2810 San Pablo Ave. (near Grayson Street), Berkeley
Owners Binh and Huong Tran, along with three other employees, get up in the early morning hours to go to Vital Vittles, a West Berkeley bakery on San Pablo Avenue, where they prepare the organic, whole wheat bread, muffins and cakes that have fortified countless meals at Berkeley cafes, school cafeterias and homes for decades.
Now, however, Vital Vittles delivery trucks sit idle along what has become an eerily quiet stretch of San Pablo Avenue, aside from an occasional customer exiting the bakery’s nondescript front door with baked goods in hand. The business is on the brink of collapse. The pandemic has dried up business with its largest wholesale customers, so any other hitch — like equipment failure or illness among the skeleton crew — could be a death blow for the bakery.
“We got hit very hard,” Binh Tran said of business during the pandemic.
When Vital Vittles was founded in 1976, however, “leftover” hippies of the 1960s and a “back-to-the-earth” trend resulted in rising interest in organic, unrefined products, according to company co-founder Kass Schwin.
“In those days, whole wheat flour was all the rage,” Schwin said.
She and her ex-husband, Joe Schwin, who died two years ago, started Vital Vittles as a mill in Emeryville. Joe ground wheat germ in a stone mill he brought from North Carolina and sold the whole wheat flour to bakeries around the Bay Area. The Schwins eventually pivoted from mill to bakery in 1979, when they decided to bake bread to promote their flour at an expo for “new age” products in San Francisco.
To prepare for the expo, the Schwins baked 200 loaves of bread by night at Virginia Bakery, one of their vendors, where they could access the kitchen after hours. In the morning, they delivered the bread to local health food stores, like Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco and what is now Berkeley Natural Foods on Gilman Avenue.
Joe’s objective, Schwin said, was to make “the best bread in the world.”
“He was really an artist, a creative person who wanted to feed people nutritious food,” Schwin said.
Happily, they discovered there was so much demand for Vital Vittles bread in the Bay Area, they could skip the expo. The Schwins continued to bake bread at Virginia Bakery for a couple of months before purchasing a small bakery on Heinz Street next to Ecole Bilingue de Berkeley. In 1984, the Schwins moved the bakery to its present location on San Pablo Avenue.
The bread that Vital Vittles churns out today is made from the exact same recipe that the Schwins first baked in ‘70s. Besides salt, honey, water, sunflower oil, yeast and gluten flour, which helps the dough rise, the standard loaves, dubbed “Real Bread,” consist of the company’s own freshly milled whole wheat flour. In the ‘90s, under Kass Schwin’s direction, the bakery also started baking vegan muffins, cakes, cookies and other health-forward treats with its signature flour. Vital Vittles sources its wheat from Arrowhead Mill in Texas. All of the ingredients they use, from wheat germ to oat topping, are organic.
Freshly milled flour distinguishes Vital Vittles baked goods from other whole wheat products, said Schwin.
“Before we started making our bread people would always say, ‘Oh, whole wheat products taste so awful, they taste so bitter,’” Schwin said. “Well they did! Because they were made with flour that was days old.”
The oil in wheat germs, like any oil, deteriorates over time unless it is refined, which can cause the bread to lose its nutty sweetness, Schwin explained. The wheat at Vital Vittles is also ground in a stone mill, which makes the wheat flakey and textured, rather than sandy. The loaves and muffins consequently come out dense and moist, with a cakey bite.
Siblings Huong and Binh Tran purchased Vital Vittles from the Schwins in 2006. Huong, the head baker, started working at the bakery months after she arrived in Berkeley in 1981 as a refugee from South Vietnam, fleeing the dangers and devastation in her home country in the aftermath of Vietnam War. Her brother Binh followed in her footsteps 10 years later, immigrating to the Bay Area and eventually working at Vital Vittles, too.
The job requires the team to arrive at the bakery by 4 a.m. Most days, in addition to baking, Binh powers up the bakery’s stone grinding mill to make fresh flour. Last month, their supplier in Texas ran out of wheat berries, so the Trans have had to transition to using a high-quality stone-ground wheat flour from a local supplier, Giusto’s in South San Francisco. Binh says the bakery orders the flour weekly, to ensure its freshness.
Binh loves the peaceful nature of the work of baking. “I love my family, the organic products, the smell, the nice people,” he said about his job. “It means everything to my family.”
Since the 2006 sale to the Tran family, Schwin has remained mostly uninvolved with the business, but she recently started to re-engage to help the Trans strategize how they might preserve Vital Vittles through the pandemic. A trickle of online and walk-in orders as well as purchases from local grocery stores, like Monterey Market, Berkeley Bowl, Safeway and Whole Foods, can’t make up for the loss of about a dozen wholesale accounts. Berkeley schools, local cafes, tech companies and, surprisingly, even the San Francisco VA Medical Center, no longer order any Vital Vittles goods. The small company once sold its products at local farmers markets, but Binh said Vital Vittles discontinued these appearances several years ago because sales at the markets weren’t enough to cover paying another employee to work the markets.
Schwin urged the Tran family to reach out to their customers by slipping a letter in with the loaves of bread, bringing attention to a GoFundMe fundraising campaign. The Tran family initially felt uncomfortable with the idea of soliciting donations from customers, but as the pandemic stretched on and business continued to stagnate, they agreed to give it a shot in October.
“I’ve been doing a lot of heavy persuasion,” Schwin said. “It took them like six weeks to agree to do this GoFundMe because that’s the kind of people they are.”
So far, the campaign has collected just $5,000 of its $50,000 goal. Collected funds will help the business hire a sales manager to expand Vital Vittles’ reach by introducing their products to CSA boxes and farmers markets, as well as additional cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals and schools. Another idea is to open an outdoor cafe at the bakery, for when outdoor dining can resume.
In May, Vital Vittles did receive a loan from the Payment Protection Plan program, a feature of the federal stimulus that provides small businesses with forgivable loans. The money, however, ran out fast, according to Binh. If he can apply for another round of loans, he said, he will, but he also is aware of many other businesses that didn’t get access to the first round of PPP and thinks they should get priority.
Schwin also connected Vital Vittles with Berkeley Haas School of Business to see if students could help Vital Vittles improve its marketing. “But, it costs money to try new things,” Schwin pointed out.
So, for now, the wholesome whole wheat bread that has nourished Bay Area locals over generations could disappear from school cafeterias, grocery shelves, breakfast tables and lunch boxes altogether, any day.
“We love what we do and we eat what we bake, so it’s hard,” said Binh Tran. “Let’s see how we do this month.”
The Vital Vittles retail store is open from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., Tuesday through Friday.