World-famous for his signature cinnamon buns and a smile just as warm, Bob Spencer is a self-made maestro of pastries.
Along with business partner Gloria Teague, he’s operated Islamorada’s only full-service restaurant and bakery— Bob’s Bunz — for over 8 years. Each day finds the busy baker turning out different breads, rolls, cakes, pies, and heaping plates of comfort food like meatloaf and mashed potatoes. A professional pastry chef by training, Bob’s epicurean skills are in constant demand and his specialty wedding cakes are recognized as the cream of the crop to many a bride-to-be.
Visit him early in the morning and you’ll catch this capricious cook lording over his restaurant like a jolly king of jelly-filled delights. At 5 a.m. he’s warming the ovens; at 5:30, it’s time to bake the dough; and by 6 a.m., he’s stacking up fresh-baked goodies like a champion.
Row upon fragrant row of savory delights grace Bob’s Bunz glass display case. Wearing his trademark smile, Bob points out his three favorite treats: plate-sized, jelly-filled Danishes, glistening challah braids— and of course —the restaurant’s one-of-a-kind cinnamon buns with a recipe so secret, that Bob won’t even divulge it to his mom.
“I love the food we make here!” Bob says with a sense of accomplishment built on his 15 years of dedication to the trade. “Nobody else does it to the level that we do.”
Born in Philadelphia, young Bob spent the majority of his youth thumbing the pages of comic books and attempting to draw the likes of Superman, Batman, and the Incredible Hulk on scratch paper. Drawn to the unusual, the young artist also kept a virtual menagerie of animals with aquatic adaptations. Foregoing usual childhood conventions like the family cat and dog, he kept a basement full of lizards, frogs, snakes, and iguanas. Accordingly, this led to Bob’s childhood friends constantly asking him if they could come over and hang out in his “basement zoo.”
After graduating from high school, Bob’s artistic skills found success as a silkscreen painter for a major-market grocery store. Putting his artistic talents to use, he regularly completed signs and corporate logos used in advertising throughout the East Coast.
The journey of a cake-maker
“God gave me this ability I didn’t even know I had,” Bob says, a huge grin flashing over his face. Describing the first cake he ever baked, his hands dart in and out, pretending to measure out ingredients and stir the batter just like a beginner.
“I asked my wife at the time to help me, and she just got mad,” Bob explains. He continues “My mom wouldn’t even give her recipe.” The reason: the innocent would-be-cook wanted to enter a baking contest held by his local church, and he’d never so much as turned on an oven. The year was 1982.
So sneaking out to the grocery store, he found a box of Pillsbury cake mix and decided to go it alone. The result: a delicious cinnamon streusel cake that was promptly beat out in the competition by a pineapple upside down cake created by his best friend Michael.
From that day forward, Bob swore he’d win the competition—and the next year he actually did.
Setting to work, Bob started making cakes for fun and practice. On the heels of his recent loss, the determined sign-maker worked hard to develop his new hobby into an art. Traveling to the outer edges of Philly, Bob enrolled in cake-making classes on the weekends. Here he often found himself the only young, black man in a room full of little, white-haired, old ladies. Indeed, learning how to bake was his passion.
“I’d stay up all night making cakes and I’d give them out for free to the church. I’d literally have cakes all over my living room. My wife hated it,” Bob says with a smile.
A year later and now famous for his cake-making capabilities, Bob entered the church bake-off and easily won it.
Deciding to go full time with his new skill, Bob quit his job at the grocery store and went on to become a pastry chef.
Educated in the US and abroad, Bob’s whirlwind education included a culinary tour of Europe where he studied with the famous French Chef Wesley Wilton. Learning how to “pull sugar,” here he practiced the art of forming molten sweets into sculpture. At home, Bob’s experience encompassed a degree in Culinary Arts with a Major in Pastry at the Philadelphia Culinary School.
Moving to the Florida Keys, Bob worked his way through the island paradise, accepting a variety of skilled baking jobs from Key West to Ocean Reef before finally settling at the home-grown “Islamorada Restaurant and Bakery.” Taking over the tiny business 8 years ago, he impressed its loyal fan-base with a number of new creations including a comfort-food restaurant called “Bob’s Bunz Too” and a thriving wedding cake business.
Interestingly, Bob’s skill in forming these mountainous matrimonial delights has lately rocketed him to new heights of fame among wedding planners and brides-to-be in the Upper Keys. The most unusual cake he’s ever made—a gigantic white wedding cake with an edible octopus wrapped around it and scuba divers patrolling the frosting-framed rim. “I though it was the weirdest thing,” says Bob. “But it came out good and they really like it!”