyn’s, Peter Pan, Cakeland, and Cushmans shuttered.
“Old-fashioned bakeries had a few pastry displays with no sit-down component,” said Stertsios, blaming high-rents for the lack of space. “Those who ran Jay Dee probably retired, and there wasn’t anyone young to take over and contribute ideas.
“I am most honored to be in Forest Hills because of its diversity and successful businesses, which we contribute to with our home-cooked desserts, which everyone seems to enjoy,” he added.
Most native “mom and pops” may have closed shop, but as long as Martha’s continues to enchant palettes with a resonating taste complemented by savoring aromas, our love for pastries and more is here to stay.