Noe Valley Voice November 2006

Noe Valley Bakery and Bread Company All Puffed Up

By Kate Volkman

It's 8 o'clock on a Monday morning, and the bakers at the Noe Valley Bakery and Bread Company have been at work since 4 a.m.

Proprietor Michael Gassen and his assistants have already made the dough for sweet and sour baguettes, five different kinds of sandwiches on freshly baked bread, mounds of cream fillings and icings, and tray after tray of cookies, cupcakes, and breakfast pastries. Now Gassen is firing up the French deck ovens to bake the baguettes.

Gassen, 43, knows that the bakery at 4073 24th Street near Castro Street has become a staple for customers in Noe Valley. Six hundred people walk through its doors on a typical day, and more than 1,300 cross the threshold on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. Ten-year Noe Valley resident Gus Andres says the Voice need look no further to find a local gem: "This is definitely one of them."

Though best known for its blueberry-pecan scones, cakes, and chocolate-chip cookies, the Noe Valley Bakery also makes 15 to 20 different kinds of breads, close to 30 kinds of scones and breakfast pastries, and another 30 kinds of cookies, tarts, cakes, and desserts. "Ours is an old-fashioned American full-line bakery," says Mary Gassen, 45, Michael's wife and partner in the business.

It's not a French bakery like Tartine or the boulangeries popping up all over the city, but a bakery that warms the hearts and stomachs of adults and children alike. "Every neighborhood needs one of these," says Mary. "You're not necessarily going to drive across town for a croissant and a cup of coffee, so you need one in your neighborhood."

But San Francisco Chronicle writer Joel Selvin has driven across town for breakfast this Monday morning. He says, "I drive all the way from Potrero Hill to buy croissants. And my wife is a fan of their cinnamon twist."

Whether or not Selvin is an anomaly, Mary Gassen believes that people are traveling across town to pick up the bakery's signature cakes. That's because customers can custom-design their cakes first, online. "It started out with an idea of mine to have a little fun thing on our web site where you could click on it with your daughter and do her [birthday] cake," Mary explains. Now, customers can not only select their cake's base, icing, and decorations, but they can write their own message, draw a picture, or scan in a photo that will be reproduced in food coloring on edible rice paper.

"The more choices we give them to add on, the more they love it," says Mary.

Making it personal is what it's all about at this bakery. And making it easy, too. This year, the owners created a new line called Bake At Home. The bakery's refrigerated display case now offers frozen dough--for cookies, scones, and pie crusts--that customers can take home and bake themselves. Mary says she and Michael plan to add more items for the holidays, including cheese straws and other hors d'oeuvres.

Says neighborhood regular Francesca DeStefano, "I love the way they allow you to express your enthusiasm for every holiday or possible seasonal excuse to eat things."

The bakery kicked off its busiest season of the year at the end of September with Rosh Hashanah. For this holiday, the Gassens make a special round challah bread, honey cake, and prune hamantashen cookies, in addition to their usual rugelach.

Since then, Michael has rolled out the fall specialties: pumpkin cheesecake, tiny pumpkin teacakes, and of course, pumpkin cookies. "It's a thing of beauty," he says. "It's a soft cookie with golden raisins and walnuts, a little bit of spice and cinnamon. It's our number-one fall item. We'll make 15,000 between now and Christmas."

For Thanksgiving itself, the bakery makes 900 pies, 5,000 rolls, and 300 to 400 loaves of bread. "It's staggering how much we do out of this 1,500-square-foot place," Michael says. And at Christmas he makes bûche de Noël and Christmas stollen, for which he candies the fruit himself.

Michael is not a schooled baker, but an experienced one. He's second to last in a line of six children that his mother raised on her own in Richmond, Calif. Michael attended a private high school there, so he worked to pay tuition. As a sophomore, he started mopping floors in a bakery. By the time he graduated, he was assistant baker.

Mary is a classically schooled chef, but admits, "I can't bake my way out of a paper bag." So Michael runs the bakery, and she runs the business.

They bought the bakery in October 1994, three days before their wedding. "It was a little stressful," Michael remembers. They closed the doors a week before Christmas, and "the neighborhood just about had a collective heart attack, but we had to clean and remodel because it was a nightmare in here."

They knocked out the front wall that separated the front of the store from the kitchen, so that customers could see the bakers at work. And they cleaned like nobody's business. They bought new equipment and supplies and opened in February 1995.

Prior to their ownership, a bakery had been in operation at that location since 1908. For many years it operated as Plate's Bakery, named for owners Henry and Dora Plate. In 1967, the business passed to German immigrants Erich and Marianne Eberle. The Eberles still own the building today.

When the Gassens took over, they also launched a wholesale operation. They had a 6,000­square-foot production facility off Bayshore Boulevard, 100 employees, four to five delivery trucks, and a storefront in Albany. But business didn't go as well as they'd hoped. In 2004, they decided to quit the wholesale business entirely and operate solely as a small bakery with 25 employees.

"That was the hardest decision of our entire lives," Mary says. "Thank God we got out of that," Michael adds. "That was insane." The only place they sell their baked goods outside of Noe Valley now is the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays.

Lately, business is good and life is easier. For the first time since they started, the Gassens took off 30 days in a row this summer. They also are both working part-time, generally speaking. Most days, Michael comes in at 8, not 4, and he often plays golf on Thursdays. Mary works at home in Mill Valley as mother to their 9-year-old daughter, Anna Maria, and 7-year-old son, Jack.

Don't be fooled into thinking they're slacking off, however. "My philosophy on running a business is to keep it fresh and interesting," says Mary. One way she and her husband do that is by rolling out new items at the bakery. Have you noticed their Most-est cupcakes and their NoeOs (Oreos)? Also, in addition to new holiday hors d'oeuvres for Bake At Home, look for whole-grain bread and pain demi in the coming months, she says.

The couple are entrepreneurs at heart, Michael says, so they're always looking for ways to continue having fun. And they've got an idea they can't resist. They plan to open an old-fashioned sweet shop, rich with retro candies, toys, comic books, and a fountain. We city dwellers will have to cross the Golden Gate for this treat, though, because they plan to open it in Mill Valley.

But do not fear the loss of a local institution. The Gassens just signed a new 14-year lease for the Noe Valley Bakery and Bread Company on 24th Street.

Kate Volkman is writing a series of articles on longtime businesses in Noe Valley. She also helps families and companies record and preserve their history.