By Justin Phillips San Francisco Chronicle
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) In recent years, a new generation of black-owned bakeries has sprouted up: PieTisserie, Gregory's Gourmet Desserts, and Crumble and Whisk, among others, all of which are scattered across the East Bay in various forms.
San Francisco Chronicle
Anthony Lucas, proprietor of Anthony's Cookies, strolled through the kitchen of his new Berkeley production center, a cavernous 4,000-square-foot facility meticulously lined with industrial mixers, ovens and enough refrigeration space to last him a lifetime.
"I knew one day that I'd need a space like this," Lucas said.
About a dozen blocks down San Pablo Avenue, Eurydice Manning, another black baker, was busy coordinating the opening of a new Oakland outpost of her bakery, James and the Giant Cupcake. Such was the same for Lila Owens, the owner of Berkeley's Cupcakin Bake Shop, who also happens to be black. She was plotting not one, but two new Oakland branches of her popular business.
The booming businesses are indicative of the rise -- and proliferation -- of black-owned bakeries in the East Bay.
Collectively, they represent a quiet truth about a few-mile swath east of San Francisco: It is a hotbed for talented black bakers.
Black and brown hands have long been behind some of the East Bay's most popular pies and cookies. Stalwarts like Lois the Pie Queen, the Oakland institution dating to the early 1950s, and the family-owned It's All Good Bakery that opened in 1996 continue to anchor the region's baking scene.
In recent years, though, a new generation of black-owned bakeries has sprouted up: PieTisserie, Gregory's Gourmet Desserts, and Crumble and Whisk, among others, all of which are scattered across the East Bay in various forms. "I was born and raised in Oakland. That's where I started, so I have roots in this area," Owens said. "What's happening now is crazy, but this growth was something that I always knew was possible."
The situation is particularly unique in the food world, where black people make up only 4.3 percent of the East Bay restaurant workforce, according to advocacy group Restaurant Opportunities Centers United. The data also show they're rarely owners. ------ Anthony Lucas began to make a name for himself -- and his baked goods -- in the late 1990s, when he would drive across the Bay Area to deliver chocolate chip and oatmeal cookies to customers. But it wasn't until 2009 that he opened a small store in San Francisco's Mission District, buoyed only by his mother, who charged a new refrigerator to her credit card so he could launch his cookie business.
The purchase was a leap of faith. Lucas had no experience in commercial baking. He now sells thousands of cookies each week through retail and wholesale. To keep up with the demand, he has moved into the new Berkeley production facility, which is filled with industrial-strength cooking equipment.
"I just kept my head down and worked. That's just the truth," he said. "You have to bust your butt in this business and that's exactly what I did for years."
In many ways, the success stories of Anthony's Cookies and its counterparts are antithetical to much of the Bay Area's modern restaurant landscape, both in terms of diversity and the probability of success for first-timers.
Part of the reason is the cost of entry. Opening even a straightforward restaurant can cost well over $500,000 when factoring in the cost of a build-out, putting equipment in place and hiring a staff. A new cafe in the Mission called Manny's required nearly $600,000 to open. Robin, an upscale sushi restaurant in Hayes Valley, was reportedly closer to $700,000. It's not uncommon for restaurants to spend more than $1 million.
The business model of bakeries is able to sidestep many of the entry costs associated with restaurants. There is no need for a liquor license, which in some neighborhoods can cost up to $300,000. Small physical footprints -- and thus lower rent -- are conducive to bakeries. Because most operations don't require large staffs, labor costs can be kept low as well.
Lucas said he has zero outside investors in his company. Aside from the refrigerator purchased by his mother early on, the veteran baker has used his own money to finance his growth.
"All it took early on was an oven," he said. "I made work what I had and just went from there. I didn't need a ton of money to make things happen."
Manning took a similar approach to launching her business. What buoyed her efforts was her flair for social media.
James and the Giant Cupcake has more than 15,000 followers on Instagram, more than many of the Bay Area's more celebrated bakeries.
"You just have to know where your crowd is," Manning said. "You have to be available and you have to just keep building your following." ------ Small bakeries can tap into another wisdom of the restaurant industry: growth and various revenue streams are essential for continued success. Cupcake recipes, for example, are relatively easy to scale, and can be replicated in new locations, by new staff. And as Lucas has proved, catering and wholesale accounts represent another frontier of sales, beyond the retail storefront.
As four children walked past James and the Giant Cupcake on a recent afternoon, all in school clothes and laughing as they shifted their swaying backpacks, the group slowed in front of the bakery.
"Hey there. We're open," Manning told them with a smile. "Go on in."
Manning greeted the group while moving a few chairs and a table from inside the store to the sidewalk. Over the last few months, the shop's afternoon crowds had ballooned, making the seating a hindrance during service. Simply put: The tables had to go because the bakery had become standing room only.
Manning opened James and the Giant Cupcake in 2011, though she had been cultivating a following for years before that, thanks to her baking blog. She opened a second Oakland location in 2016 on 17th Street. A third outpost is scheduled for Jack London Square.
"I think black bakers out here have just been able to find what works for us, individually," Manning said.
Manning's quirky cupcakes, like the Jack Frost (chocolate cupcake filled with chocolate chips and cream cheese frosting, topped with blue frosting and snowflake sprinkles) or the Thanksgiving-themed Autumn Leaves (vanilla cupcake with orange vanilla buttercream, autumn leaf sprinkles and edible glitter), have made her a neighborhood favorite. Manning said between the two locations of her bakery and the business' online sales, James and the Giant Cupcake sells roughly 300 dozen cupcakes per week.
As James and the Giant Cupcake's customer base ballooned over the last five years, so did that of Lila Owens' Cupcakin Bake Shop in Berkeley. Her carrot cakes and key lime pies have reached a cult status in the Berkeley baking community, even enticing "Black Panther" director Ryan Coogler into becoming a regular.
Owens' flagship location was originally on Durant Avenue, but she recently relocated it to a pedestrian-heavy stretch in the heart of Berkeley at 2391 Telegraph Ave. She has opened a new location in old Oakland at Swan's Market and has plans to take over Berkeley's Virginia Bakery (1690 Shattuck Ave.).
Lucas' sprawling Berkeley space fell into his hands thanks to good credit and a consistent revenue stream over the past two decades. He plans to use the momentum to open small, cookie-focused cafes across the Bay Area.
"I have a lot in the works," he said. "What it came down to was just being prepared for success. I was always prepared for it. And now it's happening." ------ While the East Bay's black baking movement is worth celebrating, several of the entrepreneurs see the identifier of being a black-owned business as an added weight when it comes to success, especially when it happens to be the first phrase used to describe their company.