DOVER-FOXCROFT, Maine — At first glance, Vail’s Custom Cakes & Icelandic Bakery is the kind of small shop you would find along a stretch of Main Street in most rural towns in Maine.
Look closer and the unassuming white brick building has features that make it all its own, like the bright blue picnic tables outside. The front windows read “Welcome to our bakery” in English on one side and Icelandic on the other, and little plush gnomes, sunflowers and toadstools fill the display. Inside, flags and nature photographs of Maine and the Nordic island nation adorn the walls.
The images are totems of baker Iris Oskarsdottir-Vail’s homeland, where she was gaining exposure in the culinary world when she met her now husband, Joel Vail, online in 2016. She immigrated to Dover-Foxcroft the following year.
Oskarsdottir-Vail’s in-laws, Charlie and Jen Vail, took a sizable risk opening a bakery during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the business is thriving in Piscataquis, a county with limited population and financial wherewithal. Vail’s Custom Cakes & Icelandic Bakery celebrated its first year of business last month.
Open four days a week from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m., there are days the shop sells out of popular items before closing time. The bakery has charmed plenty of regulars, some traveling from as far as Belfast and Lincoln for buttery croissants, fresh breads and delicacies like raspberry crumble danishes.
Clockwise, from left: A cake created by Iris Oskarsdottir-Vail of Vail’s Custom Cakes; Vail’s Custom Cakes & Icelandic Bakery at 83 E. Main St. in Dover-Foxcroft; Fresh baguettes at Vail’s Custom Cakes & Icelandic Bakery, pictured Friday. Credit: Iris Oskarsdottir-Vail and Valerie Royzman / BDN
Oskarsdottir-Vail fulfilled just under 800 custom orders in the first year, she said.
“It’s been overwhelming seeing people’s response,” she said. “Everybody is so happy and thankful that we’re here. We see many of the same faces every day or week, or every other day. It gives us a lot of hope.”
At her core, Oskarsdottir-Vail is an artist whose medium is cakes and pastries, her father-in-law said. The baker starts most days at 2:30 or 3 a.m. and works in the shop’s tiny kitchen with no dishwasher, whipping up Icelandic doughnuts, honey-pecan baklava and delights that look like they’re from a competitive baking show on TV — something different every week.
Oskarsdottir-Vail, 32, grew up on a dairy farm in Skíðadalur, a valley in northern Iceland. Her father is from Iceland, and her artist mother moved there from Norway in the 1980s. After graduating from an art program in upper secondary school, Oskarsdottir-Vail enrolled at a fine arts school. About a year in, she craved a new experience, so she crossed the country to the capital, Reykjavík.
Oskarsdottir-Vail spent four years at the Hospitality and Culinary School of Iceland, and working as an intern at different bakeries and acquiring several prestigious honors. In 2014, she was the first woman to win the Cake of the Year award from the National Association of Bakers; shops used her recipe to bake and sell the cake for Women’s Day.
Sometime during her schooling, a classmate convinced Oskarsdottir-Vail to sign up for a website where language learners go to meet potential pen pals. “I made a joke profile that said, ‘I live in Iceland, and I have a pet polar bear’,” she said, smiling. Eventually she connected with Joel Vail, and within a few months of dating online and a trip to the United States, they were engaged.
Dover-Foxcroft reminded Oskarsdottir-Vail of her homeland in some ways. The winter weather isn’t so different, and people here are down-to-earth and friendly, she said. The couple has a 2-year-old son, Kineo (yes, like Mount Kineo near Moosehead Lake).
Although she recognized job opportunities for a baker would be sparse, Oskarsdottir-Vail found her place at Spruce Mill Farm & Kitchen — until it shuttered in March 2021 during the pandemic.
Charlie and Jen Vail were hesitant about opening a new business at first, but Charlie Vail reminisced about working as a teenager at his sister’s pizzeria. He loved cooking for people, and over the years he contemplated opening a place. He was also sure of his daughter-in-law’s talents, and he wanted her to have a job that she genuinely enjoyed.
So the Vails found a location, traveled around the state to buy baking equipment and opened the shop on May 1, 2021, Oskarsdottir-Vail said.
Many treats popular in Iceland resonate with customers here, so Oskarsdottir-Vail bakes croissants — plain, chocolate and ham and Swiss cheese versions — danishes, scones and an ample variety of cookies. She makes cinnamon rolls the Icelandic way, with cinnamon sugar and cardamom, then drizzled with powdered sugar or chocolate icing.
Meat twists are another recipe from home, which she’s had to adapt because the spreadable cheese traditionally used is not available here. She fixes a version with cream cheese and diced ham, garnished with sesame and poppy seeds.
“I like the variety of it,” said Oskarsdottir-Vail, who uses the metric system to measure ingredients. “You go from cakes and teeny tiny details to lugging around flour and mixing dough and more rugged stuff.”
One of the greatest cakes that Oskarsdottir-Vail, who was crowned Maine’s Best Baker in 2019 by the Hemophilia Alliance of Maine, ever made was for a couple that had ditched the city for rural living and requested a cake in celebration of their cows getting pregnant.
Running the shop is a family effort, and it has a large following on social media, which Joel Vail manages, Charlie Vail said. He and his wife work other full-time jobs, but they come into the shop early to prepare and usually cover Saturdays. When the bakery first opened, Charlie Vail’s brother worked part time, and sometimes the Vails’ daughter Hannah helps out. The shop also employs two other women.
The bakery offers sandwiches, soups and chowders, lasagna and other meals depending on what Charlie Vail makes that week. He wants to expand the menu, but cooking and baking space is limited, as is Oskarsdottir-Vail’s capacity. The family is considering a larger space someday, but it needs to remain visible to customers and include an adequate kitchen for Oskarsdottir-Vail and perhaps an assistant.
Clockwise, from left: A cake created by Iris Oskarsdottir-Vail of Vail’s Custom Cakes; Cupcakes and honey-pecan baklava at Vail’s Custom Cakes & Icelandic Bakery, pictured Friday; Mixed berry slices with powdered sugar and cinnamon rolls at Vail’s Custom Cakes & Icelandic Bakery, pictured Friday. Credit: Iris Oskarsdottir-Vail and Valerie Royzman / BDN
Next month, the bakery will compete for the first time in Dover-Foxcroft’s annual Whoopie Pie Festival. Oskarsdottir-Vail is experimenting with offerings and wants to keep them a surprise, but she said attendees can expect classic and unique flavors — a philosophy that guides her creations at the bakery.
“It was clear from the beginning that we wanted to have a fusion, like Iceland meets America, because it’s so different,” she said. “We try to stand out a little bit.”
Visit Vail’s Custom Cakes & Icelandic Bakery at 83 E. Main St., Dover-Foxcroft. For information, call 207-802-8063, check the bakery’s Facebook page or visit the website — vailscustomcakes.com.