On a recent weekend morning in the Maxwell Park neighborhood of East Oakland, Rachel Caygill’s pale green house, a passion fruit vine draped over the front, had a line forming from the open garage door. In addition to the masked people waiting, cars passed by every few moments with people who hopped out to grab boxes from the residence. This is the site of Green House Bakery, Caygill’s artisan pastry business, run entirely out of her home.
“I’ve always been a serial entrepreneur,” said Caygill of her business, preorders for which sell out almost immediately. Since her early 20s she’s been tinkering with different ventures. Green House Bakery is just the latest, and perhaps the most successful, iteration.
Starting from a childhood where she was a self-described “latchkey kid,” Caygill “started cooking really early out of necessity,” she said. From there she went to The Culinary Institute of America in New York City. “I decided to go to culinary school because I did not want to go to college,” she laughed. “I was really afraid of like, having to study.”
She cooked for a while but eventually ended up as a server at the iconic New York City institution Gramercy Tavern. There she met Claudia Fleming, the restaurant’s esteemed pastry chef. That experience opened her eyes. “I didn’t even know that pastries could be what she was doing.”
Caygill became committed to the sweet side of the menu. After some time working in different spots as a pastry chef, including a stint at the much loved Gjusta in Venice Beach, Caygill and her husband, a fellow chef, moved up to the East Bay to be closer to family.
They bought a house in East Oakland; they started a family and eventually Caygill wanted to return to her entrepreneurial explorations. “After I had my third kid, I was just ready to get back to doing something,” she said. She applied for her cottage food permit, which allows home cooks to sell food to the public. In 2018, Green House Bakery was born.
For her first bake she made “maybe 100 pastries, which felt like a lot at the time” and posted the results on Instagram and Nextdoor to drum up interest. It worked. “People wiped me out in like 15 minutes,” she said. From there it “kind of took on a life of its own.”
Up until the pandemic she had steady business at her bake days. But during the first lockdown, she was initially unsure if she’d continue — did people even want foods baked in a home, especially one filled with children? She paused sales, but when one regular reached out to request a box, and then gathered enough orders to make it worth Caygill’s while, she realized that people were still interested.
After that, demand for her pastries built to a fever pitch. Her pre-order pastry boxes started selling out within a day and then within an hour. “Now it’s crazy. Now my stuff sells out in like less than two minutes,” Caygill said.
As to why the spike in popularity, Caygill said ”I think people were at home and people were wanting to be cozy and baked goods are super cozy.” She suspects that people also wanted to patronize small businesses more than before.
One of the things that inspires her to continue is the intimacy inherent in running a bakery out of one’s home. “I’m very into things that are, like, super quaint. I love the feeling of stumbling upon something … almost like a secret.” She also likes the sense of community. “You’re not just buying a pastry from Starbucks; you’re buying something that was handmade with intention,” she said.
Her background in restaurants helps her churn out such large quantities singlehandedly. “I know how to work smart. … I plan my menu around what I can freeze unbaked,” she said. Weekly prep consists of making three to four doughs that can be used to make a variety of different pastries from danishes to croissants to galettes.
“If I had to sum up my style of food … it’s nostalgia,” Caygill says. “I’m almost always trying to recreate something that I remember from my childhood.”
She sells a pre-order box of five or six pastries that rotate each week as well as walk-up only items for those who aren’t lucky enough to snag a box and are willing to wait in line. The flavors of her baked goods change frequently but there’s always a few savory items and a couple of cookies with flavors like “kitchen sink” and “peanut butter toffee.” The menu is rounded out with items like donuts, brioches and cakes.
Often the fruit, usually seasonal, shines through. A roast strawberry twist with fig leaf and pistachio dusted in a golden layer of bee pollen had a perfectly flaked croissant crust, the dough sturdy enough to hold up underneath the juices. “Seasonal pastries excite me a lot more than run of the mill pastries,” Caygill said.
She sources in part from the abundance of fruit trees in her neighborhood, putting out requests for fruit on social media and offering her pastries as trade. Another standout was an orange-glazed cardamon bun, the allure of which was in its carefully crafted simplicity. The floral notes of the cardamon meshed well with the tart marmalade-like filling, providing balance. It’s an elevated version of the orange-flavored Pillsbury cinnamon rolls that pop out of the can, creating the nostalgia that Caygill aims for.
At the beginning of her fourth baking season this fall, Caygill expanded her operation by moving it to her basement and added a part-time employee. She had been searching for a storefront to expand her business, but it proved difficult to find something that fit her specific needs, so that idea is on pause. Ultimately, though, she doesn’t mind keeping her operation at home for now, she said, as “we love the feeling of being a part of the community.”
Green House Bakery has first come, first serve bakesale twice a month and pastry boxes available for preorder one Thursday a month. To order a box, visit the bakery’s website. To learn more about the next bake, visit Green House Bakery on Instagram.