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News » Cover Story

Rising to the Occasion

Salt Lake bakers may have been battered by COVID, but they're still rolling in dough.

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The pandemic gave most of us the chance to renew our relationship with two things: our kitchens and our liquor cabinets.

The bustling economy that fueled our spending had made it way too easy to justify eating on the go or joining friends and family for tapas and cocktails. Plus, with so many new eateries and bars to experience, who didn't want to taste the creativity of the newest chef in town?

Homemade anything was always appreciated, of course, but with our busy schedules, scratch-made food was becoming more and more of a novelty.

That all changed last spring when we found ourselves homebound for a few weeks, and for many, the rest of the year. Perhaps inspired by endlessly streaming The Great British Baking Show, or maybe because we felt the end of the world was nigh and wanted to enjoy a prisoner's last meal, suddenly, cooking and baking were a thing, so much so that many basic supplies went missing at the grocery store. After toilet paper, bottled water and hand sanitizer disappeared from the shelves, flour and yeast were next to vanish.

Why flour? Scroll through your friends' social media posts from the past year, and you are likely to be inundated by photos of homemade breads, cakes, cookies, pizza crusts and cinnamon rolls. (Many of us are sporting a "COVID 15" around our mid-sections to prove it.) (C'mon. Only 15?)

But what now? Some of us are slip-sliding our way back into the workplace. Others are still working at home but less diligent about keeping that sourdough starter fed (has yours turned red and grown hairy mold yet?) or arise at 4:30 a.m. to start the baking process.

Luckily, many of our local bakeries have kept the lights on during the pandemic. A few intrepid souls even started new bakeries during COVID. In this month's restaurant roundup—gathered by writers of the currently on-hiatus Devour Utah food magazine—we check in with a handful of local bakers to find out how they came through this challenging time.

If the pandemic taught us anything, we learned how much planning and prep go into a single loaf of bread and the intricate chemistry and divine artistry that create them. It boggles the mind that people who show up for work hours before most of us have cracked an eyelid can mix flour and cajole it into loaves and cakes and cookies—all to make our lives more celebratory. Reading about these stalwart bakers, it's obvious the "COVID-15" might not be going away any time soon!
—Jerre Wroble


Sarah Warner, the baker behind Pie Fight - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Sarah Warner, the baker behind Pie Fight

A Portable Slice of Pie
Sarah Warner was an avid home baker. If you follow her Instagram account, @sarahmakesit, it comes as no surprise she is now in the hand-pie-making business. When co-owners Michael Templeman and Johnny Duncan approached her about opening Pie Fight, a pickup-window bakery, during the pandemic offering only hand pies, the ever-optimistic Warner said, "Sure, why not?"

How's business?
We have been steadily growing; it has been great.

What kept you going over the past year?
For us, we grew very slowly; we did not have any grandiose ideas. Because we were just a walk-up window and because our product is fairly simple—we just sell five flavors at a time—so we decided we would go into this not with great expectations of opening this grand kitchen of selling hundreds of pies. We opened in a very tiny space, like the size of closet. We made it simple, and we grew as we went.

Did you do any remodeling during the pandemic?
As we grew and had to make more pies (to keep up with demand), we hired a few employees. As the tiny kitchen became too small, we busted out a room in the store that we are in, then we need more freezer space to store those pies, so we busted out the next room, and we have just continued to steadily grow. We just keep stealing space from Tomorrow's House because we keep needing more room.

Did you create a pandemic menu?
No, but we have had at least five flavors of pies every day, from Day 1. Currently, those flavors are blueberry lemon, peach cobbler, salt caramel apple, bourbon caramel apple, strawberry rhubarb and blackberry funfetti. Right now, the most popular flavor is a battle between blueberry lemon and peach cobbler. Blueberry lemon has been there since we started at it seems to be a favorite amongst middle-age men.

Do you offer delivery?
We do—we partnered with DoorDash during the pandemic. Our pies travel well and carry over well into the next day well.

Did you take advantage of any of the federal or state pandemic programs?
We did not need to. We have a very simple business model. (by Aimee L. Cook)

Pie Fight
937 E. 900 South, SLC
thepiefight.com


Mike Parsons Parsons Bakery - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Mike Parsons Parsons Bakery

Donuts Saved the Day
Mike Parsons is a second-generation baker. His father, Woodrow Parsons, started Parsons' Bakery in Richfield in 1925. Woodrow later sold the bakery. Although Mike studied engineering at the University of Utah, he was called back to work in the family business and, in 1985, he opened Parsons' Bakery in Bountiful. Two of Mike's kids are also bakers.

How is business?
The weekends are very busy, especially during the pandemic. It was like every weekend was a holiday. People were making bread at home, so bread sales went down, but the one thing that stayed consistent in sales were donuts. Mom and kids don't want to fry donuts.

Did you create a pandemic menu?
Donuts became the go-to. Overall, cake sales changed because businesses and schools were not ordering half-sheets. Celebration cakes were all but shut down, so we went to smaller cakes. We also went to individually wrapped items, like our cookies, which we had never had before.

Did you do any remodeling during the pandemic?
We took out our indoor seating, and I am not sure we will ever go back to it. People are just so used to coming in, getting their stuff and walking out. We did have a few people who wanted curbside, and we accommodated that—we accommodated whatever people's comfort level was. But people like to come in and pick their donuts.

Did you take advantage of any of the federal programs that provided a lifeline?
I did the PPP loan—the first three months—business was tough. It definitely helped pay the rent and expenses for payroll.

Are your employees returning to the fold? If you need help, are you hiring?
We are hiring—finding help right now is extremely hard. I need a baker going into the summer, but I can't even get someone to apply that has any experience.

What do you want your customers to know?
If you have a bakery need, we can supply it for you. If you have never been to us, come to us. You will be pleasantly surprised by the selection across the board from sourdough, cookies to French pastries, etc. (by Aimee L. Cook)

Parsons' Bakery
535 W. 2600 South, Bountiful
801-298-3059
parsonsbakeryutah.com


Abdelmaksod Youssef, showcasing his eclairs at Eclair French Pastry - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Abdelmaksod Youssef, showcasing his eclairs at Eclair French Pastry

Weekend Brunch With a Side of Culture
Being from Egypt and having lived in many parts of the world, Abdelmaksod Youssef was determined to bring his passion for culture and cuisine to the masses. Youssef had a restaurant in Greece where he enjoyed making pastries, so when he moved to Utah and opened Eclair French Pastry in Sugar House two years ago, he had the opportunity to create his own unique brand of eclairs, cakes and more.

How's business been going?
Pretty good. It is starting to pick up now. We are doing some catering and events. Hopefully, it will stay busy. We are back open six days a week.

Did you take advantage of any of the federal or state pandemic programs that provided a lifeline?
Yes, we did the SBA loan. It was good, especially for paying rent and employees. Also, I had a little bit of money to get some new equipment—a coffee machine, a new oven and fridge.

Did you create a pandemic menu?
We offered the same menu, but we have now added a bit of culture to our menu. We started doing brunch on the weekend, and every two weeks we do a different cuisine: Middle Eastern, Greek, Bosnian, Turkish. It's a great opportunity for people around here to taste food from different countries. On Saturday, we have live music provided by a local singer.

Are you in need of employees?
No, we have enough right now.

What would you like your customers to know?
We use all natural and organic products, no artificial flavoring. Everything is made from scratch, and we support local businesses—our coffee is Ibis from Logan. We try to support as many local businesses we can. We offer discounts to people working in the medical field, and we are offering free soup again on Tuesdays for our customers and neighbors as a way to thank the community. (by Aimee L. Cook)

Eclair French Pastry
2112 E. 1300 South, SLC,
385-259-4100
eclairslc.com


Janna Oliver with Granite Bakery & Bridal Showcase - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Janna Oliver with Granite Bakery & Bridal Showcase

Wedding Cakes Are Back
Janna Oliver is the sales manager at Granite Bakery & Bridal Showcase, a family-owned bakery that has been in business since 1983. "Our specialty item is a cinnamon knot, which is gooey and sticky and baked in a muffin tin," says Oliver. Granite sells about 40 dozen cinnamon knots a day from their location at 902 East and 2700 South, just south of Sugar House. "Cakes were always our biggest item, what we were known for in the market. Our cake tends to sell itself," says Oliver. "We tell customers that everything we make is baked like Grandma's."

How did your business change during the pandemic?
It was pretty rough. Everything changed drastically. Our target market is geared toward celebrations—weddings, birthdays and holidays. Before COVID, we had a large business in the corporate world. On the first Friday of every month, a local hospital might order 20 dozen cupcakes for all the March birthdays. Or 2,000 cinnamon knots for the pharmacy school graduation. People ordered hundreds or thousands of cookies or brownies for big events. The year 2020 would have been our biggest wedding cake year in Granite Bakery history. In an average year, we sell 900 wedding cakes. In 2020, we sold maybe 25. Birthday cake orders that used to serve 35 to 40 people were reduced to small cakes that served seven or eight people. For 14 months, we were right around a 50% loss.

How did you adjust your business model?
We started advertising in a new way. We did weekly specials. We were able to share all kinds of things on Facebook and Instagram. We bought a sidewalk sign that we changed every two hours. We might sell a banana cream pie for $2. We started to make and promote products—like eclairs—that we could replace as they sold so we wouldn't have to throw them away. We shifted gears, and our job titles disappeared. Before COVID, I had one baker who cut out sugar cookies all day. During COVID, he did other things—such as cleaning the bakery and helping to package flour. For the first time, we sold our raw goods—a 10-pound bag of flour or dry yeast in a one-pound block—that people wanted to fill their pantries.

Which customers helped sustain you?
All of those couples—those previous brides and grooms—became part of our loyal following from our earlier wedding successes. A grandmother might buy a dozen sugar cookies and frosting to make with the grandkids. Some people came in at the same time every day to buy a donut. People standing on the "x" for social distancing were standing in front of a donut case. They slowed down and looked around and spent a little more. I want to show our loyal customers how much we appreciate them.

How is your business bouncing back?
Wedding cakes are back. Next week, we have orders for 28 wedding cakes. We are right on track for where we would have been in 2019. We now sell 125 birthday and all-occasion cakes per week. As people are starting to gather this year, they have high school graduation parties like they've never had before. It's like they're saying, "Let's make this event one for the record books." (By Carolyn Campbell)

Granite Bakery & BRIDAL SHOWCASE
902 E. 2700 South, SLC
801-467-7291
granitebakery.com


Victor Hernandez / “We are never going to stop doing things from scratch, no matter how big we get.”—Rosanna Wayman, V & R Baking Co. - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Victor Hernandez / “We are never going to stop doing things from scratch, no matter how big we get.”—Rosanna Wayman, V & R Baking Co.

Back to Where They Started
Rosanna Wayman is the "R" of V & R Baking Co. The company began in early 2019 as a wholesale bakery. In August 2020, Wayman and the other owner, Victor Hernandez, moved their bakery into the previous Millcreek location of Pierre's Country Bakery on 3300 South, where they had been former employees. Wayman says their bakery is well known for a signature croissant and their raspberry bear claw. "People say that we have the best baguettes," says Wayman. "It's hard to say what we are best known for because people keep finding new favorites."

How did you choose to open a bakery at this location?
Both of us were bakers for Pierre's, the previous bakery that was here. I worked there for seven years, beginning as a front-counter cashier. For the last four to five years, I was the head pastry chef. Our other founder, Victor Hernandez, ran the bread crew on the night shift. He worked through four different owners. This new bakery is named after us—the two founders—V & R, for Victor and Rosanna. We have a huge passion for baking. A lot of our passion is driven from knowing one of Pierre's former owners. He taught us a lot of what we know, and what we do is because of him. People tell us they are so glad we are open, that there is a bakery here again. Other people say they never knew there was a bakery here before.

Did you open right after Pierre's closed?
No, we left Pierre's to start our own thing. We never thought we would grace this building again, even though it was such a huge part of our lives. We created a wholesale bakery in a different location, baking for wholesale clients from Park City to Salt Lake Valley. But when the opportunity came to move back here, it was kind of surreal; it felt comforting, and we were familiar with the space. It was like, "Let's move back home."

What are your top selling products?
Our ginger snap cookie is the bestseller by far. Our signature croissant is named "the Beast." It has everything—ham, bacon, tomato, jalapenos and cheese. Our sourdough is the bestselling bread—after that, asiago and herb. While we sell a ton of carrot cake, chocolate fudge is still our highest-selling cake, although people also love our lemon raspberry and tiramisu. We also sell a fair amount of brownies—mint, chocolate fudge, chocolate peanut butter and seven-layer bars. Eclairs are in my top five desserts that I make. I love the simplicity of it; I make my own shell. Around Thanksgiving, we offer 11 or 12 different pie flavors. My favorite new pie is apple custard with streusel topping.

What are your future plans?
We want to open more stores. But we are never going to stop doing things from scratch, no matter how big we get. We're not getting machines to do any of our stuff. Victor shapes the bread every day; it's rolled by hand. He shapes every croissant by hand. We make everything—croissant doughs and Danish doughs, bread every day with sourdough starter. We make our fillings and frostings, and you can taste the difference. Once you lose that touch, people can tell. (By Carolyn Campbell)

V&R Baking Co.
3239 E. 3300 South, Millcreek
801-661-1409
vrbakingco.com