Renato Poliafito: America's Sweetheart
Renato Poliafito is standing in his kitchen on the 14th floor of a modern apartment building in Gowanus. It’s modest but pretty fucking fierce (you can see just about the entire Manhattan skyline from any window). He’s wearing light corduroy pants, a blue checkered button-down, and sporting his signature Colt Studios mustache. He tells me that his dad was able to grow a full beard and that his brother is the same, but he cannot. “I’m definitely more my mom,” he concludes. The sentiment is dry, amusing and curiously telling. He moves about his kitchen with a smile.
Renato trepidatiously offers me a cup of coffee (he fancies me an expert- I am). To match his mustache, he fills up an 80’s-era rainbow mug with drip coffee from an automatic Cusinart coffeemaker; I start snapping photos. “I don’t know if I want the Crystal Light in the photo,” Renato pokes at a pink plastic tube on his countertop. We both laugh, but I laugh more. I’m not sure I’ve met anyone so hilariously self-aware.
Renato is co-owner of BAKED, one of New York’s most prized baking institutions (at the time of our interview, he and his business partner Matt Lewis were announced as James Beard Foundation semi-finalists in the category of “Outstanding Baker”). He has made fairly glamorous appearances alongside Martha Stewart, less glamorous ones deep inside O Magazine and countless interviews and web spots in between. Their product is truly one of the best and definitely deserves the media attention.
Before venturing into baking, Renato briefly worked in advertising, finding a strong footing as a digital designer. One gig found him as the online marketing designer for Playboy. “It was mostly women in the office,” he says. “I remember a lot of shoulder pads.” We both laughed finding the arrangement especially satisfying: women and gay men selling sex and lifestyle tips to straight men.
At a wayward 27, he questions how satisfied he would be with his career path “if the world were to blow-up” the following day. He makes the jump to café management and the rest is sweet and salty history. The missing bits of Renato’s professional journey are readily available to anyone with an Internet connection. I wanted to get a little deeper inside the man behind the brownie.
Renato is incredibly gentle and smiley and accommodating. To call him “sweet” might be the understatement of the century. He is so sweet in fact, that any tinge of sexual innuendo I had hoped to retrieve from our conversation was immediately replaced with comical and endearing anecdotes on life and love. When pressed about crude highlights from his romantic history, Renato tells me that he once slept with a celebrity. Jackpot; my ears perk like a puppy. “You know ‘The Verizon Guy,’” he says, looking up from a mixing bowl. “I don’t know where he is now, but the ‘Can you hear me now?’ guy.” I barely hear the clarifying follow up before bursting into laughter. “This was before he was ‘The Verizon Guy’, of course,” he continues. He seems nonchalant to the magnitude of this incredible revelation. “So you can imagine me after an awkward one-night stand…and then he’s on TV every 15 seconds.” After a quick visual refresher I conclude that I am either very attracted to “The Verizon Guy” or not at all.
The giggles subside and we get to talking about BAKED. Renato and his team recently opened a second location of their highly popular bakery, this time, in Tribeca. I ask Renato if he considers BAKED to be a “gay bakery.” “I like the concept of BAKED being a gay guy’s bakery,” he says with confidence. “I wish I could play that up even more, but I don’t know how…to kind of bring that element where, if a gay guy in Manhattan asks another guy gay where to get a birthday cake- it should just undoubtedly be ‘BAKED!”
As inoffensive as it seems, it appears that being a “gay bakery” causes as much adverse reaction as being a “gay anything else.” “99.9% of our photos on Instagram are just desserts; nothing truly indicating that a homosexual is involved in this…and one comment will say like ‘stupid faggots!’ or something.” The idea of being digitally gay-bashed as a grown man with a successful business is silly enough to have a good laugh, but it’s still pretty weird though.
Renato’s brand identity as a “gay bakery” doesn’t stop with appearances on Martha Stewart though. Renato mentions Coffee Grinder. Coffee Grinder was a monthly gay party and mixer held in a small specialty coffee shop in Harlem. The scene was cool, casual and diverse with a slight foodie slant. It has since ended. “I’ve always been one of those people who fantasized about a place I could go with friends of mine, that was gay and I wouldn’t be mortified asking for a cup of coffee,” Renato says in reference to his nightlife habits. “That’s why I like the concept of Coffee Grinder and I want to revive it at the new BAKED location in Tribeca. And you know, do it up and have like strippers.” By the time Coffee Grinder gets going at BAKED, the team plans to have beer and wine available to anyone who doesn’t want coffee and homemade Twix Bars. The live entertainment is just icing on the cake.
Later, I get Renato to tell me about another one-night stand. I push for details. This one starts at famed East Village sleaze bar, The Cock (in the old Avenue A location). I’m confident that this one gets dirty. Renato tells me that one night, out with friends, he was standing at the bar. He made a harmless joke about the jockstrap-clad dancer on the countertop in front of him. A handsome fellow patron overheard and interjected with a knowing laugh. Despite the loud music and the handsome stranger’s thick German accent, they can’t stop talking to each other. They leave the bar and go home together and proceed to spend the next 12 years joined at the hip. I love this story for many reasons, but mostly because it couldn’t be more indicative of the harmless, amorous and determined nature of Renato Poliafito’s disposition – like BAKED, absolutely sweet.
BY WOOD GOLDFIELD