“It’s more than just being a retail business and a bakery, I’m part of the community in a meaningful way.”
Stacie Pierce, former Executive Pastry Chef of the famed Chez Panisse in Berkeley, knew that she was giving up a coveted spot when, in 2013, she decided to work closer to home and start a family. In July 2013, she ran an Indiegogo campaign to raise money for the shop. By September 2013 Little Bee Bakery opened its doors on Cortland Avenue. Since then, she’s been able to combine her love of baking with her love of community.
Tell us a little bit about how you got into cooking and became a pastry chef.
When I first moved to San Francisco I was working in publishing and wasn’t happy. I had cooked in a cafe in college and loved it. On a whim, I applied to Foreign Cinema in the Mission. I was so fearless back then. I said to myself, “I’m never going to get it, but I might as well try.” And I got it. My job at Chez Panisse happened the same way.
What your experience at Chez Panisse like?
I started as a pastry assistant and over eight years worked up to Executive Pastry Chef. I went into that interview with zero expectations. In fact, when someone called from Chez Panisse I said, “You know you called Stacie Pierce right – are you sure? Because I completely messed up that day.”
The response was, “Yeah, you messed up, you fixed it, you owned it and it was fine. That’s what we’re looking for, someone who can do that.”
That’s the story of my life. It’s how I opened Little Bee. I thought, “Wow, wouldn’t it be fun to have a little shop and then I can go in and bake a few things.” That’s not even close to what it’s like. I knew it wouldn’t be easy, but I did think, “Well, how hard could it be? I’m a hard worker.”
The truth is, if I had known how hard the business and day-to-day operations are, I might not have tried.
What made you take the leap to leave that and open Little Bee?
Once I had my daughter, the long hours and commute became really hard for me. I wanted to spend more time with her. I thought I could do that if I owned my own business. That’s not the reality but I do have more flexibility to spend time with her. Now, we live only a few blocks away. I can be home if I need to and be involved in her school. I was in her classroom a few weeks ago and a little kid walked up to me and said, “I’m gonna be a baker when I grow up.” I told them, “Wow, that’s great. I’m a baker.” The kid was completely amazed.
What are some of the highlights of opening in Bernal and picking this spot?
My partner Adria and I first came to Bernal when I was working at Foreign Cinema. We answered a Craigslist ad and didn’t have any idea where Bernal was. We ate dinner on Cortland and met our landlady for the first time. We ended up talking and drinking wine; we really got to know her. After that, Adrian and I both thought, “Ok, we have to live here.” I loved the city views and it felt like we landed in heaven because it was so close to everything and still it’s own little enclave.
Opening Little Bee has been a cool experience to be part of the neighborhood in a different way. Meeting expectant mothers, watching their kids grow up and making their birthday cakes is really a special thing. It’s so much more than just being a retail business and a bakery, I’m part of the community in a meaningful way.
Do you feel like you’ve made it over the hump of being a new business?
Last year was really hard overall. I feel like this place is in good hands, I’ve got systems in place and I don’t have to be here every single day and I can close for a week to give everyone a vacation. Which is a nice part about being in a neighborhood like this because you feel like everybody is rooting for you. I feel like I”m hitting a groove now.
When you opened Little Bee, did you feel supported by the Bernal Community?
Bernal was an interesting transition because I was an unknown quantity. Initially it was a little tricky getting the word out. Matsumi Takehara was here, at that time, with the Sandbox Bakery. She had a very loyal following and rightly so. I loved her pastries and the vision of her bakery. I was very aware of what she made because I respected her talent. There was a conscious effort not to make similar things. At the same time, I felt like there was room for both. My style is completely different. Now that I have my own loyal base, I see it from the other side. I still think there’s room for everyone in the neighborhood.
How are you different?
I don’t usually have scones, croissants or the typical breakfast pastries. I make savory treats for an afternoon snack or a party. Things like fruit tarts and cakes. I have a couple things with almond flour and a few gluten free things.
Do you have some staple pastries that came from your days at Chez Panisse?
The almond macaroons are a Chez Panisse staple. They’re such a reliable, lovely cookie. Everyone I know that comes from Chez Panisse has that on their menu because it’s just so good. The ginger cake is a recipe from David Lebovitz. He was there in the late 80’s early 90’s. It became a standard on the menu and is in all of Alice’s cookbooks.
The upside down cake I put my spin on by substituting different fruits. Same with the almond cornmeal cakes. I’ve made them gluten free by adjusting the levels of almond flour and it works well.