Old-time bakeries finding new niche

In an era when Wal-Mart has become the super-sized equivalent of the five-and-dime and the corner drugstore is likely to be Walgreen's, it's heartening to find that neighborhood bakeries haven't gone the way of penny candy stores.

Some, like Madison Park Bakery and Greenwood Bakery, have been around the better part of a century, albeit under various owners.

For generations, they have satisfied their neighbors' collective sweet tooth while serving as informal gathering places, where the staff knows the customers' names as well as their favorite pastries.

From the trading posts of the pioneers to Starbucks, Americans have invented a lot of ways to foster a sense of community. A neighborhood bakery, where stories are swapped, babies are fussed over and wonderful smells wrap you like a hug, falls right into that tradition.

As our cities and suburbs sprawl, as fewer people take time to cook from scratch, much less bake, we hunger for ways to connect with others as much as we hunger for fresh donuts.

It could be one reason why neighborhood bakeries are on the rise around town. Far from slick, these newcomers operate on a shoestring budget.

The owners, typically dusty with flour, take enormous pride in their work, and the clientele is nothing if not supportive: At Ballard's Café Besalu, one customer supplies flowers from his garden for their tables all summer long.

Small, independent shops like these touch a community in a way that cookie-cutter chains (pardon the pun) can't duplicate. But neighborhood bakeries are also flourishing as part of a movement toward artisanal foods that has been gaining momentum in this country for decades.

"There's been a renaissance in the U.S. with artisan breads and pastries," observes Mark Hardman, once owner of the Greenwood Bakery and the Ballard Baking Co., and now the proprietor of Wild Wheat Bakery in Kent. "What's happening in Seattle is part of that. There are enough people here, enough money and enough interest."

When Gwen Bassetti, Seattle's godmother of good bread, founded Grand Central Baking Co. in 1972, she provided the leavening that helped give rise to places like Blake and Mary Morrison's Sunflour Cafe in Wedgewood, famous for their lattice-topped pies, and Leslie Mackie's Macrina Bakery & Café, which set a new standard in Seattle for rustic European loaves and pastries when it opened in Belltown a decade ago.

Six years ago, when Nicholas Pare and Kevin Thompson opened Le Fournil just south of the University Bridge on Eastlake, they reminded us what real croissants are supposed to taste like — butter and air, and pastry so light it shatters. Le Fournil's croissants, baguettes, batards, tartes and gateaux still speak impeccable French.

Hewing to this tradition of hands-on, small-batch baking, seven independent bakeries have fired up their ovens over the past four years, enhancing neighborhoods as disparate as Ballard and Capitol Hill, Kent and Georgetown, Magnolia and West Seattle. Here are their stories.

Wild Wheat Bakery-Café and Restaurant
202 First Ave. S., Kent, 253-856-8919.

Though Mark Handman has been baking since he was 18, his 4-year-old Kent bakery and restaurant may be his most ambitious effort yet. Come February, he'll be in the kitchen cooking when the restaurant starts serving dinner. (It's now open for breakfast and lunch only). Greenwood Bakery alum Victor Allay is head baker, overseeing production of roughly 800 loaves a day, plus an astonishing array of pies, cookies, tarts, cakes, croissants and bagels. The good news for those living outside the Kent zip code: Whole Foods, PCC, Ballard and Central Markets are among the stores that carry Wild Wheat's breads.

Tall Grass Bakery
5907 24th Ave. NW, Ballard, 206-706-0991.

Just last year, James Bowles and Russ Battaglia were working the phones to sell their bread. "We must have called 50 restaurants," recalls Bowles. "Two or three bought some." Then the buzz started. Now restaurants are calling them, fighting for a share of the fewer than 500 loaves Tall Grass bakes daily. Though they wholesale to a few markets, restaurants and retail are their target clients.

"Wholesaling to restaurants, as opposed to supermarkets, which require you to buy back what doesn't sell, has actually allowed us the flexibility to get smaller," Bowles says. "Larger bakeries can absorb the buy-backs better than we can. We need to sell every loaf we make. But because we're small, we can do daily specials or bake three loaves of something just to experiment. Being small allows us to grow creatively." Among the more unique loaves here is sour cherry pumpernickel ("raisins were too pedestrian") and hominy bread, a dense, moist, subtly flavored cornbread. Bowles launched Tall Grass five years ago, selling through farmers markets and wholesaling to grocery stores.

He and Battaglia became business partners when they opened this retail shop in spring 2000. The shop now has a symbiotic relationship with next-door neighbor Café Besalu: Café Besalu sells Tall Grass' bread in the early mornings, before the bakery opens, and when Besalu closes at 3 p.m., they send pastries next door.

Café Besalu
5909 24th Ave. NW, Ballard, 206-789-1463.

At 3 p.m., an intriguing aroma drifts out to the sidewalk: a batch of Basel brunsli, flourless chocolate spice cookies, has just emerged from the oven.

"We bake our cookies in the late afternoon after we close, and we bake our breakfast pastries in the morning," explains owner James Miller. He and his wife, Kaire, do most of the baking, but they don't bake overnight, like most bakeries.

"We prep all afternoon for the next day," Miller says. "It not only allows us to sleep at night, but customers get something fresh out of the oven during the day."

He sees Café Besalu as the natural evolution of his 16 years as a baker, some of which he spent in Europe, "where some places still make everything by hand."

It's the same at Café Besalu, where the jam for the pastries, chocolate syrup for the mochas and even chai for tea is made on the premises. Customers arrive early for the superb croissants, the pain au chocolate, and the Danish; some return for a slice of just-made quiche in a puff-pastry crust.

Sweet Lorraine's Bakery
3055 21st Ave. W., Magnolia 206-301-9100, sweetlorrainesbakery.com

Not so long ago, Trudi Kahn-White, a sturdy, flour-dusted earth mother with a ready smile, traded 60- to 70-hour weeks working in biotech data management to become her own boss. "I've wanted to do food my entire life," says Kahn-White. "My mother was an incredible baker, which is why I named the bakery after her. None of the recipes are hers, but she was my inspiration. In our house, food was love, food was art, food was everything." Sweet Lorraine's specializes in traditional European sweets and breads.

Kahn-White completed a pastry course at Seattle Central Community College, then "volunteered" her services at Tall Grass Bakery so persistently back when they were selling bread at farmer's markets that "they felt sorry for me finally and let me work for them." After an apprenticeship at Star Bakery in Oak Park, Mich., she began her business selling her baked goods at Ballard's farmers market: rye, pumpernickel, macaroons, rugelach, onion rolls. Fifteen months ago, she opened Sweet Lorraine's in a creaky old building on the edge of Magnolia, where you'll find her velvety rye bread and rugelach (among the best you'll ever taste), pine-nut-studded macaroons, Hungarian streusel marbled with poppy seed and bright-tasting lemon tarts.

Though she's working seven days a week, her dream is becoming "tangible and real."

"It's a mitzvah to share food, a good-deed-doing," she believes. "Part of how we make community is to share food. I'm hoping that if I do it well, use good ingredients, and am kind and respectful to people, I'll succeed."

North Hill Bakery
518 15th Ave. E. Capitol Hill, 206-325-9007.

For 68 years there have been bakeries at this address. It only became North Hill Bakery four years ago, when Margaret Rumpeltes and Tracey Peterson took over the lease.

Graduates of Seattle Central Community College, the women honed their baking skills at places like Rover's and Macrina (Peterson), Julia's and The Edgewater (both). They have also have been culinary-arts instructors at the Art Institute of Seattle, where Rumpeltes started the pastry program.

"We chose to bake what we like," she says of North Hill. "Most of what we do is old-fashioned, and that's also what the neighborhood wants."

Their daily breads (they offer two) might be whole wheat, cinnamon or anadama. Challah and foccacia are weekend specials. Also on hand are meringue-iced coconut layer cakes, fruit-filled coffee cakes, bread pudding and cookies, and lovely plain and flavored croissants, pan au chocolate and brioche.

Rumpeltes admits she loves the routine of a neighborhood bakery. "You see the same people every day and they become friends."

Two Tartes Bakery
5629 Airport Way S., Georgetown, 206-767-8012, www.twotartesbakery.com.

Last month, just two weeks before Lynne Christiansen and T. Clear celebrated the first anniversary of their long-dreamed-of joint venture, Two Tartes Bakery, tragedy struck: Clear's husband died in car crash the Friday before Thanksgiving.

"What I wanted to do was lay in bed and cry," recalls Christiansen. "But I had to keep things going so T. didn't have to worry about it."

As she quietly went to work on the dozens of holiday pie orders, word of the tragedy spread through the neighborhood. Other business people started calling, asking, "What do you need?" Several sent their employees over and said, "I'm paying them. You put them to work."

"It was amazing," says Christiansen, in a voice full of emotion.

Friends since their Renton junior-high days, the pair dreamed of opening a bakery together since they were 20-somethings, says the now 40-something Christiansen. They had envisioned a French bakery but quickly discovered that croissants didn't sell. People wanted real butter scones, toffee-flecked brownies and pecan rolls, which they now sell in take-and-bake pans. Chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin and ginger molasses cookies are other must-haves. Two Tartes also offers soups, sandwiches and daily lunch specials.

"If people want it, we'll give it a shot," says Christiansen. No wonder customers consider them the neighborhood "moms."

Blue Sky Bakery
2332 California Ave. SW, West Seattle, 206-755-2714.

They're just 28, just married, just bought themselves a business: Houston Helmstetter and Carmen Guerra-Helmstetter, owners of Blue Sky Bakery, have bitten off a lot in the past six months. The couple met at Seattle Central Community College, where both pursued culinary arts. He became sous chef at 1200 Bistro, while she worked at Grand Central Baking and Dessert Works, a wholesale bakery in Greenwood.

On the eve of their spring wedding, they thought they were headed for the simple life, running a bed-and-breakfast in the San Juans. But two weeks before they were to close the transaction, their deal on the turn-of-the-century house fell apart.

"Everything was in boxes. We didn't know what we were going to do," recalls Guerra-Helmstetter. Cruising through West Seattle looking for a place to live, the shuttered Frombach's bakery piqued their curiosity. Their wedding didn't interrupt the lease negotiations — faxes flew back and forth from their hotel in Kauai — and they clinched the deal at the beginning of May. After a month spent cleaning and painting, they opened on Memorial Day weekend.

They bake petite croissants, Danish, lemon tarts and irresistible chocolate-chocolate-chip cookies daily. On Friday and Sunday there's a limited selection of artisan breads.

Though they make French pastry, they thought a French name was "too inaccessible" for the friendly neighborhood place they envisioned. Brainstorming yielded the name Blue Sky: "We thought there's nothing but blue sky in front of us."