Brian Wood pulls out a stiff, pale yellow rectangular slab from a baking rack. It’s thin, flat and sandwiched between two sheets of parchment paper, but it’s large enough that Wood needs to hold it up with two hands. We’re standing in a dimly-lit refrigerated room surrounded by racks of unbaked laminated pastries, but this approximately two-foot-long sheet isn’t made of dough. This, he explains, is a five-pound sheet of unsalted butter, a key ingredient for the butter croissant, the most popular offering produced by his wholesale pastry and bread business, Starter Bakery.
This August, Wood moved his eight-year-old company and its 55 employees from a 1,400-square-foot space in Oakland to its new digs in Berkeley, a 13,000-square-foot facility within the old Pyramid Alehouse building at 901 Gilman St. Starter Bakery shares the former brewery with others, like Ripple, Blue Bottle and HERE North America, as well as a soon-to-be Tesla service center.
The part of the building Starter occupies once housed Pyramid’s gigantic brew tanks, so when Wood signed the lease, with the help of Berkeley’s Kava Massih Architects, he was able to design the space from scratch for his purposes. Walls were added; floors, once sloped inward for spilled beer to flow into a trenched drain, were leveled; and a second floor loft was built. Upstairs are offices and underneath, there’s a contained room for mixing dough, a process that kicks up a lot of flour dust into the air.
These kinds of details and efficiencies speak to Wood, a man who strikes me as someone who finds pleasure in productivity and in following the rules of tradition. On my tour, Wood is friendly and open, but serious in a way that’s almost formal. He tells me he started off cooking in restaurants, but didn’t enjoy the culture of kitchens in the mid-’90s,” which he found wasn’t a professional environment. Instead, he was drawn to the exacting process and craft of baking. Wood moved to the Bay Area in 2004 from Seattle, Washington, to intern at The San Francisco Baking Institute. A month into his internship, the institute’s pastry instructor had to leave for medical reasons and Wood stepped in to teach. The following year, Wood came back to SFBI as the full-time lead pastry instructor and to work as the main author on the school’s book, Advanced Bread and Pastry: A Professional Approach (published in 2009). During his time at SFBI, he continued his study of baking, including attending workshops in Paris, studying at Atelier De Formation a la Haute Patisserie Pierre Herme.
Starter’s production space is divided into specialized areas and rooms that are dedicated for particular products and steps in the baking process. There’s the aforementioned mixing room, which holds several large industrial-sized mixers, including the diving arm mixer that Wood used in the earliest days of Starter. The new space allows for more and bigger equipment, like the brand new Esmach Spiral Mixer, which Wood says, is far superior for making yeasted doughs. Wood pushes a button on the machine to demonstrate how the mixing bowl will tip and spin on its own, so the contents — about 400 to 500 pounds of dough at a time — will spill out, without the aid of human hands, onto a catch table on wheels.
Wood takes me through several other areas on my tour, including a refrigerated room where doughs are fermented; a walk-in stainless steel proof box/retarder, where doughs rise; a space where bread doughs are divided and shaped into loaves; and even a special table set up away from everything else, where nuts are applied to pastries without fear of cross-contamination.
But my favorite area is the lamination room, where Starter’s most popular products, its croissants, Kouign-Amann, puff pastry and Danish, are made. Laminated pastries are ones that layer dough and butter on top of each other. The technique involves repeatedly folding and rolling the dough over itself, with a thin layer of butter separating each fold. Wood says butter makes up about 25% of the base dough weight in Starter’s croissants (each individual croissant is 22.5% butter by weight); one five-pound sheet of butter makes about 120 croissants. Crunching the numbers on the spot, Wood says Starter goes through about 64,000 pounds of European-style, high-fat (84% fat) butter a year just for its croissants and Danish pastries. In comparison, the weight of butter in the decadent, dense Kouign-Amann base dough is about 50% (each pastry is about 34% by weight). Unlike the croissant, Kouign-Amann is made with salted butter.
“Be wary of a light and airy Kouign-Amann,” Wood said, as we watch workers hand brush butter into pans that will bake the round, crown-shaped Breton pastries. He said that many bakeries cut corners, by using the same dough for their croissants and Kouign-Amann, but also by spraying grease, rather than brushing butter, into the tins.
Wood’s Kouign-Amann were the bakes that got Starter started in 2010. (He’s even credited by some to have kick-started the Kouign-Amann trend in the East Bay, four years before The Great British Bake Off popularized the pastry even further). A Kouign-Amann is a one-stop shop of flavors and textures — the outside is flaky, but crunchy with a carmelized sugar-butter lacquer; the inner layers of pastry are rich, salty, sweet and tender. Wood generated a following when he debuted his Kouign-Amann at Pop-Up General Store, a temporary gourmet food market co-created by Samin Nosrat and Chris Lee that featured artisanal prepared foods by the hottest local chefs at the time.
Enjoying the personal connection he made with customers at the pop-up events, Wood wanted to establish a retail location, but financially, it made more sense for him to operate as a wholesale business, with three weekly farmers market appearances that would scratch the itch for that personal face-to-face experience he craved. Starter Bakery began selling products at local cafes, like Philz Coffee, Coffee Bar and Modern Coffee. He built relationships with these businesses, and even developed products for them. For example, his twice-baked almond croissant started off as a special request from Coffee Bar. They’re now on Starter’s regular menu and are one of its bestselling laminated bakes.
These days, Starter Bakery produces about 50 distinct products for more than 100 cafes and retailers that span across the Bay Area. Wood says he has no real interest in expanding outside of the Bay Area, but the new equipment, space and efficiencies created by his new production facility means he can add even more retailers and concentrate on Starter’s bread program. For now, Starter makes 85% pastries, 15% bread, but Wood says he hopes to be about 50/50 in the near future, by upping his production of artisan hearth breads, along with pan de mie and focaccia.
With Starter appearing in more cafes and even markets like Mollie’s Stone’s and Amazon Go, I asked Wood if he was worried about oversaturation. He admits it’s something he thinks about, but he feels his dedication to quality, process and freshness sets him apart from other wholesale bakers. Wood says he has written a rule into his wholesale agreement to uphold the quality of his products; it dictates that vendors cannot sell Starter’s pastries after the date of delivery.
The optimal window of time to eat a croissant is within an hour out of the oven, at the very latest. This is when you’ll get that shatter effect of buttery flakes when biting into one. Time is not kind to even the best, most perfectly executed croissant; every minute it sits out of the oven, it loses more and more of its dynamic crispy-tender texture. Wood says Starter bakes and boxes its wholesale goods at the very latest it can for this reason. But he admits the freshest bakes can only be offered in a retail setting.
So, it’s no surprise that brick-and-mortar locations are on the horizon for Starter Bakery. For now, an 800-square-foot space at the front of 901 Gilman St. is already set aside for a public bakery, where customers will be able to buy Starter pastries and breads, along with coffee and grab-and-go foods. The space will offer some seating for customers. Wood estimates the bake shop will be open by spring 2019. In the meantime, he’s also working to open more retail locations around the East Bay. In keeping with his perfectionist bent, for now, Wood is keeping his cards close to his chest about the details.
“I’d rather only talk about something once I know that it will happen,” he said.
Starter Bakery products can be found at various local cafés and markets and at the following Oakland farmers markets: Grand Lake (9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Saturday), Temescal (9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday) and Montclair (9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Sunday).