In 2020, many businesses, particularly restaurants, were closing or struggling to stay afloat due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite this, Aliia Ulukbek took a risk and opened a small pastry shop on Spring Street in Princeton. Ulukbek remembers how fellow business owners thought she was “crazy to open [a restaurant] during this time.”
“I could understand that,” Ulukbek told The Daily Princetonian. “[But] it was a dream to have a bakery. So even [though] it was [during] the pandemic, we decided to open one.”
The Pastry Room, which has now been open for over two years, has survived the difficult pandemic period. It specializes in high-quality delicate pastries alongside serving coffee and tea. Popular items on the menu include 15 flavors of éclairs, almond croissants, and many different cakes. Ulukbek’s personal favorite desserts are the carrot cake and the passion fruit tart.
Originally from Kazakhstan, Ulukbek is a certified pastry chef with a diploma from The Institute of Culinary Education in New York, where she completed her training in 2015. Last year, she also traveled to Bucharest, Romania for a masterclass in eclair and choux pastry taught by chef Joakim Prat. She had been following his career trajectory for several years, and when she found out he was offering masterclasses, she told her husband she needed to go.
“I said, ‘I don’t know anything [else], I [just] have to go there,’” Ulukbek recalled.
Ulukbek’s husband responded with enthusiasm and encouraged her to take the learning opportunity, even traveling with her to Europe.
“[My husband] always believes in me,” Ulukbek said. “I couldn’t do it without his support. I’m also very thankful to my mother and father-in-law because they take care of [the] kids [and] I’m able to stay here all day.”
When The Pastry Room first opened, Ulukbek ran the shop all on her own. Business was slow, which frustrated and saddened Ulukbek.
“It was very tough. Honestly, some days, I was crying in my kitchen, because I baked a lot [and there were no customers] because of the pandemic,” said Ulukbek.
But when people visited her shop and praised her pastries, Ulukbek felt encouraged to continue baking. She explained that many of her returning customers ask her questions like, “How’s business? Are you doing okay?” and express joy on her behalf when the shop is busy. “It gives me power to continue the business,” she said.
Ulukbek reflected on how much she enjoys her work, despite its challenges.
She said, “I start at 5 a.m. and finish [at] maybe 7:00 or 8:00 p.m. Seven days a week. To do that, I think you have to really love your job. I think I’m a happy person because I love my job.”
Ulukbek also emphasized how much the quality of the pastries she bakes matters to her.
“I love all my cakes. I love to bake them, I love decorating them. I like when food looks really nice,” she said. Ulukbek explained that the pastries often have a shelf life of just 12-24 hours, as she doesn’t use preservatives. Despite this, she said she always makes the pastries fresh and doesn’t sell old pastries, despite the additional cost presented from using high quality ingredients and changing the selection.
She continued, “Of course it costs me a lot of money. But I think quality [comes] first.”
Ulukbek’s dedication to her baked goods does not go unnoticed. Seyi Jung ’24, a regular customer at The Pastry Room, said, “She really cares about the pastries. I can tell because she always comes up with new designs; she always takes care that [the pastries] look pretty.”
Jung visits The Pastry Room every week with Zander Hill ’24. By now, she has tried just about every item on the menu. Her go-to is the strawberry shortcake, but she also enjoys the crème brûlée, which is blowtorched immediately after you buy it.
“[The Pastry Room] has contributed a lot to my positive memories at Princeton. It is one of the best things about campus,” Jung said.
Hill had been looking for good tiramisu around campus when Jung recommended they try the tiramisu at The Pastry Room. They ended up really liking it and kept coming back for more. Since then, they have found a new favorite item on the menu.
“Over time, I’ve come to really love the almond croissants here. They’re probably the most filling thing on offer. If you come in the morning, you can get them right when they come out of the oven. And they’re still hot — absolutely divine,” Hill said.
Hill added, “One of my favorite things about it as a place is just how friendly Aliia is. She’ll recognize us and ask how we've been doing. It feels very nice to see that she’s still doing well and that she still remembers us even though she's definitely upscaled a bit.”
Sakrid Coffee Roasters, a local coffee shop, has an ongoing collaboration with The Pastry Room. Every day, they put out Ulukbek’s desserts for sale in their shop, and The Pastry Room gets its coffee beans from them. Amanda Troxel, the current manager of Sakrid, explained that the partnership had been started by the previous manager, Annie Isaacson, when The Pastry Room had just opened.
“[The Pastry Room] is a woman-owned business, and we thought that was really amazing. [Ulukbek] does everything herself, and we wanted to support her,” Troxel said.
Troxel’s favorite baked goods are the spinach danishes and croissants, which are also very popular among Sakrid customers.
“People are always asking when our croissants are coming in. So that is our biggest seller,” she said.
Two years later, The Pastry Room has come a long way from its pandemic beginnings. The store interior has been renovated to accommodate more sit-down customers with plans for even more expansion in the near future. Having worked by herself until just this August, Ulukbek has finally hired two new assistants in the kitchen, who are just as passionate about pastries as she is.
Ulukbek said, “My customers would laugh, because I was the baker, the cashier, and the dishwasher all in one. But now it’s good.”
Ulukbek said she still needed to hire at least two more people to work as a cashier and barista due to the high number of coffee consumers in Princeton. Although The Pastry Room does not currently deliver, she is looking to make that an option for customers soon as well. Because of growing demand, Ulukbek is opening a new location inside the Asian Food Market in Plainsboro in a couple of months.
Explaining the expansion, Ulukbek said, “I have a lot of customers in this area, who wish they [had] our pastries over there. So why not? It will take about two to three months to open the second location. But I think it's [a] sign our pastries are really good, and customers love [them].”
Vasila Mirshamsova is a Features staff writer for The Daily Princetonian. Please direct any correction requests to corrections[at]dailyprincetonian.com.