Spotlight: Starter Bakery
Queen-a what? That’s a typical question on our Oakland Temescal Tastes Food Tour when guests first encounter the decadent deliciousness that is the kouign-amann, a round pastry similar to a croissant that’s made with salted, European-style butter and boasts a crispy, caramelized crown of sugar.
The kouign-amann hails from the northern coastal French province of Brittany. Its name, (pronounced kween ah-MON), comes from the words for butter and cake in Breton, a Celtic language related to Gaelic not French. It’s a tasty, texture-rich treat: a crunchy, flaky, folded package that’s a little sweet and a little salty.
Starter Bakery teamed up with Edible Excursions in 2013, when our Temescal tour began. The wholesale bakery, owned by pastry chef Brian Wood, kicked off the kouign-amann trend in the East Bay in 2010.
The kouign-amann might be Starter’s signature pastry, but the business is also known for its croissants, quiches, scones, cookies, and breads. For the first five years of our Temescal tour, when Juhu Beach Club (RIP) was open and a partner, Starter did double duty on tour. The bakery customized squishy white buns, in consultation with chef Preeti Mistry, to create an ideal carrier for JBC’s spicy pavs (think Indian-ish sliders).
Last summer, Wood moved Starter from cramped quarters in Emeryville to new digs in West Berkeley, a 13,000-square-foot facility that formerly housed Pyramid Alehouse. Starter shares the former brewery with Ripple (the pea-based milk company), Blue Bottle Coffee, and a Tesla service center.
Starter Bakery, with a staff of 60, keeps long hours: the business, open seven days, only goes dark between 3 am and 5 am. The bakery, which occupies the space that once housed Pyramid’s massive brew tanks, boasts high ceilings and a modern, industrial feel; there are separate, spacious stations for dough mixing, pastry proofing, and bread making, along with a large walk-in refrigerator filled with doughs.
The lamination room is where Starter’s best-selling baked goods, including croissants, kouign-amann, and Danish pastries are made. Laminated pastries consist of many thin layers of dough separated by butter that are repeatedly rolled and folded by hand. The labor-intensive technique uses a ton of butter and sugar.
The bakery is decked out with state-of-the-art equipment designed for efficiency and to ease the physical toll on employees, who stand all day in their jobs. For instance, there’s an industrial-size dishwashing machine that can wash three dozen sheet pans at once. Starter has 900 sheet pans; in the past, dishwashers cleaned them all by hand. Even baking racks can go inside the washer.
There’s also a massive spiral mixer, imported from Italy, which can handle 400 to 500 pounds of dough at a time. Brian is all about balancing when to defer to machines and when to draw on human touch. He says he’s made a point of investing in equipment like a floor cleaner—mopping flour from floors is an ongoing task in any bakery—as a way to invest in the health of his employees. That said, this is still a hands-on operation: On a recent tour Starter’s crew could be seen measuring ingredients, cutting and rolling dough, shaping torpedo buns, adding strips of dark chocolate to croissants, and finishing off pastries before proofing.
Starter Bakery runs four weekly farmers market stands (Temescal, Grand Lake, Montclair, and San Ramon) and its pastries are available at dozens of cafes around the Bay Area including Philz Coffee, Illy, Coffee Shop, and Modern Coffee. Starter delivers baked goods as far north as San Rafael, as far south as Los Gatos, and as far east as Concord, in addition to doing robust business in Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco. Starter’s baked goods can also be found in stores such as Gus’s Markets, Mollie Stone’s Markets, and Amazon Go.
Since landing his new location for the business, Brian says he’s had more bandwidth to update existing recipes and experiment with potential new products too. On a recent visit, a newly tweaked version of the bakery’s banana bread was being poured into individual serving sizes. Brian also has plans to boost his bread-making production, which currently accounts for a small proportion of sales. Starter makes bread such as baguettes, pan de mie, and focaccia, along with seasonal favorites such as pannetone and stollen.
Brian has always been a hit when talking shop on a Sunday morning farmers market stop on the Temescal tour. He offers the kind of thoughtful, precise, and in-depth explanations about baking one might expect from someone who has extensive experience in the industry, formerly ran the pastry program at the San Francisco Baking Institute, and wrote a textbook on baking and pastry production.
The final stop on a spin through the bakery with Brian is a welcome addition for Starter fans: An 800-square-foot retail cafe at the front of the building at 901 Gilman Street. Currently under construction, Brian hopes to open its doors to the public later this year; customers will be able to order their coffee of choice along with a twice-baked almond croissant.
In his own understated way, it’s clear Brian is jazzed about the opportunity to finally have a storefront to call his own. A stickler for quality control and freshness—crucial to any successful pastry program—he’s eager to sell croissants and kouign-amann to customers straight out of the oven, when they’re at their flaky, buttery, warm and tender best. We look forward to that too.