HOW SWEET IT IS
By Sarah Henry
Photos by Paige Hermreck
Innovative new restaurants like Hopscotch, Duende, and Hawker Fare have cemented Uptown Oakland’s growing reputation as a dining destination. But until recently the neighborhood has lacked an everyday place, a heart-and-soul business—like a bakery-café—where people could pop in to pick up a sweet indulgence or a savory snack, gather to chat over coffee and croissants, or simply sit and watch the world go by.
Sweet Bar Bakery is well placed to fill that void. Veteran culinary professional Mani Niall’s nascent enterprise occupies a 2,200-square-foot space in a prime corner location at Broadway and 24th Street. It’s on the First Friday Art Murmur stroll; near new condos and the recently resurrected Parkway Speakeasy; within blocks of restaurants like Plum, Picán, and Ozumo; and opposite the Oakland YMCA, where, no doubt, treadmill devotees are jonesing for a post-workout treat as fresh baked scents waft through the air.
The location may not have the village vibe or foot traffic of Rockridge, Temescal, or Piedmont Avenue, but it hasn’t taken long for Sweet Bar to become the neighborhood’s go-to place for bacon Gorgonzola scones, pumpkin cranberry muffins, and oatmeal sour cherry chocolate chip cookies. (Some customers have been following Niall since sampling his goodies at one of the pop-ups the baker held prior to opening.) Easy parking is a plus, and the large, light-filled space with wraparound glass windows is welcoming. Other hallmarks of a successful hangout include outdoor seating in the sun, inside communal tables, and counter bar stools.
The space has come full circle on the sweet beat. For 30 years it was MacFarlane’s Candy and Ice Cream (it’s worth taking a moment to check out the historic photos that grace the bakery’s walls). It struggled briefly as the Mimosa Champagne Lounge, but when that business went bust, Niall, who was scouting for a location to launch a new bakery, snapped it up. “I didn’t want to be in Temescal, even though I love that area,” says the North Oakland resident and author of four cookbooks, including the recently released Good Morning Baking! “I just had a hunch this was the right place for me.”
Niall, 53, is no newbie to the baking biz. For almost 10 years he ran an iconic patisserie in Los Angeles, a food writers’ favorite that catered to a celebrity clientele and restricted-diet eaters long before doing so became fashionable. (Back then sugar-free, wheat-free, and whole-grain were trending, while these days it’s gluten-free, vegan, protein, and the 411 on the provenance of every ingredient). Perhaps Niall’s biggest claim to fame—recounted in every story about him including this one—is that he served as Michael Jackson’s personal chef during the heady Thriller days, which explains why, at Sweet Bar’s grand opening in January, a flash mob performed the familiar dance moves to the title track of that runaway hit album outside his new store.
Niall had a blast but burned out on the L.A. scene. So in 1999 he moved to the Bay Area and took corporate gigs, including serving as the executive chef for San Francisco–based wholesaler Just Desserts for six years. The satisfaction of running his own show, though, proved too strong, and Sweet Bar Bakery is the happy result. The large bakery counter includes detailed information cards that let eaters know exactly what’s in the baked goods, including the type of flour or grain, kind of sweetening, whether they contain dairy or eggs, and what type of oil, shortening, or butter is in the mix. Such attention to detail no doubt wins brownie points from customers concerned about what they’re consuming, but it likely pleases bakery servers, who might tire of repeating on demand such details all day long.
Given the large size of the store, Niall is being savvy about making it an all-day affair: He draws the breakfast bunch with sweet and savory choices and offers the lunchtime crowd items like frittatas, focaccia sandwiches, and flatbreads, along with soups and salads. Eventually he’d like to stay open later in the evening (on nights other than First Fridays) to attract the post-theater, bar-hopping, restaurant-leaving crowd with coffee, wine, and desserts like chocolate raspberry cupcakes.
“Our customers run the gamut,” says Niall, who named his store for a popular bakery item, a slab of toffee almond shortbread dipped in a generous coating of dark Guittard chocolate. “The guys from the Mitsubishi dealership are in a couple of times a day. We’re baby mama and baby daddy friendly. We get business people, techies, hipsters, and the ecstatic dance community. It’s a typical Oakland crowd.”
Sweet Bar Bakery: 2355 Broadway, Oakland; open 7 days a week; 510.788.4997, sweetbarbakery.com