Across the street from Grand Lake Theater, several storefronts are currently boarded up. But not the nearby Wild Rabbit Bakery. Cookies, scones and brioche are displayed in the window below a forest-green awning. When Brian Hardie, Janet Bennett and Michael Addison opened the bakery at the beginning of 2020, guests could sit inside. Nowadays, the website suggests you order ahead online, pick up your baked goods and take them home. That wasn’t Bennett’s vision when she first thought of opening a neighborhood bakery.
“I was going for a nice, relaxed experience,” Bennett says. Before the shelter-in-place orders caused by the pandemic, people would come in and ask about the different baked goods. In the best way possible, those initial exchanges felt old-fashioned. The welcoming space where customers could experience “beautiful presentations” has since disappeared.
Bennett’s original idea was to create a tea room. “I was moving towards British baked goods, with a variety of little desserts that you could have with your tea,” she says. “We’ve come up with a scone recipe that is similar to a British scone, as opposed to American ones which tend to be drier, crumbly.” The British scones, Bennett notes, are “supposed to pop a little and you can break them up and spread preserves and cream, and it’s lovely.”
As of this writing, the Wild Rabbit menu includes the following dazzling array of scones: cream, blueberry lemon cardamom, cherry almond, ginger, Earl Gray and currant, and a savory cheddar chive. The menu also includes brioche loaves and buns, and a French pastry: the canelé. Before Covid-19, Bennett says, they also made Kouign-amann, another French pastry that is part croissant and part cake.
All three co-owners run the bakery together and contribute recipes, but Hardie primarily focuses on the operations and the cookies. Bennett and Addison modify existing recipes by trying out different techniques and flavors. Before Wild Rabbit, Addison worked at Arizmendi on Lakeshore Avenue for 21 years. Bennett’s previous career in event marketing was a natural fit for the many tasks—such as curating the menu, managing the marketing, and baking and cleaning—she now attends to.
Wild Rabbit has no employees, which also wasn’t part of the original plan. Bennett says that even if they could hire someone part-time, there’s a concern of inviting somebody new into their circle. “Is that person being conscientious when they’re not at the bakery?” she asks. “Are they wearing their mask properly and being responsible, social distancing?”
Since March, the trio has cut back Wild Rabbit’s hours to Saturdays and Sundays. While customers can pre-order a quiche (swiss, shallot and spinach) or rosemary parmesan brioche, the workload is simply too much for the three of them to add back lunch items like salads, soups and sandwiches.
Many customers have asked Bennett if they plan to open during the week. “The reality is we have to have foot traffic,” she says. Right now, with the majority of people working from home, many local businesses have reduced their hours or closed.
Bennett and her co-owners spent nearly a year preparing to open Wild Rabbit. Back in 2019, she felt she needed to take the risk at that moment or she never would. Rents in Oakland and the whole Bay Area were extremely high, but the smaller space on Grand Avenue felt manageable. However, the stress of operating during Covid-19 has added an unexpected degree of difficulty. “I knew the risk was high,” Bennett says, “but I didn’t realize it was this high.”
The pandemic has given her a better understanding of what it takes to run a small business. And now that she’s in charge of one, Bennett has more empathy for small business owners. “Unless you take the chance and actually do it, you can’t really begin to understand how people give their lives to community and neighborhoods,” she says. “In that regard, I think the risk was worth it.”
Wild Rabbit Bakery, open 9am to 3pm Saturdays and Sundays, 3249 Grand Ave., Oakland. 510.766.2253. wildrabbitbakery.com.