by Tom Robinson
Racheal Browning likes to watch from the kitchen at May’s Parlor as customers’ eyes widen and jaws drop. Her Rocky Road cruffin, a combo muffin and croissant topped with homemade marshmallows, can do the trick; so can the Knotts Island peaches ’n’ cream cruffin, or the “everything” croissant, or her triple chocolate cake.
Browning, a native of Chesapeake, brought these and many more showpiece creations, all made from scratch, to a 700-square-foot bungalow at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront in the summer of 2017. Bookended by a motel on one side and a Subway shop on the other, the European-style bakery and café offers comestible allure not found on the beach – or in much of Tidewater, for that matter.
“Everything Racheal does blows us away,” says Bill Powell, who along with his wife, Sally, visits most weekends. “It’s just perfect. We lived in Europe for a few years and we’d forgotten what an actual croissant tastes like. Hers are just like you’d find in a bakery in Paris or the French Riviera.”
Browning, 27, spent most of the past decade attending the Culinary Institute of America, baking cakes and pastries in New York, and saving about $40,000 to kick-start her childhood dream. Growing up, she would make desserts for the five-course weekend meals (complete with menus) her foodie father, Chauncey, cooked for the family.
“I’m 8 years old and all I wanted to do were crème brûlées and bananas Foster,” she says. “I always wanted to open my own bakery. I’ve never had any other passions.”
She named her place after her grandmother, May, and the peaceful, come-set-a-spell feeling that comes with the word “parlor.” And it is easy to linger there. From the pooch-friendly porch to the rich coffee smells that fill the seating area to the black fireplace and lemon-festooned wallpaper, May’s Parlor is an invitation to relax and enjoy.
Baristas, among Browning’s 13 employees, blend coffees from La Colombe in Philadelphia into art.
And regulars say Browning’s ever-interesting array of pastries, quiches, soups and sandwiches – vegan and gluten-free options included – is worth the drive and higher-end pricing.
In New York, Browning became expert in Viennoiserie, flaky, laminated pastries such as brioche buns and her signature 72-layer croissants. It is produced from yeast-leavened dough over three days of precise temperatures and timing. A couple area bakeries attempt it, she says, but none to her depth of variety and creativity.
Still, May’s menu isn’t only for discriminating foodies, especially with the beach two blocks away. “I know there are tourists and other people who aren’t as intrigued by the high-end things,” Browning says. “They just want a vanilla cupcake for their kid.”
When she returned from New York two years ago, Browning searched in vain for a place with a neighborhood vibe but settled on the tiny cottage on the tourist strip, last used as a hair salon. She, her family and friends did much of the renovation and decoration, and she hunted for used equipment, tabletops and chairs. There were bumps and delays throughout, she says, among them having to persuade contractors and zoning officials to take her seriously.
She opened in the middle of summer and gradually found a loyal and growing audience. She marked her first anniversary with a “1 Around the Sun” week of special recipes promoted tirelessly on Instagram and Facebook. Social media is Browning’s only advertising beyond hotel fliers and word of mouth.
“Somebody as talented and hard-working as Racheal, I tell everybody I know, because I want her to do well,” says Great Neck’s Beth Holt, who says she “pops in” to May’s several times a week.
Another especially vocal fan is a Virginia Beach Realtor, Bill Kolovani, who frequently posts online raves about his latest May’s discovery. “Some of the crazy stuff they come up with is just phenomenal,” says Kolovani, a former restaurateur. “The quiche, ham and cheese with baked brie, their muffins, the great coffees. And the gluten-free stuff. Not everybody can make gluten-free stuff that’s good.”
Browning says she works with fresh ingredients and European butter, which has a higher fat content than American butter. “I guess I want people to be able to taste that it took us a really long time and a lot of hard work to make what they’re eating,’’ she says.
So what would the real May think of her granddaughter now? Browning is pretty sure she knows.
Single from her mid-20s till her death seven years ago, May was strong and independent and taught her how to be the same, Browning says.
“I still keep a voicemail from her on my phone,” she says. “It just says, ‘Hi Racheal. I can’t wait for you to bake me a cake at your bakery.’ ’’