It’s one thing to run a successful food business. But to have two edible start-ups do well, even in a food-friendly town, is quite an accomplishment in an industry known for slim profits and fickle customers.
That’s the case for couple Eric and Carole Sartenaer, who started off with a little bakery in Kensington called Semifreddi’s — ring any bells? — sold that for a tidy sum three years later, then departed to Oregon for seven years to run their own bakery before returning to the Bay Area in 1993.
Eric worked for Fat Apple’s in El Cerrito for two years, but he was eager to start another food business. So, in 1995, he set up shop, and later a restaurant, on Shattuck Avenue turning out fresh pasta at The Phoenix Pastifico. The company also makes a line of baked goods — cookies, macaroons, and biscotti — as well as its signature olive bread and pasta sauces.
Now relocated to a small storefront with no sign in Strawberry Creek Park (next to Café Zeste), Phoenix Pastifico has a loyal following among farmers’ market regulars and some 200 local restaurants including Rivoli, Lalime’s, Bay Wolf, 900 Grayson, and Rick & Ann’s. Much of their wholesale business is in San Francisco, with such high-profile clients as Greens, Boulevard, and Farallon. Several local shops, including Star Grocery (bread), Berkeley Bowl (bread, pasta, sauce), and Berkeley Natural Grocery (biscotti) carry their products too.
The artisan baker’s macaroons earn high marks and the olive bread — with its flour-dusted, thick, dark crust, springy interior, and plump kalamata olives — has legions of fans. Picked up warm at the market, it doesn’t always make it home. Fresh pasta comes in flavors familiar and not, including black pepper rosemary, orange fennel, squid ink, porcini, and sweet pea.
A couple of less-well-known Phoenix facts: the bakers turn out a few different pizzas on Wednesdays and Thursdays available only at the Strawberry Creek location from 3 p.m. – 7 p.m. And the owners trade or buy local residents’ Meyer lemons — a key ingredient for their popular lemon pastas.
A self-taught baker, 62-year-old Eric, who credits his Belgian grandmother for teaching him how to cook, took time out to chat in the park about his culinary career, which began with a six-year stint at the Cheeseboard from 1977-1983. In true team-player fashion, Carole, 61, filled in the gaps when Eric was called away. The couple live in West Berkeley with their son, 17, who attends Berkeley High School. Except for a short time caring for their then-infant, the two have worked side-by-side for almost 30 years.
When I returned to the Bay Area I knew I wanted to start another food business but I wanted to do something other than baking. I had a lot of friends in the bakery business who I don’t think would have appreciated having me back baking. I’d tried some of the pastas around and I didn’t think that much of them, so I thought I could learn it, since it was basically combining flour and liquids.
Was it easy to switch from bread to pasta?
The learning curve for us — my sister who began the business with me and myself — took a little longer than we both expected. We made some bad pasta for a while and we had to throw it away, which was hard because we weren’t making any money and these were really quality ingredients. But eventually we got it. I started by learning how to make chestnut pasta, which is one of the hardest to learn. But that was the one that convinced me to take a chance on this business; the hand-made chestnut pasta I made practicing in my mother’s garage was that good.
Was your pasta as big a hit as your bread at Semifreddi’s?
The pasta was not an overnight success. People weren’t initially convinced that they should pay more for fresh pasta over dry. At Semifreddi’s we had lines out the door and we often sold out. So we started baking as well because we needed to earn an income. We made Belgian Danish [pastries] for Peet’s, who were our first big client.
How did the restaurant come about and why did it close?
We bought the space next to us, so we’d have another walk-in and storage space, because business was booming; at one point we had about 300 wholesale clients. But the expansion proved not to be necessary as it ended up being concurrent with the dot-com collapse. So then we thought we’d convert the space into a restaurant, to showcase our pasta. The restaurant was a beautiful thing, a labor of love for me. I’d always wanted my own place.
We opened in 2000 and we did well until we were kicked out in 2006, because one of the owners wanted to start a restaurant with one of his friends. But that venture only lasted four or five months. It was totally wrong for this area but they saw that we were busy and they thought they would be too. It’s now Corso.
What’s the back story behind the bread?
It came from someone who worked for me, who had learned it from a Sicilian baker in Seattle. He made it for us while he was here and, when he left, I asked if he would mind if I kept making it. He said: ‘I don’t mind but I’m not going to teach you how.’ So I made it myself, I changed it a bit, but I liked it well enough to learn how to bake it.
Do you eat dry pasta anymore?
Why? I don’t think I could go back to it, though I ate dry pasta for years. Dry pasta has been dry for a long time. Our pasta is a living food. And I think it’s fairly priced, given the cost of the ingredients, including organic flour.
Do you see yourself doing this for another ten years?
I like the business, always have, it’s exciting, it’s as close to theater as you can get, especially when you do a restaurant. It’s live entertainment, I like the open kitchen, I like the communication with the customers. I like to eat well. I’ll work with food for as long as I can. I’ll probably die on the job.
Is this a jointly run venture with your wife?
She’s as much the reason for our success as me, if not more. This is her story too. We wouldn’t be where we are today without her.
Sarah Henry is the voice behind Lettuce Eat Kale. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.
Cheeseboard Collective: 40 years in the Gourmet Ghetto [07.08.11]
The culinary couple behind Berkeley’s Rivoli and Corso [05.27.11]
Michael Wild, Bay Wolf [09.24.10]