5804 College Ave. (near Birch Court), Oakland
Tentative opening: fall 2022
“I really didn’t like the culture of restaurant kitchen cooking,” said pastry chef Brian Wood, who founded the East Bay’s Starter Bakery in 2010. “It was a little rough around the edges, with lots of alcohol and drug abuse.”
Thank heavens he chose the glutenous route; without Wood’s prowess around flour and a rolling pin, the world would have neither his kouign amanns, reputed as some of the best in the country, nor Starter Bakery, his wildly popular wholesale business. Now, after 12 years selling at farmers markets and to wholesale customers, he’s planning on opening his first ever retail location in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood by the fall of 2022.
His new bakery — christened Starter Bakery, like his wholesale business — will be located at 5804 College Ave., the former location of Jules Thin Crust, a pizza chain that closed its Oakland location in 2020. Working with architecture firm Caha Design, who designed elegant and airy spaces for Highwire Coffee and Red Bay, the new shop will be a “warm and welcoming space, but also fairly simple,” Wood said.
“The design also makes space for the neighborhood cafe aspect where you can sit down and share a cup of coffee and a pastry with a friend,” said Hallie Chen, principal of Caha Design. “We hope to transform the former Jules pizza into an inviting atmosphere with handmade tiles, custom wood furniture, warm lighting, and good flow for those moving through quickly as well as those who want to linger.”
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Starter Bakery’s new joint, which will measure an ample 2,000 square feet, will come with seating and retail in the front and an on-site bakery in the back. “We’re not just going to bake stuff in our Berkeley kitchen then drive them over to Oakland,” Wood said, referring to the 901 Gilman St. production kitchen Starter has used since 2017.
In addition to the viennoiserie, breads, and pies Starter will continue to bake in Berkeley for its wholesale operations, Wood plans on creating items in the Oakland location’s kitchen that will be exclusive to the new retail spot. Just don’t ask him exactly what those new items will be: when pressed, Wood would only say that “we’re still working on the menu lineup.”
Though the new venue’s offerings aren’t set, the plan to open a retail location has been in place since before the pandemic. But that idea, like so many others, had to be put on hold as we weathered the crisis wrought by COVID-19. Starter also faced the sudden closure of Zero Grocery, the VC-funded food delivery company that, without any warning to vendors, shut down operations in March. The closure, which Wood learned about while scrolling through Instagram, went down while Zero owed Starter $25,000 for two months of orders, funds the small business might never recover.
Even before the pandemic, though, opening up a store in the East Bay wasn’t easy, given the region’s byzantine bureaucracy. And now things are rougher, as “the costs for the construction are like everything else, quite inflated right now,” Wood said.
That’s one of the reasons the best estimate for when the new Starter will open is “fall,” an imprecision that the exacting baker has struggled with “for months,” he said. But even an entrepreneur as driven as Wood can’t do everything himself, and “one of the challenges right now is that a lot of people you need to work with on a project like this are really busy, or backlogged or under-resourced.’
Now that the East Bay is reopening and Rockridge has returned to some semblance of normalcy, Wood is excited to open his new bakery’s door, especially when he considers how many regional favorites his restaurant will touch elbows with. After all, Smitten Ice Cream, Zachary’s Chicago Pizza, Wood Tavern, and Noodle Theory are all a quick jaunt from Starter’s upcoming storefront. “I knew within five minutes of being in the space that I wanted to lease it,” Wood said of the plum location. And now, all that’s left is to get it open.