(Pastries available at Zeitgeist, Morgan Street Thriftway, and by special order.)
Man, was that swirly chocolate brioche good. It pulled apart like a cinnamon bun, but with a more dignified texture. It was not too sweet and a little too chocolatey in just the right way. It was the kind of offbeat pastry I'd love to see in my local coffee shop. Hell, if I were in a chocolate mood—as I often am—I'd drive across town for it.
The chocolate brioche came in a big pink box packed with other admirable, and buttery, creations—shortbread, brownies, and scones—from the West Seattle bakery Sugar. It was part of the slew of samples and letters from good indie bakeries I've received since I started ranting about the crappy pastries I've found in many local coffee shops.
As compelling as that brioche was, I was even more impressed with the thoughtful and frank note—also pink—that Sugar's baker-owner, Stephanie Crocker, enclosed with it.
Crocker didn't just tell me how good her pastries are; she helped me understand how hard it is for a baker to stick to her standards. In the pastry world, she explained, "[P]rofit margins are very slim, because even if you multiply your ingredient cost by five to get your wholesale price, labor will kill you." Each cafe might buy as little as $30 of pastries a week, pastries that need to be prepared, boxed, and personally delivered around the city. She continues, "So you can understand how many bakeries are motivated to cut labor and ingredient costs to help compensate themselves, if even slightly, for so much hard work."
Despite those small margins and the temptation to cut corners, 18 months after she started her bakery, Crocker keeps patting out tartlets and rolling out scone dough by hand. When I went to visit her in the commercial kitchen she shares with Herban Feast catering, she was slicing dark chocolate cake into wedges to make her whimsical chocolate mousse mountains. I was glad to see that, like her stationery and packaging, Crocker's hair is a bright, girly pink.
With no formal pastry training, Crocker left a cush job as a web designer at Real to start Sugar. "We had an apple tree at our new house, so I started baking all these little apple tarts... We thought let's try to make this like a business. So we were the tart people for a little while, but tarts didn't sell very well." The work, it turns out, is grueling. As Sugar's only permanent employee, she starts her day at 4:00 a.m., and is usually finished baking by the early afternoon. She also created Sugar's website. "I miss working 10 to 3 with a long lunch," she says.
In spite of it all, wholesale coffee-shop pastries are a significant source of income for Sugar. Crocker credits the scones she added to her original roster of pastries for the tiny savings that have been accruing in her bank account recently. Though she's been asked to expand to muffins, she's resisted so far because she doesn't really like them.
Someday, Crocker hopes to have her own retail shop, one that will do well enough to support her husband John in his music career. But for the moment, the couple depends on his income as a Microsoft subcontractor—and his help with deliveries and scone baking.
Meanwhile Crocker has had to become pragmatic about elements of her business: limiting her menu, freezing doughs, and sometimes choosing more moderately priced ingredients (although she refused to abandon butter for shortening even when butter prices skyrocketed last year). She also sells to some clients who don't treat her pastries well. "People do keep my scones for a week. They just want to have them in the shop—the uptake on baked goods is not very good."
As for the chocolate brioche I liked so much? Not enough people want chocolate buns to make it worth her while. So I'm settling for the raspberry version, which is still sold at Zeitgeist (a place that is serious about good pastries) on weekdays.
Despite her business concerns, Crocker holds on to that fundamental desire to bring sweetness to the world. And she has a knack for making even the most mundane baking tasks seem just a little racy. Take repetitious scone making, for example: "There is something poetic about repeating something over and over," she explains. "It's like good sex—if you repeat, it's good. It hits the same spot in my brain."
Whatever it takes to keep you baking, Stephanie. ■