Looking past the saltwater taffy, snow cones and deep-fried Twinkies that some visitors might characterize as cuisine in the laid-back beach town of Santa Cruz, a food revolution is taking place. In the last few years, talented chefs have been busily opening new eateries and the restaurant scene "over the hill," as valley residents call it, is as exciting as it's ever been.
While guests are atwitter over all the great new eating in Santa Cruz these days, the clear leader is the now-multi-location empire of heralded pastry chef Kendra Baker, whose resume includes Bar Tartine and Manresa. In just four years, Baker and her business partner, Zachary Davis, have opened three ice cream shops, a beachside lunch cafe, a serious sit-down restaurant and a pop-up space.
Given the fact that 60% of new restaurants fail in the first year, it's clear that Baker and Davis are doing something right. Their restaurant group, the Glass Jar, now has about 120 employees and an uncompromising vision of matching top-notch cooking using local organic ingredients with the unique, funky gestalt of Surf City.
Two-star Michelin chef David Kinch of Manresa in Los Gatos -- Baker's previous boss -- pegged it when he called her "obsessive," adding that this is a common characteristic found in many successful people. He has also called her "smart, hardworking and ambitious." This might well be the combination needed to buck the odds in a tough industry.
Baker took an interesting route to where she sits today. Growing up in Sacramento, she regularly vacationed in Santa Cruz as a child and later attended the town's University of California campus. She had no interest in food then -- her original major was chemistry -- until discovering UCSC's 30-acre gardens, a renowned agricultural research and training center.
”I got excited about growing your own food and about all the amazing work they were doing," she says. "That was really inspiring to me. As a result, I thought food was this thing that bound communities together."
During college, she started working in a local restaurant, Gabriella Cafe, that was serious about organic ingredients, then took a cooking job there after graduation. Next up was culinary school -- Johnson & Wales in Rhode Island -- and some European training, where an internship in France with a pastry chef opened her eyes again. "It's an incredible medium," she says about pastry. "I love the whimsy I can create in my pastry desserts but I also like the control and fine details."
Working her way west, she cooked in Boston, then became the opening chef at Bar Tartine in San Francisco's Mission district, an instant hit. Later, she was plucked by Kinch to head up the pastry program at Manresa, where she and her desserts received accolades.
But percolating in her head was launching her own venture, working with longtime friend Davis, who had recently completed a green MBA program to complement work in technology and other businesses. While the two share an itch for achievement with good conscience, the most fortuitous aspect of their pairing is Baker's culinary prowess combined with Davis's solid business skills.
Their intention wasn't just to launch a food business but to locate it in a family-friendly place that would accommodate other goals. "There were so many reasons why that was Santa Cruz," Baker explains. "It's an incredible place. We have the mountains and the ocean for personal pleasure. And it's an excellent place to raise our families. On the culinary side, the bounty of agriculture that's available to us here is unbelievable."
Their timing didn't hurt, either. In 2010, when they embarked, "We recognized that Santa Cruz was ripe for businesses like ours," Baker explains. "We have a demographic here that really appreciates great food and supports our local farmers through the farmers markets and wants good food for their families and themselves. There was a little bit of a void -- at least, not enough of this kind of food. So we recognized that there was definitely potential here for our businesses."
They wrote a 70-page business plan for an ice cream shop that they called the Penny Ice Creamery. This is no ordinary "gourmet" gelato store; they applied for and received a pasteurization license so they could make their own custard base. Other ice cream shops typically use a purchased base. All ripples, add-ins and the like are house-made. Cones are baked one at a time and hand rolled. Ingredients are as organic, local and sublime as they can find.
Their cute downtown scoop shop offers nine flavors at a time, including classics along with a rotating list of luscious seasonal choices like brown-butter spiced pumpkin seed, black pepper quince and honey yogurt walnut jam. Customers can get a cap of toasted, house-made marshmallow fluff if they desire.
Given such attention to quality and detail, "the Penny," as Baker calls it, proudly identifies itself as “the only ice cream shop in Northern California making all our ice cream completely from scratch.” Shortly before the shop opened, Baker and Davis each became new parents -- their respective sons were born two weeks apart -- then they started working 100-hour weeks as their business geared up.
A key aspect that made the Penny possible was a $250,000 loan obtained through Obama's SBA Recovery Act. To show their appreciation, Baker and Davis made a YouTube thank-you video receiving more than 100,000 hits, which got the attention of Joe Biden (he called them) and Michelle Obama's office (inviting them to a State of the Union address and reception).
Baker and Davis only spent enough time in the capitol to sit in the First Lady's box and meet some dignitaries, then flew back to scoop ice cream. Not surprising, since the Penny's business was going gangbusters. Far exceeding projections, the explosive sales enabled two more scoop shops to be opened in Santa Cruz as well as new kiosks at local farmers markets.
In 2011, the partners opened a super-casual beachfront cafe that they called The Picnic Basket that followed the same freshness-first mentality of their ice cream stores. Sandwiches and salads are inventive, delicious and available for eating in or out. House-made pickles and just-baked bread enhance classics like a killer BLT or reuben, while the chicken salad sandwich with avocado, greens and pickled onions is amazing.
Naturally, corned beef and hot dogs come from renowned local butcher and salumi maker, El Salchichero, and ice cream is from the Penny. A long deck in front delivers views of the beach and nearby pier. The crowds were large from the moment this eating spot opened.
The pair's most ambitious step took place in early 2014 with the opening of Assembly in downtown Santa Cruz. A spacious, modern sit-down restaurant that celebrates local ingredients in a deceptively rustic menu -- like chicken leg confit with merquez sausage, carrot-lentil puree and artichoke/green olive relish -- this eatery was also mobbed from the day it opened.
At Assembly, Baker works with executive chef Carlo Espinas, formerly of Comstock Saloon in San Francisco, to produce comforting, affordable fare with enough pizzazz to attract foodies. Communal tables encourage the neighborly vibe that Baker has been seeking since she was first enthralled with the gardens at UCSC.
Assembly has been smiled upon by critics like the San Francisco Chronicle's Michael Bauer. Regarding The Picnic Basket, he wrote: "For my money, it's the only place to stop."
Baker's and Davis's youngest venture is POPUP, a space adjacent to Assembly whose charter is showcasing intriguing, emerging food businesses that deserve local discovery. Besides being a weekly source for the wondrous bread and pastries from the Manresa Bread Project, POPUP has presented scrumptious pies from Companion Bakeshop (think Meyer lemon buttermilk) and delicious, small-batch steam buns and other snacks from Mortal Dumpling.
While shooting for multiple Michelin stars might be the egotistical objective of some new chefs when they open their own boîte, this is not in Baker's business plan. "We have foodies in this community but we also have people who just want to eat," she explains. "We want to create a place where people feel comfortable and where it's not like a 'Portlandia' skit."
All their businesses aim to please the cross section of people that make up just about any community, she says. "We made a conscious decision to balance our menu with things that are known and comfortable and accessible with things that are out there. For example, in the ice cream shop, we always have our Tahitian vanilla bean and our chocolate sorbet, but then we'll throw something like candy cap mushroom in the case or strawberry pink peppercorn."
For a chef who proudly states that "I don't do precious," the various enterprises within The Glass Jar would seem to be a success. Baker's role these days might be overseeing menu development while Davis handles business as CEO but this is just one element in the overall game plan that brought them to Santa Cruz and business ownership.
With their families, Baker and Davis have put down roots in the coastal town. Davis now has three young children and Baker just gave birth to another baby. In a business empire dedicated to celebrating food and community, they haven't forgotten that all-important second element.