Berkeley has lost two popular bakeries in recent months: Vital Vittles, which sold off this spring after 46 years in business, and Brazilian Breads, which closed its Berkeley cafe late last month. Both closures sparked much mourning from locals, who missed out on hearty and substantial breads from Vital Vittles and pão de queijo from Brazilian Breads.
Vital Vittles closes after 46 years of baking cult bread in Berkeley
Berkeley’s longtime ‘hippie bread’ bakery at risk of closing
The Brazilian Bread Café is now open on Solano Avenue
In Her Own Words: An Illustrated Interview with Del Rodrigues of the Brazilian Bread Café
But all is not lost for area residents who continue to crave sesame millet from Vital Vittles or cheese buns from Brazilian Breads: in either case, the businesses continue to operate as wholesale or online, with items available at select East Bay grocery stores and stores.
Nosh spoke with both companies about their transition from customer-facing or brick-and-mortar businesses to more virtual businesses. 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 restaurateurs, who planned to turn it into a production bakery for their East Bay businesses. But as many Nosh readers have since noted, you can still buy and enjoy a dozen varieties of freshly baked Vital Vittles breads and rolls today, including their real bread, raisin bread, 3 seeds, 9 grains and sesame millet. So what happened?
To recap: As with many local food manufacturers, the pandemic has upended the wholesale accounts that Vital Vittles owners, Binh and Huong Tran, had relied on to keep Vital Vittles afloat. In dire financial straits, the brother and sister reluctantly searched for a buyer. Carlos Altamirano and his wife Shu Dai, who together own the Altamirano Restaurant Groupwanted a bakery space to prepare breads and pastries for their seven Peruvian-style restaurants across the Bay Area, they agreed to buy the business and its building.
As the sale progressed, Binh Tran told Nosh that whenever Dai and his team came to see the bakery, he made sure they went home with a different variety of bread, “just so that ‘they can taste how good it is’. he said. Maybe that got Dai thinking, or maybe it was the loud, discouraged messages from Vital Vittles fans… but even after the sale ended, Vital Vittles breads continued to appear on local shelves.
For months, Nosh tried to contact Altamirano and Dai to figure out what was going on. Would they continue to make Vital Vittles breads for good, or was this just a momentary failure? 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 report that our bakery is operating at full capacity and we plan to add more delicious and fun dishes to our menu. Customers can continue to purchase our products at their local grocery stores and will soon be able to shop directly through our online bakery. We don’t plan on closing any time soon and thank our long-time loyal customers and new customers for your support. There have been some internal changes within the company, however, the team, recipes and values are the same!
While we wish we could speak directly to Dai to find out how it went, it looks like that will have to be done for now – and if that means East Bay’s many Vital Vittles fans continue to receive their bread, then it’s better than nothing.
Brazilian breads want to take their cheese balls to the national level
Where to find Brazilian Breads Frozen Cheese Balls:
Berkeley Bowl (920 Heinz Ave. and 2020 Oregon St., Berkeley)
Bossa Nova Market Brazil (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 Café on Solano Avenue on Valentine’s Day 2018, she wasn’t ready for the onslaught of love her puffy little cheese balls would unleash. In his native Brazil, crispy-crusted golden rolls, called pão de queijo, are best eaten freshly baked and enjoyed for breakfast, lunch and snacks, virtually anytime. It’s one of the first things Brazilian immigrants miss in the United States, Rodrigues told Nosh shortly after opening her restaurant, and when she moved to California in 2009 to join her family, her parents. begged her to find a recipe.
The first week his Berkeley cafe was open, demand was so high that Rodrigues had to close shop after running out of food to sell. Granted, his customers included members of the local Brazilian community, but many other customers were just fans of his baked goods. Rodrigues told Nosh that same love and support from the community continues, unabated, and has seen her through the worst days of the pandemic. So why close now?
Because now, she says, she’s determined to spread her cheese balls — which are made from tapioca flour and are therefore gluten-free — across the country. Her goal is to sell in national chains such as Sprouts and Whole Foods, having scaled up production at a factory with specialized machinery imported from Brazil and Italy, so she can go from making 1,000 cheese balls a day 20 times that amount.
And to do that, she had to travel to Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, where her husband’s family (also originally from Brazil) owns an industrial production site which they used to make their own version of dumplings. of cheese, under the name Cheenies, for 15 years.
Rodrigues said she learned a lot about large-scale industrial production on the East Coast, which she contrasts with the artisanal production cuisine she has in San Rafael. For example, the family factory has a machine for making flour, another for kneading dough, another for making balls, another for packaging, and so on. She said it’s a long learning process and she’s still figuring it all out, so she’ll just focus on making her original flavor balls there for now.
For fans of its other flavors, good news: Rodrigues said it will maintain its small production kitchen in San Rafael, where it will continue to make four flavors of Brazilian bread balls: original cheese, jalapeno pepper, rosemary garlic and guava. The balls will be sold, frozen, in a few stores in the area, for customers to bake at home. (This writer highly recommends the guava flavor, which is stuffed with a nugget of guava jelly that melts when cooked.)
(Meanwhile, 1707 Solano Ave., where his cafe once was, will soon be another location for local java chain Signal Coffee, as first reported. by What Now SF. It is expected to start serving customers on September 11.)
Asked to compare Raleigh’s environment to Berkeley’s, Rodrigues admitted there were challenges. “I’m a businesswoman and also an immigrant,” she says. “It’s very different there. Some people don’t want to do business with you because you’re a woman. Or because you’re a foreigner and you don’t vote there.
She concedes that Raleigh is a beautiful city with good weather, and is particularly well located, halfway between Massachusetts and Florida, which are home to the two largest Brazilian expat communities. 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 much of that help came from here in Berkeley. “I want to thank the entire Berkeley community for their support,” she said. “I couldn’t have found a better place to start my business. I learned a lot. Staying open throughout the pandemic has been so difficult, 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 support the business, especially the Brazilian community.
Featured image: Brazilian bread cheese balls. Credit: Anna Mindess