Berkeley has lost two popular bakeries in recent months: Vital Vittles, which was sold this spring after 46 years in business, and Brazilian Breads, which closed its Berkeley cafe late last month. Both closures were met with much mourning from area residents, who missed Vital Vittles’s hearty and substantial loaves, and Brazilian Breads’s pão de queijo.
Vital Vittles to close after 46 years baking cult-favorite bread in Berkeley
Berkeley’s longtime ‘hippie bread’ bakery is in peril of closing
Brazilian Bread café is now open on Solano Avenue
In Her Own Words: An illustrated interview with Del Rodrigues of Brazilian Bread Café
But all is not lost for area residents who continue to crave Vital Vittles’s sesame millet, or Brazilian Breads’s cheese rolls: In both cases, the businesses live on as wholesale or online operations, with items available at a few East Bay grocery stores and shops.
Nosh spoke with both businesses on their transitions from customer-facing or brick-and-mortar businesses to more virtual ventures. Here’s what they had to say.
Vital Vittles returns to grocery store shelves
As Nosh previously reported, the 46-year-old bakery was sold to a husband-and-wife team of local restauranteurs, who were planning to turn it into a production bakery for their East Bay businesses. But as numerous Nosh readers have since noted, you can still purchase and enjoy about a dozen varieties of Vital Vittles freshly baked breads and rolls today, including their real bread, raisin bread, 3 seed bread, 9 grain, and sesame millet. So, what happened?
To recap: As with many local food makers, the pandemic upended the wholesale accounts that Vital Vittles’s then-owners, Binh and Huong Tran, had relied on to keep Vital Vittles afloat. In desperate financial straits, the brother and sister reluctantly looked for a buyer. Carlos Altamirano and his wife Shu Dai, who together own the Altamirano Restaurant Group, wanted a bakery space to prepare breads and pastries for their seven Peruvian-style restaurants across the Bay Area, to they agreed to buy the business and its building.
As the sale moved forward, Binh Tran confided to Nosh that every time Dai and her team came to look at the bakery, he made sure they went home with a different variety of bread, “Just so they can taste how good it is,” he said. Perhaps that started Dai thinking, or perhaps it was the loud and despondent messages from Vital Vittles fans…but even after the sale was complete, Vital Vittles breads kept appearing on local shelves.
For months, Nosh attempted to contact Altamirano and Dai to figure out what was going on. Would they be continuing to make Vital Vittles breads for good, or was this just a momentary blip? Will consumers (many of whom buy in bulk) be able to order from the bakery themselves? Dai declined to speak directly with Nosh, but sent a prepared statement through a representative:
We are happy to clarify that our bakery is fully running, and we are planning on adding more fun delicious items to our menu. Customers can continue buying our products at their local grocery stores and soon will be able to purchase directly through our online bakery. We do not plan on closing anytime soon and are thankful to our longtime loyal customers and new customers for your support. There have been a few internal changes within the company, however, the team, recipes, and values are the same!
While we wish we could speak to Dai directly to hear how it came to be, it seems like this will have to do for now — and if that means the East Bay’s scores of Vital Vittles fans continue to get their bread, then that’s better than nothing.
Brazilian Breads wants to take its cheese balls national
Where to find Brazilian Breads’s frozen cheese balls:
Berkeley Bowl (920 Heinz Ave. and 2020 Oregon St., Berkeley)
Bossa Nova Brasil Market (10478 San Pablo Ave., El Cerrito)
Raxakoul Coffee and Cheese (1578 Hopkins St., Berkeley and 299 Arlington Ave., Kensington)
When Del Rodrigues opened her Brazilian Bread Cafe on Solano Avenue on Valentine’s Day, 2018, she was not ready for the onslaught of love that her puffy little cheese balls would unleash. In her native Brazil, the golden rolls with the crispy crust, called pão de queijo, are best eaten freshly baked, and are enjoyed for breakfast, lunch and snacks — basically anytime. It is one of the first things that Brazilian immigrants to the U.S. miss, Rodrigues told Nosh soon after her restaurant opened, and when she moved to California in 2009 to join her family, her parents begged her to figure out a recipe.
The first week her Berkeley cafe was open, demand was so high that Rodrigues had to close up shop after running out of food to sell. Certainly, her customers included members of the local Brazilian community, but many other patrons were just fans of her baked goods. Rodrigues told Nosh that this same love and support from the community continued, unabated, and and saw her through the worst days of the pandemic. So why close now?
Because now, she said, she’s determined to spread her cheese balls — which are made of tapioca flour and are therefore gluten-free — across the country. Her goal is to sell in national chains such as Sprouts and Whole Foods, after ramping up production at a factory with specialized machines imported from Brazil and Italy, so that she can go from making 1,000 cheese balls a day to 20 times that amount.
And to do that, she had to head to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, where her husband’s family (which also hails from Brazil) has an industrial production site that they’ve used to make their own version of cheese balls, under the name Cheenies, for 15 years.
Rodrigues said that she is learning a lot about large-scale industrial production on the East Coast, which she contrasts with the artisanal production kitchen she has in San Rafael. For example, the family’s factory has one machine for making the flour, another for mixing the dough, another for making the balls, another for packaging and so on. She said it’s a long learning process and she is still figuring it all out, so she will just concentrate on making her original flavor balls there for now.
For fans of her other flavors, some good news: Rodrigues said that she will maintain her small production kitchen in San Rafael, where she will continue to make four flavors of Brazilian Breads balls: original cheese, jalapeno pepper, garlic rosemary and guava. The balls will be sold, frozen, at a few area stores, for patrons to bake them at home. (This writer highly recommends the guava flavor, which is stuffed with a nugget of guava jelly that becomes molten when baked.)
(Meanwhile, 1707 Solano Ave., where her cafe once stood, will soon be another location of local java chain Signal Coffee, as was first reported by What Now SF. It’s expected to start serving customers on Sept. 11.)
Asked to compare the environment in Raleigh to Berkeley, Rodrigues admitted that there are challenges. “I’m a businesswoman and also an immigrant,” she said. “It’s very different there. Some people don’t want to do business with you because you are a woman. Or because you are an outsider, and you don’t vote there.”
She concedes that Raleigh is a beautiful city with good weather, and is situated in an especially good position, halfway between Massachusetts and Florida, which are home to the two biggest communities of Brazilian expats. But, still, “it’s not like California, which is very open-minded, where people want to help each other.”
Speaking from the East Coast, Rodrigues said that a lot of that help came from right here in Berkeley. “I want to say thank you to the whole Berkeley community for their support,” she said. “I could not have found a better place to start my business. I learned a lot. Staying open during the whole pandemic was so hard, especially the first 3 months. But I never gave up. It made me very strong. My employees were too scared to come to work, but the community kept coming, kept me going, helped to support the business, especially the Brazilian community.”
Featured image: Brazilian Breads cheese balls. Credit: Anna Mindess