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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.”
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.
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.”
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.
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.