Café & Bakery

By Katie Culligan

Many who discover Sweetbites Café and Bakery, located in the heart of McLean, call it a “hidden gem.” While flattered, owner Sandra Panetta, explains that hearing this actually breaks her heart since the brick-and-mortar location has now been open for 7.5 years. While the cheery eatery is tucked away in the shaded corner at the bottom of the INOVA medical building on Elm Street, the small but mighty kitchen makes everything from scratch on a daily basis. The bakery
proudly makes fine quality European-style pastries and wholesome prepared foods on-site in their tiny kitchen. Their coffee and espresso drinks are made with the popular Italian Illy-brand coffee beans.
Just by entering the intimate cafe, you are greeted with a bright, unique, relaxing atmosphere along with a sense of community.
Sandra mentions that an unofficial group aptly named “Breakfast Club” has built up over the years to become a regular morning tradition of a group of McLean citizens who became acquainted at
the café. They come to have lively conversations about their lives while they enjoy fresh food and coffee inside or on their outdoor patio.
Owner Sandra only formally got started in the pastry business when she began thinking about transitioning to it as a second career. With that in mind, she began a “moonlighting” catering business that featured miniature pastries that ran for close to ten years and
that helped her develop skills and her technique. “I then became intrigued by both the food truck industry that was slowly making its way across the country, and the cupcake craze that was also trending in this area.” In 2010, after retiring from a 30-year career in
environmental policy, Sandra took the plunge and opened a dessert food truck called The Sweetbitestruck to become one of the pioneers
in the DC food truck industry.

andra worked diligently over several years to make her food truck venture in DC and the surrounding VA and MD suburbs operates successfully and legally. She reflects that facing that challenge was one of the most interesting times in her life. She purchased an old mail truck online, sight unseen that was located in Illinois. She then had it driven to Texas to be outfitted
with kitchen equipment, electricity, hot running water, and storage units. She then had it driven to VA where it was wrapped with her logo and parked in her driveway. Once operational, she would park in downtown DC, pop open the window and sell cupcakes. After five years on the truck, she was ready to go stationary and although the truck isn’t operating today, she confesses that she can’t seem to part with it!
With such an undertaking, it’s helpful that both small business ownership and entrepreneurship are in her DNA.
Both her grandfather and father owned a small business: her father was a professional tailor, a skill he learned as a young apprentice in Calabria, Italy. Also,
she was inspired by her mom who is an amazing cook and has always created beautiful desserts. She still bakes all of the family’s favorites and some of her
recipes are even used at Sweetbites, such as the vanilla sponge cake is an essential component of several of the specialty cakes! Sandra also has a special place in her heart for many of the bakeries in New York City where she has traveled to on occasion to soak up new
Sandra actually grew up in Syracuse, NY where her parents settled after immigrating to the US from Italy in heir teens following World War II. Living in McLean herself, she is a single mom of two wonderful children who are now in their 20’s; one is in grad
school at Pitt and the other resides and works in Reston and is contemplating grad school soon. Many Sweetbites’ customers know Sandra’s kids because
her daughter worked in the bakery for years during the summers, along with college breaks. In addition, one summer, her son built the outdoor patio in front of
the bakery!

Sandra keeps her fingers on the pulse and truly believes that one can’t take true quality for granted. “Generally speaking, that’s not easy to achieve. People think quality stems from ingredients, and of
course in some parts it does. However, skills, technique, and experience are equally important when it comes
to creating quality desserts. Even the simplest things require the right technique. Combine that with quality sourced products, a fun environment and you have a place where people keep coming back!” As evidence of their quality, many of Sweetbites’ delicious recipes were carefully crafted and finely
tuned months before the bakery even opened.
Sweetbites’ two talented, hard-working bakers, Dana and Reggie have been with the business since its opening. Sandra is extremely appreciative of their dedication to Sweetbites over the years. She proudly states that all of her counter staff do a great job of serving as both sandwich chefs and baristas. She is also grateful for her after-school McLean High School
students who finish their day by serving the last hour of customers and then cleaning up all the mess!
Sandra really enjoys talking to everyone and getting to know the people who have become regulars. She cherishes seeing the smiles on her customer’s faces
when they look into the bakery case. She effuses, “I hope you all know how much I appreciate all your continued support through the years!”
Equally fun for her is tasting new creations from the bakers; for example, the Chocolate Mousse Crunch Bar. On that note, she confesses that the biggest challenge of her job is keeping herself from eating a second chocolate chip scone. “Every day I struggle when they come out hot and fresh from the oven!” Some of her favorite pastries include the Midnight Chocolate Cake, the Not-YourAverage Lemon Bars (made with the whole fruit!), fresh Apple Tarts, and of
course, the Chocolate Chip Scones. She has always been a huge fan of their Fudge Brownies because the flavor and texture are quite simply perfect! When asked about customer favorites, she says the hot
fresh Cinnamon Buns and Apple Galette are very popular, “so make sure to come early before they sell out!”
In summary, if you love pastries made from scratch, fresh sandwiches and salads along with true Italian coffee, then support a local business by swinging by
Sweetbites! And treat yourself to that second chocolate chip scone. They are open Monday through Friday from 7:30 am – 5:00 pm

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