Noe Valley Voice November 1998

Noe Valley Bakery's Rising Success

By Dodie Hamblen

The Noe Valley Bakery and Bread Company has always exceeded its owners' expectations.

"The day we opened, we sold out of everything by 1 p.m.," says Mary Gassen, who owns the business with husband and master baker Michael Gassen.

But four years later, the bakery is expanding so fast, it's ready to burst into the national spotlight.

Customers are spilling out of its doors on 24th Street. (The shop is sandwiched between Wooden Heel Shoe Repair and the Noe Valley Post Office.) Dozens of upscale restaurants and markets now carry Noe Valley Bakery pastries and breads. And the store just landed a coveted spot in a new food catalog put out by Williams-Sonoma.

"Somehow we've condensed our five-year plan into three and a half," says Gassen, 37. "Our success has been rare and lucky. We've been so blessed, we've really been humbled by the experience."

She and Michael, who have lived on 28th Street for the past two years, met in 1992 while working at Il Fornaio, where Michael was a baker and Mary a managing partner. They bought the Noe Valley Bakery in the fall of 1994, just three days before they got married.

"There was a need here," recalls Gassen. "People in Noe Valley were hungry. Michael and I had dreamed of living and working in Noe Valley, and when this location became available, it was just a miracle."

From the start, the Gassens' goal was to be a high-quality bakery with an emphasis on friendly, neighborhood service. "Service to our customers is important. We have strong feelings about quality," says Gassen.

The couple also have a strong work ethic. "I'd have to say the secret of our success is my husband Michael, who has an incredible talent as a baker. He has a gift and a passion for what he does. He works 75 hours a week," Gassen says. In fact, Michael Gassen, 35, was on the run so much last month, the Voice couldn't catch up with him for an interview.

Meanwhile, his Noe Valley customers were scarfing up his breads, pies, cakes, and cookies as fast as he could make them. "Fig bread is our signature bread," Gassen points out. But the chocolate-cherry and apricot-ginger breads also sell well, priced at $4.50 a loaf.

"Blueberry pecan scones are our most popular breakfast pastry, and cakes are very popular too," adds store manager Pilar Deer.

Gassen reports that the Noe Valley store did $1 million in business last year.

These days, moms pushing baby strollers often have trouble getting past the shop without popping in for a chocolate chip cookie ($1), or to pick up a baguette for dinner ($1.50). Noe Valley Bakery's foccacia ($3) even shows up at children's parties in Douglass Park -- along with the flower-iced birthday cake, of course ($20 and up).

Naturally, the holiday season is the store's busiest time of year. Starting in October, iced pumpkin cookies (50 cents) are in constant demand. Pumpkin and pe-can pies ($12.50) are favorites at Thanksgiving, and tins of cookies ($24) are a big hit at Christmas. The traditional yule log comes in either mocha or hazelnut ($30). All are available by special order.

Lots of neighborhood folks relied on Noe Valley Bakery for holiday goodies last year, Gassen says. The store did $10,000 in business on Christmas Eve alone. But the bakery's popularity extends way beyond Noe Valley.

During its first year of operation, the Noe Valley Bakery and Bread Company began selling its breads wholesale to grocery stores around the city. Among the markets that carry them are Bryan's, Tower Market, Falletti Foods, the Real Food Company in Cow Hollow and on Russian Hill, and Rainbow Grocery in the South of Market area. Tourists and other shoppers can also pick up Noe Valley breads, cookies, and pastries on Saturdays, Sundays, and Tuesdays at the Farmers Market at Ferry Plaza.

The loaves also show up at some of the city's classiest restaurants. Stars, the Hyde Street Bistro, Palio d'Asti, and Jardinière all serve Noe Valley Bakery bread.

Then in the spring, the national Williams-Sonoma chain called to ask if it could feature the bakery's fig bread in the inaugural September issue of Williams-Sonoma Food. It seems owner Chuck Williams had tried a slice somewhere, and liked it so well he wanted his catalog to offer it.

To meet the growing demand, last January the Gassens opened a 6,000-square-foot bakery on Shafter Avenue just off Bayshore Boulevard. Cakes, pies, and special-order cakes are still baked at the 24th Street location, but breads, pastries, and cookies are now baked at the new facility.

Mary and Michael Gassen are thrilled that the business is doing so well, and don't feel that their quick rise will affect the quality of their bakery's service and product. "For one thing, we have a staff of really talented employees and bakers," Mary Gassen says. She and her husband employ 50 people at their two locations.

Asked if they planned to open retail stores in other neighborhoods, Gassen emphatically says, "No. We want to do what we do well. We live a 10-minute walk from the store and a short bike ride from the bakery. This is where we want to be."

With a 14-month-old daughter and a baby due in April, they are happy to have realized their dream of working, living, and raising a family in Noe Valley, she says.

So how do they juggle career and children? "Well, basically, for the short term, we're a little nuts!"

If you're interested in placing an order for Thanksgiving or Christmas, call the store at 550-1405. Or ask to be put on Noe Valley Bakery's holiday mailing list.