1601 San Pablo Ave. (at the corner of San Pablo Avenue and Cedar Street)
It’s not uncommon to find a line at the corner of Cedar Street and San Pablo Avenue in Berkeley. This corner has been the home of Acme Bread since 1983, when owners Steven and Suzie Sullivan began baking bread here almost 40 years ago. But soon, the Sullivans will say goodbye to Cedar Street and will move just across the street to 1640 San Pablo Ave., the former home of Berkeley Surplus. And this time, they’ll own the building, a first after decades of five-year lease terms.
The vision for Acme Bread first began in Steven’s college years, when working as a busboy at Chez Panisse he noticed the lack of decent options for wholesale bread.
“Restaurants in the late seventies and early eighties were having increasing difficulties with finding good bread,” Sullivan recalled. “I was very intimately familiar with that problem because I was the busboy [at Chez Panisse] and had to slice up and serve the bread.”
During a college trip to Europe, Sullivan discovered British writer Elizabeth David’s English Bread and Yeast Cookery, a book dedicated to the history and techniques of bread baking in England. After taking in the book from cover to cover, Sullivan returned to the U.S. inspired to bake.
“I started baking bread every day in my student co-op room, and then started bringing bread to [Chez Panisse] for people to try. Gradually the bread went from bad, to less bad, to tolerable to desirable,” Sullivan laughed.
Around this same time, Sullivan met his wife, Suzie. As buzz about Sullivan’s bread grew, demand grew as well, and Suzie stepped in to become Steven’s business partner. With the help of Chez Panisse’s Alice Waters and landlord and wine merchant Kermit Lynch, the duo opened up shop in Lynch’s building in September of 1983.
When the shop first opened, the Sullivans used one of Waters’ old dining room tables as their retail counter, covering it with a white tablecloth. Suzie would write carbon copies of wholesale orders from restaurants, but also sold bread to any customers that came by.
“We did wholesale with the idea that if somebody wanted to stop in and buy bread, we would sell bread,” Sullivan said. “[Retail] started off very modestly.”
The Berkeley shop has since become one of the most beloved retail bakeries in the area, garnering regular local customers as well as out-of-town visitors. Retail orders are still taken at a small counter reminiscent of the dining room table that once stood in its place, but the variety of offerings has grown exponentially since the location first opened. In addition to the usual suspects of Country Levain and Pain de Mie loaves, the bakery also offers more experimental loaves concocted by staff members (a recent addition includes a spelt loaf with pieces of dried pears folded in), Roman-style pizza, puff pastries filled with seasonal produce, cookies and more.
Much of the expanded menu can be attributed to manager Becca Sullivan, Steven and Suzie’s eldest daughter. “We started the bakery and I immediately got pregnant with Becca!” Suzie said.
Though Becca was practically raised within the bakery, she did not initially plan on returning to the family business. “My majors in college were Latin American Studies and Portuguese Literature. All my electives were in environmental science,” Becca said.
“When I graduated, I noticed all my job opportunities were with companies I could not bring myself to work for. I wanted to work for a company whose ethos I could personally identify with.”
As it turns out, Becca did end up finding a company whose mission she admired: her parents’. When a position opened up at the bakery, Becca decided to take the job and has been with Acme ever since.
“I really admire what my parents have been doing here,” Becca said. “They provide everyone with fair wages, excellent benefits and the chance to grow.”
When it came time for Acme to open new locations to keep up with the retail demand for their bread, they decided to keep it within the family: this time, their own bakery staff. Each additional Acme Bread outpost is managed by longstanding employees of Acme Bread.
Acme Bread to move — but only across the street, and maybe not until 2023
After going on 40 years, the bakery’s owners say they are “getting too old for the excitement of successive five-year leases” and would like to secure a long-term future. They’ve bought a building on the same block.
“The only way Steven was comfortable expanding was by taking on a partner that was a baker internally,” Suzie said. “We had a few people that had been at the company for several years… we started looking around and we started talking to the people about whether they’d like to invest a little bit in the project of expanding the bakery. It was kind of a way of selling shares and creating a commitment,” Steven said.
The attention to detail is apparent not only in the product and the longevity of staff members’ tenures, but also in the local partners Acme chooses to work with.
“You can see we don’t have much meat product here at the bakery,” Becca mentioned. “For our ham and cheese croissant, we use Fra’Mani ham, and we chose them because of their transparency and humane treatment of the animals. I still check in with them frequently to make sure their practices have remained the same.”
For seasonal produce, Acme has another family connection: Acme sources from Frog Hollow Farm, where the Sullivans’ second daughter, Rachel, is currently the farm operations manager.
When the new location opens at 1640 San Pablo, the Sullivans hope to provide Acme’s loyal customers with sit-down seating as well as coffee to enjoy with their baked goods. With the increased space, Steven says there’s more they hope to experiment with on the menu. At the current location, he said “we’ve got all this competition for one oven and one table. So it’s a real tussle to make it all work.”
“In the new space we have two tables. We’ll be able to just do a bigger variety of things. We’ll do pizzas and sandwiches and see where it develops from there.”
As for the future of the company, Steven reiterated the importance of valuing the current staff, and seeing who within the company would be best to take over once Steven and Suzie retire. “Right now we’re just trying to work on a structure that works into the next generation of the company,” Steven said.
“So we’re working seriously now on identifying people within the company who are good candidates to move into that kind of managing ownership role and figure out how to make that kind of transition.”
To this day, Acme’s mission still remains the same: to provide high quality bread to wholesale accounts and customers while keeping the product at an affordable price point. Though even Acme has not been immune to ingredient-based product price increases, Steven remains committed to the fair treatment of his staff and said he continues to increase staff wages on pace with local inflation rates.
“Our goal is not to make money. It’s to offer an affordable, quality product,” Becca said. “We are so lucky to still have a line out the door every day. We are nothing without our staff and our customers.”