By Romney Steele | Photos by Carole Topalian
Alison Barakat (aka Betty) wears a bright blue wig and has an infectious smile. She exudes warmth and has seemingly boundless energy to match—greeting customers like they were old friends, affectionately calling them “my love” and tending to their needs in between our conversation.
Mind you, the shop was closed while we held out interview, but the door was quick to open every few minutes for the curious passerby or the mother who wanted one of the “same brownies” she had yesterday. In a business synonymous with hard work and all-night shifts, Alison is unfazed. “There is nothing I’d rather be doing,” she says—words spoken by a woman on the verge of sweet success.
Alison began selling her goods at local farmers markets in 2002, but this year [check date] she and her husband and partner, Michael Camp, opened Bakesale Betty, a retail shop on the corner of 51st and Telegraph in Oakland in the heart of the burgeoning Temescal neighborhood. It’s just a hop and a skip down from Piazzola and Dona Tomas, two hot spots for dining in this neck of the city. Drawn to the neighborhood’s mix of people, friendliness, and businesses, they moved in above the bakery a year ago and have been working on the space ever since. The work is 24/7 but they’ve taken a long-term lease and are in it for the duration, finding their niche in a neighborhood that is swirling with energy and in the throes of renewal.
The space itself is homey, a just fit for family centered Temescal. The wainscoting is painted a cheerful celadon—eggshell-white walls are framed by black trim and anchored by a red and brown checkerboard floor—a flash of cotton candy pink trimmed with red and black tiles brighten the space behind the register. In keeping with the retro look and to get that “bakesale feel,” the couple has set up two vintage ironing boards (an idea they started at the farmers markets) to showcase their wares. Short stools run the length of the street facing windows, creating a sunny spot for taking in the view with a cup of locally roasted coffee and a ginger scone or one of Betty’s savories. Currently they offer pressed sandwiches during lunch, but they are gradually adding take-home meals to their repertoire, such as beef and chicken pot pies—and yes, that is with a double crust.
The single reach-in case for drinks is where you’ll find the Bakesale Betty signature “sticky-date pudding.” The scrumptious moist pudding cake is sold in its tin along with a container of to-die-for caramel sauce and directions for warming and serving. It was a winner at our house. Festooned with some vanilla ice cream, it practically melted in the mouth—a luscious reminder of a good ol’ spice cake, sans the spice, and rich with the honey-like taste of medjool dates. Look for the cello-wrapped packages tied with a bright blue ribbon.
The character Betty is a play on a 50’s Australian housewife initiating a spirited revival of home baked treats from a different era. “It is just for fun,” Alison said when I asked about why she wears the blue wig, “An alter-ego. You can be more flamboyant. A character that somebody can maybe relate to.” Her husband said more matter-of-factly, “It was genius is what it was.” And I think he’s right. According to Alison, kids and adults love Betty—drawn no doubt by the kitschy blue wig, but also by the old-fashioned baked goods inspired in part by the “Lamington drives” or bake sales of Alison’s youth. Lamingtons, vanilla sponge cake bars filled with strawberry jam, dipped in chocolate then rolled in coconut, are another signature treat at Betty’s and a traditional favorite at Australia’s school bake sales, where families pre-order Lamingtons by the dozen—sending all the moms and grandmas scurrying home to bake them to raise money for the schools.
A trained chef, Alison cooked in Australia for 10 years before coming to the states and landing a job at Chez Panisse Restaurant. “They taught me the importance of seasonality,” she says, remarking that it was the best place to learn about California cuisine and about using fresh, local produce. Alison brings a similar approach to her baking at Bakesale Betty, where she uses fresh fruit and vegetables from local farmers and some from families who drop by with the occasional bag of lemons. Some of the produce comes from Amity Works (see article on page 22.). Bakesale Betty uses organic when they can and when it makes sense, given their commitment to being an affordable neighborhood bakery. “Our customers are looking for quality, freshness, and how good things taste,” she says.
Judging by the local buzz and the stream of customers coming in and out (even long after the doors are closed), the new bakery is already a popular neighborhood spot, drawing a regular crowd throughout the week. People are won over by the delicious sweets, but there is no doubt that they also love Betty’s bright blue wig and her upbeat, friendly manner.
Romney Steele (AKA Nani) grew up in a family owned restaurant on the central coast, where she first learned to cook. She is interested in food economies and community gardening programs and has a fondness for lemon trees. Romney lives in Oakland with her two children.
Widely recognized for her work as a professional photographer and creative director, Carole Topalian, is also co-founder of Edible Communities, Inc., where she shares her considerable talents with members nationwide. When she’s not behind her tripod, she can be found riding America’s bike trails. You can view her work online at: www.topalianphoto.com.