Start Me Up: Starter Bakery
By Stephanie Rosenbaum, photos by Stacy Ventura
What’s better than Starter Bakery’s buttery, flaky, fresh-from-the-oven croissants, made in small batches, baked locally, and sold at the Temescal Farmers’ Market? Well, imagine that same stretchy dough layered with sugar and salted butter, folded in on itself to resemble the scrunchy face of a Persian cat. Baked up round and golden, it’s as sugar-crunchy and shatteringly crisp as a palmier around the edges, irresistibly richer and saltier-sweeter than its Parisian brethren.
It’s called a kouign amann, and it’s the rock star in this new wholesale bakery’s lineup of breakfast pastries, breads, and sweet and savory treats. If the quirky name (pronounced KOO-ine ah-MAHN) puzzles you, you’re not alone. The kouign amann hails from the northern coastal French province of Brittany, and so its name is Breton (a Celtic language related to Gaelic), not French.
“It has a low-level cult following,” says baker and co-founder Brian Wood. People who’ve been to France, French people who haven’t seen one since they left: they do a double-take in front of the bakery’s booth, then swoon at the first bite as the buttery shards shower down onto their shirts. Wood, a former instructor at the San Francisco Baking Institute (SFBI), first came across it at a class in France taught by legendary pastry chef Pierre Hermé. When Wood returned to SFBI, he started teaching his own students, and wrote an article for Modern Baking that gave the recipe and technique. In 2009, it became the most popular feature on his website.
Still, the pastry remained almost unknown in the U.S., so when Wood’s business partner Jamie Hansen suggested they come up with a signature item for their nascent baking venture, kouign amann seemed like a perfect fit. They offered it for the first time at the Pop-Up General Store in November 2010. Pop-Up founder Samin Nosrat pushed it on her blog, and as soon as customers got a taste, “it was crazy!” remembers Hansen. Wood agrees, laughing. “They were clutching their chests, eyes rolling back in their heads!” Sixty boxes of three pastries each sold out in a few hours. The response encouraged them, and in January 2011 they moved into an airy commercial space on the edge of Emeryville and launched their wholesale business.
Besides three types of kouign amann (plain, with Tcho chocolate, and with seasonal fruit fillings like caramelized pear, roasted peach, and vanilla-apple) and five types of croissant (plain, almond, chocolate, spinach-feta, and ham and cheese), the bakery now makes scones, muffins, cookies, brioches, quiche, fruit tarts, focaccia, and assorted breads. “It would drive me a little nuts, only making kouign amann,” admits Wood. “I like the process of baking. I’ve got to mix it up.” Starter’s chewy sourdough pretzels have earned their own cult following at Berkeley’s Elmwood Café, where they’re offered on weekends as part of a pretzel-and-beer special.
Of course, Hansen and Wood hope to have a retail space one day, but at the moment they’re focusing on developing and refining their product line by selling directly to farmers market customers, as well as to cafés, restaurants, and wholesale clients. “It’s so exciting to be in Oakland these days,” says Wood. “There’s just so much going on.”
Starter Bakery’s pastries are available at farmers markets in Temescal (Sunday, 9am–1pm) and Albany (Wednesday, 3pm–7pm), as well as at Peaberry’s Coffee and Tea (Market Hall, 5655 College Ave., Oakland, 510.653.0450); Modern Coffee (411 13th St, Oakland, 510.835.8000); Café Gabriela (988 Broadway, Oakland, 510.763.2233) and as part of the breakfast offerings at Pizzaiolo (5008 Telegraph, Oakland, 510.652.4888). For more information, go to www.starterbakery.com or call 510.547.6400.