.For Starters

Brian Wood’s new retail space is just getting started

It might be considered blasphemy to publicly declare that I loved Brian Wood’s babka as much as, if not more than, the kouign amann that established his reputation as a baker. Starter Bakery’s babka isn’t a traditional take on a sweet treat that’s traditionally served as a bread. Wood transforms it into a pastry. Shaped into a single roll, and similar in size to his kouign amann, the dough is extraordinarily light. As I unrolled it, I found the center to be nearly transparent. If it hadn’t been studded with chocolate, I might have been able to see through it.

Making babka as a single serving is such a smart way to avoid a couple of common problems. Loaves of babka are often heavy and dense. They dry out before one can manage a second slice. The loaves are also inconsistent vehicles to evenly distribute the ingredients. In Wood’s version, every bite contained a generous amount of chocolate. 

This isn’t meant as a critique of the hazelnut kouign amann that I also tried. It’s just that with the opening of Starter Bakery’s first retail store, there’s a world of other pastries now on display for the taking. For well over a decade, Starter Bakery’s desserts and pastries have been distributed around the Bay Area, available to pick up at cafes and restaurants with limited options. And for one day of pre orders at the Gilman Street location.  

But at the newly opened cafe on College Avenue, Wood’s baked goods are now available Wednesday through Sunday. The yellow crosswalk that emerges from Zachary’s Pizza across the street arrives right in front of Starter Bakery’s front door. Round white tables and blue walls—the color of freshly washed denim—bear witness to the happy marriage of California and French sensibilities. The casually elegant yet modern interior has achieved a certain satisfying je ne sais quoi. There’s a pastry muse who’s settled inside to sing her seductive siren’s song.  

What took so long for Wood to open a retail space years after he started his wholesale bakery back in 2011? “Retail was always the first dream,” he said. Once he’d established the production facility in Berkeley, Wood realized that it wasn’t the best area for foot traffic. He decided to wait for a vacancy to open up in a neighborhood that could “use a bakery producing morning pastries and bread throughout the day.” But it wasn’t just that he fell in love with the space. 

“I had a team in place to allow me to step away to focus on this project,” Wood explained. Running a retail store is an entirely different model than his wholesale operations. “I can tell you what the production will be there on Friday for a Saturday delivery because everybody has their orders in,” he said. Now he’s in the process of learning who’s going to walk in the door each day on College Avenue. So far, he’s been blown away by the volume of baked goods they’ve been making at the store.

When Wood decided to open his own bakery, he was making a kouign amann when very few people in the United States knew what it was. “My intention was to honor a very traditional product,” he said. Now they’re fairly popular, and people put their own twist on them. What distinguishes the pastry for him is the dough. “It has a specific ratio of salt, butter and milk. It’s twice the amount of butter that would go into a pain au chocolat,” Wood explained. That’s what really impacts the texture.

Wood revealed that Starter Bakery lines the kouign amann’s baking pan with butter and sugar. That’s why there’s an extra layer of caramelization on the outer crust. During the lamination process, he adds very fine layers of sugar, which accounts for a markedly different and beloved pastry. 

If one simply adds sugar in the bottom of the mold and on top of the dough, it’ll look like a kouign amann on the outside. But the taste is very different. “It’s like a sweet croissant versus a kouign amann because there’s not necessarily a balance of the salts,” he said. Eating a kouign amann is meant to be an intense butter experience.  

Starter Bakery, open Wed to Sun 8am–3pm. 5804 College Ave., Berkeley. 510.547-6400. starterbakery.com.

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