If you, like many others in East Bay, believe that Starter Bakery’s baked goods are among the best out there, here’s some good news: They’re only about to get better.
The wholesale business, based in Berkeley’s Gilman Street, is known for filling the pastry cases of local grocery stores and cafes with flaky croissants and kouign amann. Now it’s opening a retail bakery in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood for the first time in its 13-year history. And with the retail cafe’s debut comes — if you can believe it — an improvement to the bakery’s already-pretty-damn-good croissant and viennoiserie program. Owner Brian Wood spent a long time perfecting the recipe for his wholesale clients, working the dough so it arrives in as pristine condition as he can muster. But when it came time for creating the perfect, fresh-out-of-the-oven, croissant people crave from a bakery, Wood and his team sought to improve the original recipe. When the bakery opens on Saturday, March 4, they hope to pull croissants and pastries out of the oven on a regular basis, ensuring the baked goods are fresh for customers throughout the day. It took some 37 trial runs to achieve the Starter team’s ideal version of the croissant, he says, thereby improving the viennoiserie program as a whole. “All of the croissant dough is new and we really develop that towards flavor and texture,” Wood says, “and then that ripples out into several products.”
Many of the products will feature the improved croissant dough, including the popular kouign amann and chocolate croissant, as well as a new cardamom pistachio bun, which is flavored with cardamom throughout with some added acidity from apricots, and a sprinkling of pistachio bits on top. But the croissant dough isn’t the only item that received a makeover: the bakery’s brioche also got a close look and the brioche-based pecan sticky buns have been subjected to a number of trial runs — so many, that a baker said he took a break from working on it — until the team achieved another winning recipe with “a very indulgent amount of pecans on the top,” Wood says. “We spent a lot of time really looking at the texture of the dough and it wasn’t too pretty. We really wanted something soft and we were able to achieve a texture that’s softer and shorter than brioche.”
The offerings at Starter’s new bakery won’t be an exact rehash of what you’ll see featured by its wholesale partners around the East Bay. The menu includes, of course, the aforementioned kouignoù amann, chocolate babka, and an assortment of baguettes and levain that will line the bread shelves behind the main counter. But as Wood mentions, the lineup is purposefully small. “I really want to have this be an opportunity for the team to come up with new items and just explore what different pastries can be,” Wood says. “It’ll allow us to get into products that we don’t currently do: cakes, desserts, savory food.” Yes, that means there’s a pastry case dedicated to pies and cakes, including a citrus meringue pie and a chocolate and almond cake.
The team also leaned into more savory options, such as a twice-baked ham and cheese croissant, something they couldn’t do wholesale given the meat. Quiches will make an appearance — both Lorraine and a vegetarian option — while a grab-and-go fridge will feature salads and sandwiches meant to “highlight the breads.” Imagine a ham and swiss on a baguette baked onsite, alongside three other options, including a vegetarian sandwich. “We’ve been doing some fun iterations of that using different cheeses, but also adding in olive salads, arugula, and hazelnuts,” Wood says. “I was trying to go for interesting flavor combinations and textures.” A breakfast sandwich is in the works, which Wood hopes to add later down the line.
To round out the options, there’s a coffee program, courtesy of RoastCo, who Wood says was a neighbor to Starter’s early wholesale kitchen location. Keeping in mind the proximity to the Rockridge BART station, Starter Bakery will keep a light and dark roast drip on hand to quickly serve customers on the way to the train. It’s all housed within a light and airy space, which was given a makeover by construction company Cookline. The project has been in the works since Wood signed the lease in September 2021, and he’s ready for his bakery and cafe to join the neighborhood.
“I sometimes joke that no one dreams of being a wholesaler,” Wood says. “When I graduated college and decided to not continue in cultural anthropology and to go into baking, I decided that I wanted to be a baker and have a bakery.” Fast forward to a decade-plus later when the owner of a successful wholesale bakery business finds himself on the eve of opening this new Rockridge cafe. “I landed within wholesale because that’s what was achievable at that time, but the dream to have a retail store never diminished,” he says.
Starter Bakery (5804 College Avenue, Oakland) debuts Saturday, March 4 and will be open 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.