ST. PETERSBURG — Ask anyone who has visited the Le Clementine Bakeshop stall at St. Petersburg’s Saturday Morning Market and they might joke that snagging one of Paulina Gervasi’s croque monsieur croissants can feel on par with attempting to buy tickets to Hamilton.
The market opens at 9 a.m., but those in the know get there as early as 8 or 8:30. Within an hour, the line easily stretches 30 people deep, and by 10 the popular small batch bakery is completely sold out.
It should come as very good news then that starting next month Gervasi will be selling those coveted croissants from her new home inside the soon-to-open Pete’s Bagels in St. Petersburg’s Grand Central District.
Among other things, this means Gervasi won’t have to pack hundreds of croissants, brioche, morning buns and brownies into her Subaru to schlep across town, and that fans will be able to find her fresh-baked goods on a more regular basis.
“To have a hot croissant right out of the oven is just life-changing,” Gervasi said. “And I want people to try that.”
Gervasi didn’t picture herself making croissants for a living. Growing up in Orlando to Puerto Rican parents, she said she formed a love for food and for baking at an early age, but never saw herself getting into the culinary field professionally.
The 27-year-old University of Florida graduate always planned on ending up in the medical field, and was in the middle of pursuing a degree to become a physician’s assistant when she realized that a life in doctor’s offices and hospitals wasn’t really what she wanted.
What she wanted was to build a community. She wanted to work with her hands. And she wanted to bake.
“I always thought, eventually I’ll retire and maybe then I’ll open a bakery,” Gervasi said. “But yeah, things change.”
Gervasi became inspired when visiting restaurants and bakeries during the years she and her husband lived in Portland, Oregon. When they returned to St. Petersburg last year, Gervasi decided to give professional baking a go, and apprenticed at Lakeland’s popular Born & Bread Bakehouse for six months.
It was there, Gervasi said, that she learned how to perfect the art of viennoiserie, and since then the laminated and enriched doughs that form the backbone of her impossibly flaky croissants and buttery brioche have become Le Clementine’s calling card.
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Gervasi held her first event at Green Bench Brewing Company in December and followed up with several other small popups in St. Petersburg, including at Intermezzo’s Mezzo Market, Bandit Coffee Co. and the Grove Surf & Coffee in St. Pete Beach. But the business really exploded when she set up part time at the Saturday Morning Market, and Gervasi credits the time spent there for getting her where she is now.
“People there love to come talk to you and meet you,” she said. “I didn’t realize it then, but I think that was a really important step. It helped build a relationship with the community.”
The popup’s success mirrors that of many other small-batch bakers and culinary entrepreneurs across the country, whose businesses flourished during the pandemic at a time when ordering contactless and to-go was often preferable to sit-down operations. For small-business owners and independent bakers like Gervasi, the lack of overhead associated with a traditional brick-and-mortar setup also helped.
Like others in her line of work, Gervasi relies on Instagram to advertise upcoming popups, and said the local community’s affinity for the social media platform has been instrumental to her growth.
The menu Gervasi offers is seasonal, but some of her popular pastries have included “everything” croissants topped with a dollop of chive cream cheese; prosciutto- and strawberry compote-filled brioche; miso tahini croissant danish topped with roasted root vegetables and sesame seed brittle; asparagus and prosciutto croissants; and double pain au chocolate, filled with Callebaut Belgian chocolate.
Her twice-baked croque monsieur croissant is arguably her bestselling pastry, filled with thick-cut Black Forest ham sourced from Tampa’s Boozy Pig, bechamel, Gruyere cheese and grain mustard, and topped with herbes de Provence and a cornichon.
Diners can expect all of those and more when Gervasi opens up shop at Pete’s Bagels, which is slated to open in mid-July at 2361 First Ave. S. The setup will operate as a residency of sorts, where, from July to December, Gervasi will bake out of the Grand Central District bakery’s location and sell her baked goods two to three days a week (likely on the weekends, she said).
A full bagel menu from Pete’s will be offered daily, along with coffee from local roaster Made Coffee.
When the residency wraps at the end of the year, Gervasi said she’ll evaluate her next steps. Her dream is to have a small bakery of her own somewhere in St. Petersburg. Until then, fans can rest assured that she won’t stop baking anytime soon.
“There’s nothing else I would rather do,” she said.