Healdsburg Downtown Bakery & Creamery: Good, Clean & Fair

By February 9, 2018 Blog
Healdsburg Downtown Bakery – On the left, Kathleen Stewart, proprietor, with Anna Mancuso Tarlton, the pastry chef

Founded in 1987, the Healdsburg Downtown Bakery & Creamery is one of the oldest and most reliable havens for good, wholesome nutritious food on the Healdsburg plaza. Over the past two decades it has become a tourist destination, even while it has continued to appeal to locals.

The bakery, which is also a café and an ice cream parlor, has expanded the eating habits of Healdsburg and Sonoma County, too. Whether you’re a meat eater, a vegetarian, a lover of sweet things, or savory things there’s something for you.

Carlo Petrini, the founder of Slow Food, would say that the bakery is a kind of sensory paradise that emphasizes the Good, the Clean, and the Fair: diversity, sustainability and respect for human dignity.

Indeed, if you care about the values of Slow Food you’ll care about the Downtown Bakery and Creamery. Recycling is big. Little if anything goes to wasted. Leftovers are delivered to the homeless, to a near-by senior center and to a bird rescue center. Avians have never eaten so well.

Over the past two-and-a-half decades, I’ve visited the bakery dozens of times. A creature of habit, I buy bread, croissants, plum and strawberry jam and homemade sandwiches, especially when I’m on the road and don’t have time for a sit-down meal. My expectations have always been met.

Sometimes I buy a large Italian loaf, sometimes a small loaf. I take the bread home, cut it in half, freeze one part and eat the other part over the course of a week or so. The bread stays fresh, and when it’s defrosted it’s still tasty.

Healdsburg Downtown Bakery – Italian loaves

The Italian loaves, both large and small, are displayed behind the front counter. They’re the very first item that I see when I enter the bakery; they make my mouth water.

Recently, I spent a few mornings and afternoons at the bakery. I observed the activity in the kitchen and at the counter and talked to at least a dozen people, both at the front of the house and the back of the house. Each and every time I visited I was impressed by the creativity, the attention to detail and the care with which everything is made.

Ingredients are sourced locally and they’re organic, too. People in the neighborhood pick ripe fruit from their own trees and bring it to the bakery where it finds its way into recipes and pastries.

Once a year, the Healdsburg Downtown Bakery and Creamery is closed for about ten days at the end of December and the beginning of January when professionals come in and scrub every surface, from the ceiling to the floor.

Everyone on the team gets a paid vacation and a much-needed break from the intensity of daily cooking and baking. There’s everyday cleaning, too. Karin Bernard, who works behind the counter, steps outside and makes sure that the windows are spotless.

Healdsburg Downtown Bakery – Karen Bernard

Karin Bernard at the entrance on the Healdsburg plaza. The icon for the bakery is on the window behind her.

The Healdsburg Downtown Bakery & Creamery is open seven days a week. Hours vary, so it’s probably best to check the website for exact hours. In addition to the croissants, baguettes, scones and bagels there are breakfasts Fridays to Mondays. They include pancakes, with or without blueberries, and polenta with poached farm eggs made with goat cheese and Bernier Farms veggies.

Healdsburg Downtown Bakery – Website

Healdsburg Downtown Bakery – Website

A sign outside, above the sidewalk, alerts customers to what’s inside. For years I didn’t notice it. Then, one day I looked up and there it was.

Healdsburg Downtown Bakery - Overhead sign

The overhead, out-door signs with lists of treats available on the inside. Notice the words “Special Occasion Cakes.” Locals have been ordering birthday cakes for decades.

On Saturdays, breads from the Healdsburg Downtown Bakery are available at the Ferry Building in San Francisco. Urbanites don’t have to drive to Healdsburg to buy the bakery’s products.

Thirty-one years ago, Kathleen Stewart created the bakery on a whim and a prayer along with Lindsey Shere and her daughter, Therese. Kathleen and Lindsey both worked at Alice Waters’ flagship Berkeley restaurant, Chez Panisse. They brought Chez Panisse values with them and adapted to Healdsburg, which Kathleen remembers as a ghost town. Lindsey and Therese have since moved on. New people have moved in, including family members.

Healdsburg Downtown Bakery – Kathleen Stewart and Anna Mancuso

Kathleen Stewart on the left and, Anna Mancuso Tarlton on the right. Kathleen has a head for business. Anna has a knack for pastry. Together they help make the bakery a haven and a destination. Everyone else on the team lends a hand or two.

I’ve heard Kathleen called the “big boss,” while her daughter, Maya Eshom, describes herself as the “little boss,” though neither of them seem bossy.

Kathleen provides a sense of over-arching purpose. Maya runs the place day-in and day-out. She also does a lot of baking, including the gluten-free, vegan muffins that have a lot of different ingredients and demand a lot of prep time.

Headsburg Downtown Bakery – Maya xxx

Maya Eshom, Kathleen’s Stewart’s daughter, does almost everything that needs to be done at the bakery. Here she’s making the batter for gluten-free, vegan muffins, a fairly recent addition to the menu, though it now seems to have been there forever. The bakery has kept pace with changes in diet and as customers have become increasingly health conscious.

Kathleen Stewart doesn’t want to be the star of the show. She’d rather be in the background and not receive special attention. When I asked her if she’d like her picture taken, she grabbed hold, gently, of Anna Mancuso Tarlton, the pastry chef, and the two of them posed together.

On a recent morning, I watched Anna while she made a batch of vanilla pudding, which she uses in éclairs and Boston cream pies. She smiles while she works; I could tell that she cares about the whole process of making pudding, and all the little steps.

At home, where she cooks for her kids, she cuts the amount of sugar and adds whole-wheat flour to her recipes. “My kids don’t know the difference,” she says.

Healdsburg Downtown Bakery – Anna Mancuso Tarlton

Pastry chef Anna Mancuso Tarlton making a batch of vanilla pudding used in a variety of deserts. She takes her skills home and bakes for her kids.

Each week, the Downtown Bakery and Creamery goes through hundreds of gallons of organic Clover milk and cream. Ice cream and sherbets are made in the bakery itself. Not surprisingly, they’re very popular in summer and when temperatures soar.

Almost everything, except for the roasted coffee from Oakland, is made on site, from scratch and by-hand, though there’s a machine to mix the dough, made from flour that’s delivered from Giusto in South San Francisco.

Giusto produces some of the best organic, unbleached flour in northern California. It’s delivered regularly and it’s used quickly. Nothing sits around and gets old or stale

Healdsburg Downtown Bakery – Giusto flour

Sacks of newly delivered, organic, unbleached Giusto’s flour near the back of the bakery, an area that customers rarely if ever see. It’s just as clean and tidy at the back of the house as at the front.

Kathleen’s son and Maya’s brother, Joe Stewart, works part time at the bakery these days, though he was once full-time. He and his wife, Lisa Hinman, the chef extraordinaire at the Spinster Sisters, have three small kids, including twin girls. Joe does a lot of parenting. A few days a week, he slices the turkey that he roasts and uses for sandwiches that are popular with people on their way to work.

Joe also makes the soups, including split pea and a “minestrone-style” soup that has white beans, kale and sausage. Joe calls his soups “meals in a bowl.” They’re filling and they taste good, too. A couple of days a week, he bakes bread, which he describes as “solitary work,” though he says that he also enjoys “the rhythm and the routine of baking.”

Healdsburg Downtown Bakery – Joe Stewart

Joe Stewart, Kathleen’s son, slicing roast turkey for take-out sandwiches popular for lunch. Seven-years-old when the bakery first opened, Joe has seen a lot of changes on the plaza, especially since the opening of the Hotel Healdsburg with its pool, spa and world-class dining.

Juan Magana, who makes the pizza and the polenta, also makes the bagels the way they’re supposed to be made. He boils them in water on the top of the stove, for about four seconds on each side and then dries them on paper towels. They’re some of the best bagels West of New York and North of L.A., which means they’re chewy. Juan is often the only man in the bakery; he keeps his cool, especially when standing over a hot stove.

Healdsburg Downtown Bakery – Juan Magana

Juan Magana, the bagel, pizza and polenta maker, takes a break during an intense morning.

Healdsburg Downtown Bakery – Bagels boiling away

Bagels in boiling water on the top of the stove. You don’t have to be Jewish to make bagels or to enjoy them. Like tortillas, they’re now everywhere. At the Downtown Bakery they’re uncommonly good plain or with a schmear which is Yiddish for spread, usually cream cheese.

Toby Scott is one of the newest members of the team. He was hired without any previous baking experience, but he’s learning quickly by doing things slowly, with an eye and a nose attuned to details. A veteran of Bernier Farms, he knows the virtues of local, organic and fresh and the importance of the hands-on approach.

“You have to feel the dough to know when it’s ready,” Toby says. “It also has to have the right smell.”

Healdsburg Downtown Bakery – Toby Scott

Toby Scott, Healdsburg native and the newest employee in the kitchen, takes a break from baking and leans over the counter at the front of the house.

Toby grew up in Healdsburg, spent time in Australia and then came back to Sonoma County, where, as he says, “it’s all happening.” Sometimes it feels that the whole town passes through the Downtown Bakery. Indeed, locals meet for coffee and conversation. Eavesdrop and you can learn a lot about wine, food, health and politics.

No task is less important than any other. They’re all essential. Lupe Contreras washes dishes, pots and pans. Her friend, Lupe Gustos, also washes dishes, and says that she thinks about getting a boy friend to help her do her job.

Elizabeth Cabrera arrived at the front door without baking skills. Now, she makes scones and focaccia.

Women from the local community are the backbone of the bakery. Sometimes they take extended breaks, give birth to babies and then return to their jobs.

Healdsburg Downtown Bakery – Lupe Contresas and Elizabeth Cabrera

Lupe Contreras, on the left, washes dishes, and Elizabeth Cabrera, on the right, makes scones and focaccia. They’re two of the women who form the backbone of the bakery.

Some of the employees have worked at the bakery for more than two decades. I’d call that a loyal workforce and for good reasons. Staring salary is the minimum wage, especially when newcomers are learning on the job. Once they master the basics, wages rise quickly. There’s room for upward mobility.

The Healdsburg Downtown Bakery is out of my way, but it’s also out of the ordinary and worth the journey from Santa Rosa. On a recent visit, I bought bread and jam, then took them both home and enjoyed them along with black tea in my own kitchen.

Healdsburg Downtown Bakery – bagel and jar of bakery strawberry jam

Jonah Raskin’s half-eaten bagel and jar of the bakery’s strawberry jam. (He ate the whole bagel and took the jam home.) Note the tools of the reporter!

Healdsburg Downtown Bakery – Jonah Raskin

I never leave the bakery empty-handed. Here I am in my own kitchen with what’s left of an Italian loaf and a jar of strawberry jam. I have more jam in the pantry and more bread in the freezer.

Jonah RaskinJonah Raskin is the author of Field Days: A Year of Farming, Eating and Drinking Wine in California, and a member of Slow Food Russian River. The photos are his.

3 Comments

  • Kate Coleman says:

    Wonderful story, Jonah, of a treasure in Northern California and love how you’ve characterized my pal Kathleen, her children, the whole pack of her loyal workers. Over the years ive stayed with Kathleen and other Chez P. alum when ive come up on there to do swimraces on the Russian River And always loading up on goodies voth before and after my racing. (awhole lot less stressful covering such deligjts than some of he stories we both have covered

    • Jonah Raskin says:

      Thanks. All stories have their challenges and their rewards. Kathleen is great!! Her bakery is always a destination for me.

  • Billy says:

    Great to hear local businesses like this one doing well and getting some time in the spotlight! Local bakeries and creameries, as well as local butchers deserve their times to shine. Looking forward to hearing more about this great healdsburg bakery and creamery in the future!

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