Dorchester’s newest eatery and listening post — Sweet Life— is really a few different places in one. At the far end, near the entrance, it’s a bakery, with an assortment of pastries and pies and muffins and breads and cakes squared off and stacked high and gleaming in the bright windows facing Dorchester Avenue. In this corner, Sweet Life baristas serve up coffee and teas behind a single register counter and customers tip their own dairy and sweeteners into to-go cups by the door.
Turn right, and grab a stool at the 15-seat lunch counter. Or keep walking up the gently rising ramp— past the newly-hung collages of Baker Loft artist April Clay— to the dining room, where a mix of high-top and low-rise tables accommodate couples and families alike. Two sit directly in front of a spectacular stone hearth, perhaps the sole remnant from the space’s previous occupant, Common Ground.
Sweet Life’s predecessor — which closed abruptly in 2011— had its adherents. It featured lovely, hand-crafted woodwork, wonderful freshly made breads and jams served by men and women in hair buns, all to a looping soundtrack of fiddle music. It was a peculiar, fascinating place that — with just a smidgen of imagination— could transport diners to the set of a Peter Jackson film. Or Appalachia. Or some hybrid of the two. That same curious feature, however, made the Common Ground oddly detached from its actual surroundings— a still-quaint New England factory village that has trudged on for forty years without said factory and has become home to as diverse a community as Boston can boast.
After more than a year of renovations, Sweet Life’s owners — Kristin and Mike Ahern—re-designed and re-built the space completely. It has the feel and texture of a room that could have served workers— and perhaps the managers— who walked to the Walter Baker factory floors a century ago. A recently completed wall mural along the building’s north facing exterior on Richmond Street — expertly executed by artist Gregg Bernstein— cements that stretch-out to a horse-drawn boom-time when this far-south precinct of Boston was really chocolate city.
In just a few short months, the café and restaurant has managed to surpass its predecessor in another critical and ironic way: The Sweet Life is the common ground hang-out that Common Ground never quite was. Over there, by the fireplace, the crew-cut sporting pastor of St. Gregory’s church is having pancakes with friends between Masses; next to him, the local state rep and her four kids (and me) are trying to get through a meal without spillage or meltdown; two tables over, the mother-and-daugther team who run one of the neighborhood’s boxing gyms are having a bite with a toddler in tow. Next to them, two young Vietnamese women are being served coffees and omelettes at a tall communal table shared by an African-American couple in their Sunday finest.
The 25 people who together make and serve and package and pour the food and beverages here are led by 41 year-old Kristin Ahern, who is leasing the corner brick building from a Canton landlord.
Ahern discovered a passion for baking four years ago in an act of quiet desperation. She’d begun to spend three days a week away from her work as a graphic designer and photographer to care for her mom, who was battling a terminal illness.
“I wanted to give us something to do together, so we started baking — a lot. My mom was from Ireland, so she did Irish breads, but not much else. We learned together.”
Kristin’s mom passed away two years later, but the hours spent together experimenting with French pastries and red velvet cupcakes opened a new door for the Brighton native. Ahern, now 41, moved to Dorchester in 2000 with her future husband Mike, 47, a Dot native who owns a construction company and has partnered in two Boston-area restaurants before, including Ledge Kitchen and Drinks in Lower Mills.
But Mike’s a builder, not a chef. While he and his crew spent a year-plus toiling out of sight — windows obscured behind brown paper to keep the nosy at bay— Kristin went to culinary school in Cambridge. After 37 weeks of training, she graduated last June and was at work the next day, assembling a kitchen from scratch.
Right away, Kristin says, the couple recognized that this place would be centered around the first meal of the day.
“There really isn’t a breakfast place around here,” says Ahern, who lives near Adams Corner. “A lot of people we know go to Milton or Quincy and that didn’t make sense to us.”
They opened on Sept. 7 with a limited menu. That was by design, she allows.
“Initially we wanted to get our feet wet and see what people wanted. I wanted it to be a little more French than it is, but it became difficult.
“I gravitate towards the things you really have to take time with,” says Kristin. “But in this business you have to be able to sustain it and balance that with what people want with what we can make every day. It’s been a struggle, but I think we’re figuring it out.”
They all get their share of feedback— some good, some not. It’s bracing to hear at first, but it’s become a part of the experience now and Ahern and her senior team— including front-end manager Kevin Banker and chef Chris Jordan (both Dorchester residents)— have embraced the input and made changes accordingly.
Their more expanded, updated menu for breakfast and lunch reflects the neighborhood’s broad and somewhat traditional tastes. They are training— and taking their sweet time— to learn the art of the Irish breakfast, which is not yet on offer but will be sometime in the new year.
There’s no great urgency to it, because people are coming and returning— many of them several times a week.
“We became the local place for a lot of people within the first two or three weeks,” says Kristin. “That was surprising. I think it showed that we were really filling a void here. For a lot of people we’ve become an every day place.”
“It’s amazing to me how different everyone is. I love the diversity here and a lot of people have mentioned to me that they like that about our staff too. It just happened that way. We put an ad up and it came together. Now we’re like a family already and that’s what Mike and I really had as our goal.”
Ahern, between bouts with the blender, worrying that the coffee is just-right and assembling new Baker Chocolate-themed cakes, is still amazed at how it’s all coming together, despite the chaotic pace. On New Year’s eve, she is looking forward to New Year’s Day when Sweet Life will be closed for the holiday. But she’ll be there – with her husband – installing a new oven and testing out a new recipe for opera cake.
“It’s my way of getting the artist in me to come out,” she said.
Sweet Life is typically open every day from 7 a.m.- 6 p.m. It is located at 2243 Dorchester Ave.