Berkeley’s 44-year-old hippie bakery Vital Vittles risks closing
2810 San Pablo Avenue (near Grayson Street), Berkeley
Owners Binh and Huong Tran, along with three other employees, get up early in the morning to walk to Vital Vittles, a West Berkeley bakery on San Pablo Avenue, where they bake organic whole wheat bread, muffins and the cakes that have enriched themselves with countless meals in Berkeley cafes, school cafeterias and homes for decades.
Now, however, Vital Vittles’ delivery trucks sit idle along what has become an eerily quiet stretch of San Pablo Avenue, save for one occasional customer exiting through the indescribable front door of the bakery with baked goods in hand. The company is on the verge of collapse. The pandemic has dried up business with its biggest wholesale customers, so any other issue – like equipment failure or illness among the reduced crew – could be a fatal blow to the bakery.
“We have been hit very hard,” Binh Tran said of business during the pandemic.
However, when Vital Vittles was founded in 1976, the ‘leftover’ hippies of the ’60s and a’ back to earth ‘trend led to a growing interest in unrefined organic products, according to company co-founder Kass. Schwin.
“At that time, whole wheat flour was all the rage,” Schwin said.
She and her ex-husband, Joe Schwin, who died two years ago, started Vital Vittles as a mill in Emeryville. Joe ground the wheat germ in a stone mill that he brought from North Carolina and sold the whole wheat flour to bay area bakeries. The Schwins finally made the switch from the mill to the bakery in 1979, when they decided to bake bread to promote their flour at a “new age” product show in San Francisco.
To prepare for the exhibit, the Schwins baked 200 loaves of bread overnight at Virginia Bakery, one of their vendors, where they could access the kitchen after hours. In the morning, they delivered the bread to local health food stores, like Rainbow Grocery in San Francisco and what is now Berkeley Natural Foods on Gilman Avenue.
Joe’s goal, Schwin said, was to make “the best bread in the world.”
“He was really an artist, a creative person who wanted to feed people nutritious food,” Schwin said.
Fortunately, they discovered that there was so much demand for Vital Vittles bread in the Bay Area that they could skip the show. The Schwins continued to bake bread at Virginia Bakery for a few months before purchasing a small bakery on Heinz Street next to the Berkeley Bilingual School. In 1984, the Schwins moved the bakery to its current location on San Pablo Avenue.
The bread Vital Vittles bakes today is made from the same recipe the Schwins first baked in the 1970s. Besides salt, honey, water, sunflower oil, yeast and gluten flour, which helps dough rise, standard breads, nicknamed “real bread”, are made from the company’s own freshly ground whole wheat flour. In the 90s, under the leadership of Kass Schwin, the bakery also began making muffins, cakes, cookies and other vegan treats with its signature flour. Vital Vittles sources wheat from Arrowhead Mill in Texas. All the ingredients they use, from wheat germ to oat topping, are organic.
The freshly ground flour sets Vital Vittles baked goods apart from other whole wheat products, Schwin said.
“Before we started baking our bread, people would always say, ‘Oh, whole wheat products taste so horrible, they taste so bitter,’ Schwin said. “Well, they did! Because they were made with flour that was several days old.
The oil in wheat germ, like any oil, deteriorates over time unless it is refined, which can cause bread to lose its nutty sweetness, Schwin explained. Vital Vittles’ wheat is also ground in a stone mill, making the wheat flaky and textured, rather than sandy. Breads and muffins therefore come out dense and chewy, with a mushy bite.
Siblings Huong and Binh Tran bought Vital Vittle from the Schwins in 2006. Huong, the head baker, began working in the bakery months after arriving in Berkeley in 1981 as a refugee from South Vietnam, fleeing the dangers and devastation in his home country in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. His brother Binh followed in his footsteps 10 years later, immigrating to the Bay Area and also working at Vital Vittles.
The job requires the team to arrive at the bakery before 4 a.m. Most of the time, in addition to baking, Binh feeds the bakery stone mill to make fresh flour. Last month, their supplier in Texas ran out of wheat kernels, so the Trans had to switch to using high-quality stone-ground wheat flour from a local supplier, Giusto’s in southern San Francisco. Binh says the bakery orders the flour every week, to keep it fresh.
Binh enjoys the peaceful nature of baking work. “I love my family, the organic products, the smell, the nice people,” he said of his job. “It means everything to my family.”
Since the 2006 sale to the Tran family, Schwin has remained largely uninvolved in the business, but she has recently started re-enlisting to help the Trans strategize on how they could preserve Vital Vittles during the pandemic. A trickle of online and walk-in orders and purchases at local grocery stores, such as Monterey Market, Berkeley Bowl, Safeway and Whole Foods, cannot make up for the loss of a dozen wholesale accounts. Berkeley schools, local coffee shops, tech companies, and surprisingly even the San Francisco VA Medical Center, are no longer ordering any Vital Vittles products. The small business used to sell its products at local farmers’ markets, but Binh said Vital Vittles stopped these appearances several years ago because market sales were not enough to pay another employee to work at. the steps.
Schwin urged the Tran family to reach out to their customers by slipping a letter with the loaves of bread, calling attention to a GoFundMe fundraising campaign. The Tran family initially felt uncomfortable soliciting donations from customers, but as the pandemic spread and business continued to stagnate, they agreed to try. hit in October.
“I did a lot of heavy persuasion,” Schwin said. “It took them about six weeks to agree to do this GoFundMe because that’s the kind of person they are.”
So far, the campaign has raised only $ 5,000 of its goal of $ 50,000. Funds raised will help the company hire a sales manager to expand Vital Vittles ‘reach by showcasing their products at CSA boxes and farmers’ markets, as well as other cafes, restaurants, grocery stores, hospitals and schools. Another idea is to open a beer garden at the bakery when outdoor dining can resume.
In May, Vital Vittles received a loan from the Payment Protection Plan, a feature of the federal stimulus that offers small businesses forgivable loans. The money, however, ran out quickly, according to Binh. If he can apply for another round of loans, he said, he will, but he is also aware of many other companies that did not have access to the first round of PPPs and thinks they are. should take priority.
Schwin also put Vital Vittles in touch with the Berkeley Haas School of Business to see if the students could help Vital Vittles improve his marketing. “But, it costs money to try new things,” Schwin said.
So for now, the healthy whole wheat bread that has fed Bay Area residents over generations may disappear from school cafeterias, grocery shelves, breakfast tables and lunch boxes. lunch, any day.
“We love what we do and we eat what we cook, so it’s difficult,” Binh Tran said. “Let’s see how we’re doing this month.
The Vital Vittles retail store is open 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday.