Cooking from the Heart: Meet the Power Couple Behind De La Coeur Café

For Wilmington restaurateurs Gretchen and Alex Sianni, success comes one day—and batch of homemade bread—at a time.


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Gretchen and Alex Sianni opened De La Coeur two years ago when they took over the space of the former Fresh Thymes Café.//Photo by Leslie Barbaro

 

At 5:30 a.m., all is quiet in the Forty Acres neighborhood of Wilmington as the dew begins to gather on car windows. The city is asleep. Homes are dark, except for porch lights. On the corner of Lovering Avenue and North Lincoln Street, three steps lead to a doorway under a black awning. A dim light leaks out of the bay windows. Inside, a chef is chopping potatoes and acorn squash for breakfast.

This is De La Coeur Café et Pâtisserie, the popular French-inspired bistro specializing in freshly baked bread, crepes, pastries and other baked goods that are, to put it bluntly, second to none. The Pâtisserie is still something of a hidden gem in Wilmington’s restaurant scene: It is located in a residential neighborhood, tucked away from the bustle of Trolley Square, Little Italy and downtown. This is certainly part of the appeal. The space feels cozy and intimate. Its small dining room only has room for half a dozen or so tables. Less than 10 feet away, on the other side of the counter, the open kitchen is a flurry of activity.

In just two years, owners Gretchen and Alex Sianni have built a singular reputation for De La Coeur and have achieved success that many restaurateurs strive for but never achieve. Now they’re hoping to replicate that success.

Four miles north in Talleyville is its sister restaurant, De La Coeur Café et Boulangerie. Gretchen and Alex have been here since 4 a.m. Gretchen is mixing dough for snickerdoodles. Alex is at a cutting board, knife in hand, shaving an 11-pound block of Belgian dark chocolate. Down the line is Adam, an acclaimed baker, working lumps of dough into baguettes—cutting, kneading, pinching, rolling and placing onto racks. Fresh out of the oven, several pans of croissants, cookies, scones, muffins and hand pies sit cooling on the counter. The room smells delicious.

To understand what makes De La Coeur so popular among its patrons, you need to start with the name itself: From the Heart.

“Everything comes from the heart,” Gretchen says amid the cacophony of mixers, timers, buzzers, the hum of refrigerators and classic rock. “Take your passion and turn it into something big and beautiful.”

So that’s what they did. Now they’re in the thick of it, driven by bold ambition through long days that are exhausting yet exhilarating. Every day is a race against time. The doors of both restaurants open in 90 minutes. Yesterday they prepared just over 200 pastries and sold out before closing at 3 p.m. “We sell out almost every day,” says Alex. They’ll also need to bake about 100 loaves of bread for sandwiches and retail orders.

Just a few minutes before opening, Alex loads boxes of pastries into his car for delivery to the pâtisserie. They will need more to get the pâtisserie through the day. He prefers to make only one trip with both bread and pastries, but it didn’t work out that way this morning.

It is going to be a long day.

De La Coeur wasn’t supposed to be their first restaurant. By 2015, Gretchen had drawn up business plans for a brewpub specializing in hard cider, which at the time would have been the first in Delaware. The corner of Lovering and Lincoln was occupied by Fresh Thymes Café, owned and operated since 2009 by mother-daughter team Jane and Jenn Adams.

Gretchen and Alex had been dating for only a few months. She was a barista at the Brew HaHa! coffee shop in Trolley Square when it was still next to Moore Brothers, where Alex had spent the previous half-decade specializing in fine wines. They hit it off one morning when Alex dropped in for a coffee. He was back for another coffee at lunch, then another later on. He started drinking a lot of coffee.

“Gretchen always wanted to have a café,” Alex recalls. So when Fresh Thymes announced it would be closing in September 2015, they jumped at the opportunity. “It was the perfect space.”


RELATED: See snapshots from Gretchen and Alex's New Year's Eve wedding on our sister site, Delaware/Main Line Bride


The Siannis hope to replicate the success of De La Coeur with a second restaurant in Talleyville.//Photo by Leslie Barbaro

Alex kept his day job for the first year to help keep them afloat while Gretchen perfected the cuisine. “I try to keep it simple,” she says. “We don’t want to go fancy. We’re not trying to do big-plated craziness. We’re just trying to make food that we would want to eat when we go out.”

Alex arrives at the pâtisserie just as it opens for business, then drops off the first delivery of bread and pastries. Customers begin to trickle in, some just for a coffee and a pastry before work, others to stay for a full breakfast. A melodious classical guitar plays over the speakers, filling the space with a European ambiance. A couple grab a table outside. The outdoor seating invokes French sidewalk dining, with tables and bistro chairs lining the perimeter of the restaurant.

The pace gradually picks up throughout the day. Both restaurants get their first rush of lunch customers around 11:30 a.m. At the pâtisserie, business is a little slow for a Monday. Meanwhile, at the boulangerie, the dining room is bustling. Alex hustles from table to table, greeting customers and clearing plates. A few seconds later, he is behind the counter. Shelves that this morning were filled with freshly baked bread—baguettes, brioche rolls and honey wheat loaves—now sit nearly empty. They sold out of baguettes. A few minutes later, Alex is back in the kitchen, drying dishes and prepping for the next wave of customers. Gretchen has pushed her baking materials off to the side and is now pan-frying chicken cutlets.

An old friend stops in for lunch. Ryan Marchetta has known Alex for more than 10 years, and if there is anyone who knows good food, it’s Marchetta. “There’s nothing like De La Coeur,” he says. “They took it to another level.”

Marchetta got his start in the kitchen at the Hotel du Pont, moved on to become executive chef at Eclipse Bistro, then sous chef at DuPont Country Club. He knows how difficult the restaurant business can be. Your heart has to be in it to succeed. “It’s hard work, but when it’s yours, you make it work. You’re going to do those things you feel good about as a chef and an artist, and you take those extra steps to impress the customer because you feel good about it and you know it translates. People appreciate that.”

By 2 p.m. the pace begins to slow as the restaurants gradually empty out. Dishes are piling up in the back, so everyone pitches in to wash them whenever a free minute presents itself. On a random Monday in October, Wilmington just gave the boulangerie its busiest day since opening for business two weeks ago.

Their expansion at the boulangerie wasn’t in the original business plan.

In 2014, Mickey Donatello, owner of Lucky’s Coffee Shop and Corner Bistro, purchased Bon Appetit from Louisette and Jacques Amblard, who had owned and operated the restaurant for 28 years. Donatello kept the name, streamlined the menu and updated the interior. Three years later, he started looking for a buyer. The restaurant was doing well, but he had other interests.

“We weren’t in any hurry to sell it,” Donatello says. “We were waiting for the right people to come along.” He was in the pâtisserie having lunch one day when he thought to himself, “These people are doing it right. Maybe they’ll be interested.” So he asked if the owners were around. Gretchen came out to the table and he offered to sell Bon Appetit.

“During our first few meetings, we would just sit for hours and talk about food,” Donatello says. “If you want real, baked, fresh, handmade, artisanal pastries, breads, desserts, De La Coeur is where you go.”

The Siannis took over Bon Appetit in August, just two months before the second anniversary of the grand opening of the pâtisserie. A few weeks later, they changed the name, revamped the menu and started baking everything in-house.

Alex recalls an interaction during their first weekend at the boulangerie, when some customers walked up to the front door and said, “That’s interesting. Looks like everything is the same except for the name.”

“I overheard them say that, and I just couldn’t help but chime in,” Alex says. “Nothing is the same! Everything is different!”

The last customers trickle out of the boulangerie just a few minutes before closing at 4 p.m., and the staff have left. Gretchen and Alex have poured their hearts into De La Coeur, putting in long hours seven days a week.

“I’ve never been more excited about anything,” Alex says of opening the boulangerie. “This is our life. This is what Gretchen and I are now committed to.”

Gretchen heads home to get started on some paperwork. Alex pulls an all-nighter replacing the drywall in the kitchen.

The drywall is up and painted just in time for the restaurant to open the next morning. Gretchen and AJ arrive at 4 a.m. and start baking. And as he does every day, Alex delivers their baked goods to the pâtisserie by 7 a.m. Then he heads home and manages to catch a few hours of sleep.

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