Ryan Ernstes/Special to Colorado Community Media
Space dinosaurs. Project 626. Murder by the Campfire.
This is not a list of the internet’s latest conspiracy theories, but rather the creations of Black Box Bakery
, a space-themed wholesale and online retail bakery located in the RiNo district of Denver. And the baked goods look just as outlandish as they sound.
Scroll through the bakery’s Instagram feed
, and you will find rainbow pastries, croissants that are apparently stranded on Mars, and alien-decorated cookies reading “You’re Out of this World” — all of which are as drool worthy as they are bizarre.
And the Earthly masterminds behind these edible creations?
Twenty-seven-year-old Arielle Israel and 24-year-old Megan Read.
Israel stands at 5’3” but carries herself with a certain defiant confidence and clarity of vision. Her reputation for croissants has earned her the nickname “The Laminator.”
She sometimes spends up to 12 hours a day on the laborious work of folding butter sheets into dough, folding it, running it through the sheeter to flatten it and repeating.
Working with dough lets Israel be aggressive, whereas Read handles the more precise aspects of production. Read’s perfection of cakes and pastries gives her the moniker “Cake Queen.” Her energetic, can-do attitude matches the bright auburn of hair.
Together, Israel and Read’s days go something like this: 2:30 p.m. to 12 a.m., pastry and croissant production; 12 - 1 a.m., packing; 1 to 3 a.m., deliveries; 3 to 11 a.m., sleep; and 11 a.m., wake up and start thinking about creating all over again.
Business takes off
Israel and Read’s creations come to life in the windowless basement of the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Denver, itself a story with intriguing origins. Just a few months after starting Black Box, Israel and Read received an email on behalf of the CEO of a large hotel conglomerate, asking them to meet in a specified location to “discuss certain opportunities.”
The exchange had all the veiled secrecy of an interaction with the mafia, Read said. But low and behold, the mystery executive was a huge fan of their croissants and wanted to help launch the business to even higher places. The exchange eventually helped Israel and Read land their current workspace in the unused banquet kitchen of the hotel.
Israel and Read’s kitchen now gives them enough space to work alongside four other employees, including Israel’s husband and partner in Black Box, Ty Webb. The team goes to work aerating butter, cutting dough into circles and bathing their pastries in egg washes, which gives the final product that delectable golden-brown hue. Sometimes the crew listens to podcasts to stay entertained. Some of their favorites include "Serial," "Stuff You Should Know" and "Behind the Bastards."
On occasion, Israel might share her other hobby with Read — watching surgeries online. As it turns out, you can witness surgeons remove a blockage of the heart on Instagram and learn to spot the difference between a ruptured spleen and an intact one. Macabre? Maybe a little. But Israel thinks the interest stems from a desire to understand how things work.
In baking, for instance, Israel must understand how each ingredient will change her final product. It was in culinary school that she first realized “the egg has this function; the sugar does this,” and so forth. Read does not share the same affinity for watching medical operations, but the two clearly have a long history of knowing each other's quirks.
The pair go back to 2015, when they began their associate’s degrees at the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Israel was 20, having just completed her mandatory two years in the Israeli army, and Read was only 18. The two partnered up for a class and it immediately became clear they made a great team.
“She does all the things that I’m not good at or don’t like, and I’m the same for her,” Read said.
For the next few years, Israel and Read worked together in classes and at restaurants on the weekends. Their connection became almost telepathic, each knowing what the other would work on without having to communicate it.
After graduating from culinary school, Israel took a job as a pastry chef in Denver. Meanwhile, Read had just completed her manager’s training at a restaurant in New York. But Israel saw the opportunities on the horizon and knew, “I need my partner.” She sent a formal job offer over to Read, and within a month, the dynamic duo was reunited.
Soon after, Israel and Read decided it was time to branch out on their own. A colleague in the industry introduced them to the concept of wholesale production: making baked goods to be bought by other cafes and restaurants. It was just what Israel and Read needed — a way to get their foot in the door without the high startup costs of running their own storefront.
Thus, Black Box Bakery was born. Their specialty? Laminated pastries: anything made through rolling and folding layers of dough and butter. If it sounds decadent and delicious, that’s because it is.
Exploring the creative possibilities
But Israel and Read had no desire to create “just another bakery.” Instead, they wanted to explore the unknown and embark on a journey of discovering what’s possible in the culinary sphere.
“It allows us to say, 'you know, we’ve never seen a blue croissant before. We’re gonna do that,'” Israel said.
And indeed, the bakery abounds with creativity and variety. Croissant varieties include strawberry, almond, Oreo, pistachio and cruffin — a cross between a cinnamon roll and a croissant.
As for the bakery’s out-of-this-world theme, Israel loves all things alien and conspiracy theory. She sees a metaphorical connection between her croissants and space, both whimsical, mysterious entities in her mind.
“People at home don’t know how croissants are made,” Israel said.
And that same principle could apply to much of space, too.
Once, after a long night of deliveries for the bakery, Read even had a firsthand experience with a UFO. In the dark, early hours of the morning, Read was driving home and spotted something in the sky that looked like a planet but was crazy bright. She immediately called Israel to describe what she was seeing.
“All of a sudden it zoomed across the sky,” said Read emphatically, using her hands to mimic the quick trajectory of the unidentified object. She told Israel, “Bro, I think I just saw a UFO.”
Paranormal or not, Israel and Read seem to draw inspiration from particular formative memories.
Like the first time Read tried a croissant in France. She entered a random bakery, stopped to pick up a croissant, and was walking to the subway when she took her first bite. It literally stopped her in her tracks. The sweet, grassy taste of the butter was like nothing she had ever tried before. Read wants this to be the visceral experience all people have when they taste Black Box’s goods.
Much of Israel’s inspiration is rooted in personal experiences too. Growing up, she would spend summers with her grandparents in France. Each day, Israel would stand in line for fresh baguettes and croissants — even if they still had leftover baked goods at home from the day before.
And at her childhood home in Israel, Friday nights were dedicated to food too. Israel would make challah bread, always met with constructive criticism driving her to be better.
“Too dense, could be better,” her family members would coach her.
Those memories stick with her. And now, Israel and Read long to produce baked goods that transport people to cherished memories of their own.
Storefront on the horizon
Back in the kitchen, the clock has struck 2:30 p.m., which means production has begun. Occasionally, Israel and Read chatter with the team as they work. Other times they seem overcome by a quiet, determined focus, despite performing the same repetitive tasks they do day in day out.
It is clear the two take great pride in their work.
“They have a standard and will have that standard met no matter what. And if it isn't met it doesn't go on the plate,” said Blake Ritenour, close friend and former employee.
That standard is producing results. Due to their success, Israel and Read look forward to opening their first storefront bakery in late summer or fall of this year. It’s a space in the Edgewater Public Market, a hip food hall in west-central Denver.
“It’s a dream,” Israel said. “Everyone wants to see their products and get that feedback” from their customers.
Despite their impressive accomplishments at a young age, Israel and Read are not pumping the brakes anytime soon. They are already dreaming about owning a restaurant, a hospitality group, a desert bar and a diner. They excitedly blurt out ideas, feeding off one another's infectious enthusiasm.
On reflection, “I can see this getting, not out of hand, but...out of hand,” Read said, laughing.