Vital Vittles to close after 46 years baking cult-favorite bread in Berkeley

Vital Vittles will close this month, after decades of baking whole-grain breads for legions of passionate fans.

Vital Vittles’ distinctive 3D sign. Credit: Anna Mindess

Vital Vittles 
2810 San Pablo Ave. (near Grayson Street), Berkeley
Tuesday-Friday 8 a.m. to 3 p.m., closing by March 31.
Orders must be placed two days in advance, by email (benvitalvittles@yahoo.com) or phone (510-644-2022)

The devotion of Vital Vittles’ fans is hard to overstate, with many saying that they’ve enjoyed a piece of its organic whole wheat bread every single day for decades. In fact, the little organic bakery in Berkeley has been chugging along for 46 years. But due to challenges thrown in its path by the pandemic, it will finally run out of steam by March 31 and will close for good.

Kass Schwin founded Vital Vittles with ex-husband Joe Schwin in 1976, initially as an Emeryville mill that sold whole wheat flour to area bakeries. In 1979, they started baking their own breads, and by 1984 they’d moved the business into its current home at 2810 San Pablo Ave. 

In the meantime, the Schwins hired Huong Tran to work in the bakery. She’d recently escaped Vietnam by boat, and came to the U.S. in 1981 as a refugee. “Huong is a brilliant woman,” Schwin said. “After Joe taught her how to mill the flour and make bread, she did research on her own and invented innovative and delicious vegan sweets, including four kinds of cookies, cakes made with tofu, and muffins incorporating mint and poppy seeds or chocolate and blueberry.” 

According to Schwin, while baking, inventing recipes, and raising two sons, Huong was also instrumental in bringing her entire family to California from Vietnam, including brothers Hung and Binh, who also work at Vital Vittles. In 2006, the Schwins sold the bakery to the Trans.

Binh and Huong Tran stand inside their bakery. Credit: Anna Mindess

“I got my first loaf of their corn bread (really wheat with a lot of corn flour) from Whole Foods in Redwood City 20 years ago. When they stopped carrying it, I ordered 40 loaves at a time (which just fills my freezer). I have a slice for breakfast every morning. I just called up and made my last order of 32 loaves, and Binh said he would deliver it to my home. That will hold me for six or eight months. After that I don’t know what I’ll do.” — Dean Collins, Redwood City

Things were going well until two years ago, when the pandemic struck and the bakery’s wholesale business slowed to a standstill. Many of the outlets who used to buy their breads closed, including Royal Café in Albany, just down the road on San Pablo. Schools and hospitals stopped ordering.

Even though stores like Berkeley Bowl, Natural Grocery Company and Rainbow Grocery kept ordering, they were passed over in the first half of the pandemic, Binh said. When people were hoarding essentials, instead of buying Vital Vittles loaves and freezing them, many consumers switched to brands that contained preservatives, in fear that they might need longstanding stockpiles of food.

Certain essential ingredients, such as flour, oil, and honey, were hard to come by, as were their distinctive plastic bags printed with the motto, “products you can trust, hand-made by people who care.” Costs skyrocketed, but they felt they couldn’t raise their prices. Pre-COVID, they had as many as eight employees. Eventually, they had to lay all their workers off.

“When my family found Vital Vittles in the seventies, it became our favorite bread/bakery. We have never looked back. There is nothing to rival the quality of the baked goods and the pure goodness of the bakers! My entire family is now grieving. There is no replacement for Vital Vittles breads, rolls, muffins…none that I know of even come close. Recently my sister visited from Ohio, and she, who is a wonderful cook, and capable baker, bit into a slice of Real Bread and exclaimed, “This is the BEST bread I have ever tasted!” Dear Huong and Binh. Besides being the most amazing bakers, they always welcomed us as if we were truly special and asked about our family. They even gave my grandson extra cinnamon rolls when we visited their little store.” — Lynn Garnica, Berkeley

Kass Schwin had stepped out of the picture after she sold the bakery to Huong and Binh. but got reinvolved when the business began to falter.  She launched a GoFundMe campaign in early 2021 that raised $35,000. She also launched a search for advisors, partners, or perhaps another baker to share the space and keep Vital Vittles afloat. 

She was surprised to learn that one of the bakers on her list, an East Bay resident who’d graduated from the Ecole de Boulangerie in France, had left the kitchen for the world of real estate. Eventually, Binh and Huong said that they had had enough, and just wanted to sell the business. So they turned to the baker-turned-business-broker. 

Berkeley mayor Shirley Ann Dean (1994-2002) declared Oct. 4 “Vital Vittles Day” during her tenure. Courtsey: Kass Schwin

“I really am heartbroken. I better run to Whole Foods and buy up all their loaves. I generally rotate between 12 grain, 9 grain, 3 seed and Flax Seed. I’m a plant-based eater so mostly use the bread for almond butter toast and avocado toast. I love that their bread is hearty, healthy, not-fake, whole wheat bread with very little sweetener. And super delicious. I just love that bread, and love supporting a family business. I hope Huong and Binh are either going to float off into retirement or reincarnate into another great local business that I will be sure to support.” — Traunza Adams, Albany

In time, the broker located Carlos Altamirano and his wife Shu Dai, the husband-and-wife team behind the Altamirano Restaurant Group. They own seven Peruvian-style restaurants across the Bay Area, and are looking for a bakery space to prepare their breads and pastries.

As of publication time the sale is still pending, contingent on some necessary repairs to the building. Given that, Altamirano and Dai declined to speak with Nosh for now, and politely refused to answer any questions about their plans for the space.

Schwin said, however, that she believed that though Dai was originally just looking for a bakery space, when she learned about Vital Vittles’ history and devoted fans, she said she would like to “continue the Vital Vittles legacy and perhaps keep some of Vital Vittles’ products.” 

The plan as of publication time is to close the bakery by March 31 so those repairs can be made and the sale can move forward. That closing date could be earlier, Schwin said, depending on scheduling with the workers who must make those fixes.

Vital Vittles’ iconic Berkeley gate. Credit: Anna Mindess

“This makes me very, very sad. I will have to go stock up and fill my freezer. We love the millet bread! Also the flax. Vital Vittles breads are our go-to breakfast every morning. My girls (ages 8 and 5) love them as is, I love to toast mine and slather butter on it. I don’t know what we will do if they close. It will be a real loss. There is nothing else on the market like Vital Vittles.” — Jennifer, Berkeley

But until then, the Trans are still working their same long hours, fulfilling every customer’s last order as quickly as they can. Even though they are closed on Sundays, they still need to come in and bake to be ready for the Monday morning deliveries. Huong gets up at 3 a.m. and arrives at the bakery by 4 a.m., zipping around in a forklift to move 18-20 pallets at a time, hauling 2,000 pounds of 50-pound flour sacks. Binh starts work soon after.

She is heartbroken at closing the business, but says “It’s been too much stress.” Asked about her future plans, the 63-year-old is unable to answer. “I’m tired. No days off. No vacation.” Binh, at 50, says he is too young to retire, and hopes to find another position using his degree in accounting. What remains is the pride both take in the business they ran for so very long, and for the bread they bake. According to Binh, every time Dai and her team come to inspect something at the bakery they’re hoping to buy, he makes sure they go home with a different variety of bread. Not necessarily to sweeten the deal, or convince them to purchase the business, just “so they can taste how good it is.”

Anna Mindess is a freelance writer and sign language interpreter who lives in Berkeley.