Who doesn't love a neighborhood bakery? The sugary-buttery-birthday cake-y smells wafting out, the coffee-buzzed camaraderie between neighbors picking up muffins for the office or cupcakes for a birthday party, the chance of scoring a loaf of bread hot from the oven: no matter how many boxed-up cakes are stacked up near the entrance to Whole Foods or Safeway, nothing replaces a real bakery as part of the pleasure of a neighborhood.
Uptown Oakland, for all its monthly First Friday Art-Murmur buzz and recent restaurant openings, isn't exactly the cozy-quaint setting that you might think a scone-driven, latte-fueled business like the new Sweet Bar Bakery would require. This ain't no Elmwood, after all; this ain't no Rockridge.
Any would-be bakery owner, looking to sign a lease, has to ask himself if there's enough locals ready to swing by every morning for a bacon-gorgonzola scone and a cup of authentically Punjabi-style chai, or prepared to linger at lunchtime over a portobello-and-tofu sandwich, a ginger-miso chicken salad, and a couple of gluten-free chocolate-peanut butter cupcakes. To longtime professional baker, food-industry professional, and cookbook author Mani Niall, the answer was a definite yes: the 2200-square-foot space he'd found at the corner of Broadway and 24th St had everything his new cafe and bakery would need.
Huge, wrap-around glass walls and a corner location would let light pour in, adding to the sense of visible street life. Hot restaurants and bars--Ozumo, Pican, Plum, Plum Bar--were growing the dining-and-nightlife reputation of this stretch of Broadway. The chic high-rise condos that now-Governor Jerry Brown pushed for during his time as Oakland's mayor were now built, sold, and fully occupied--with no other cafe nearby offering house-baked, all-day sweet and savory items on the menu from early morning to early evening. A busy YMCA gym nearby would even help cookie-lovers stay svelte. There might not be, as Niall put it, "throngs of New York-style pedestrians," but there were definitely enough people living and working nearby to support--and deserve--a good neighborhood bakery and cafe.
"I remember when I read, or heard, about how during the Iraq war, the insurgents, in order to show that the Americans were doing a poor job, they shut down garbage pickup and bakeries. Because if people couldn't get bread, they were stranded. So what does that say? The reverse way to look at it is that bakeries are a heart and soul [business]. They're a daily touchstone."
To get Sweet Bar up and running by November of 2012, Niall drew on his twenty-plus years of experience as both baker and businessman. In Los Angeles, after years working as a private chef in the film and entertainment industry (his most famous client being Michael Jackson), he opened Mani's in 1990, specializing in healthy baked goods, often featuring whole grains and alternative sweeteners like maple and agave syrups. (Creating low-fat sweets was the big challenge then; now, it's making them vegan or gluten-free.) The bakery thrived until he eventually sold out to his business partner in 1998. He moved north to the Bay Area in 1999, and the bakery continued, without its namesake, until 2008. He became the executive chef for Just Desserts, worked as a consultant and recipe developer for the National Honey Board and Clabber Girl baking powder, wrote cookbooks, and did commercial product development for restaurants and food manufacturers. He was busy, professionally fulfilled, but he knew that he would be a boss again, with another business to run.
Having signed the lease for the space, Niall started a Kickstarter campaign to raise both awareness of the upcoming business and a portion of the needed funds. The crowds swarming into the neighborhood for First Fridays Art Murmur offered a great chance for market research and community brand-building, all in one sugar-dusted, cardamom-scented package. Starting in July of last year, said Niall, "I brought this little portable bar from home, set it up in the doorway there, popped the doors open, made cookies and cupcakes, bacon scones, and was blown away. It's just grown from there: wonderful support, diverse clientele, great neighborhood. It's very exciting."
For a person who's spent his life around buttercream, Niall manages a cheerful balance between his dedication to healthier, whole-foods eating and his love for and professional familiarity with all-American sweets.
The sleekly designed labels on each item are his way of expressing that balance. Divided into "grain," "sweetener," "butter/oil," and "dairy/eggs" sections, the labels offer ingredient details and their provenances to those concerned, letting customers know that the eggs are from pastured hens, for example, or that the crust on the lemon tart is made from whole-wheat flour, without getting too preachy (or Portlandian) about it. There are also small, stamped letters--O for organic, V for vegan, GF for gluten-free--that alert those who are looking, and can be ignored by those who aren't. Niall has also developed vegan and/or gluten-free versions of many of his popular baked goods for special order. Recently, he cheered up several Thanksgiving tables with vegan pumpkin-sweet potato pies, while vegan guests at a Christmas party enjoyed a lavish raspberry chocolate fortress cake, topped with a rich almond-based chocolate ganache.
There's no roped-off section for the vegan or gluten-free sweets; as Niall told me, most of the customers seduced by his chocolate-dipped, peanut butter-frosted chocolate cupcake don't even notice that it's gluten-free. Instead, they fall for it because it hits the sweet spot where a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup, a chocolate cupcake, and a chocolate-dipped Foster's Freeze cone all converge. Same for the chocolate raspberry cupcake: delicious first, vegan second. (Because the bakery isn't exclusively gluten-free--there's a lot of wheat flour flying around that kitchen--the bakery's gluten-free treats may be geared more towards those who are gluten-free by choice, rather than those with severe gluten allergies or intolerances.)
Right now, my favorite is the bakery's signature Sweet Bar, a densely crunchy, almond-rich tablet of shortbread dipped in dark Guittard chocolate. It goes perfectly with Niall's favorite afternoon pick-me-up, a Buenos Aires-inspired cortado made with a shot of espresso, lightly sweetened with a spoonful of turbinado sugar, topped with steamed milk (almond milk, in Niall's case) and served in a small, flared glass.
This being Oakland, where diversity is the norm, the popularity contest for best-selling breakfast pastry is almost always a neck-and-neck tie between the doughnut-like "fauxnuts" (vegan, whole-wheat banana muffins baked in doughnut-shaped mini Bundt pans, dipped in warm agave syrup, and rolled in cinnamon-cardamom sugar) and the funky, savory, buttery bacon-gorgonzola scones. Close behind are pumpkin-cranberry muffins and the fruit-topped cornmeal upside-down cakes, crowned with blueberries, apricots, or peaches, depending on the season.
Niall plans to add more savory breakfast items soon, including frittatas and egg sandwiches on house-baked foccacia. There are already sandwiches, salads, flatbreads, and soup on the all-day menu, but he's testing out pizzas, mostly for the First Friday crowds, who throng the place for beer, wine, pizza, and sweets.
More yeasted breads are "on the front burner" of projects he'd like to see on the menu; as the bakery catches on with the neighborhood, he'd like to start staying open later in the evening, catching the restaurant-hopping and post-Fox and Paramount Theater crowds for dessert, wine, and coffee, not to mention serving the brownie cravings of the pizza-and-a-movie crowd strolling to and from the New Parkway down the block.