Shawn Walker-Smith always assumed that he needed to get a “real job” when he grew up. Like many of us, he pushed aside the creative outlets he enjoyed as a child in favor of following social expectations for a getting a “real job.”
“I need a job,” he said of his thinking process after graduating from the Univeristy of the Pacific with a major in communications and minor in international studies. “I need to sit at a desk and work for a company. This is what you’re supposed to do.”
“I bought into that completely for a very long time,” he said.
But as many a creative can also attest to, those childhood desires can have a way of rearing their head later in life. For Shawn, his wake-up call came in the form of being laid off from one of those “real jobs.” It was only then that he realized how much he missed being creative in the form of baking.
According to Shawn, he’s always had a creative bent. From fashion and color theory to photography and theater, he’s had many a creative outlet throughout his life. But when the firm he worked for “gave him the gift of time” through downsizing, he decided he should take some time to think about what it is that he really wanted to do next.
“And it kept coming back to food,” he said.
Shawn says he’s always been someone that really enjoyed baking. Encouraged by both his parents to pursue it, he spent so much time making goodies as a child that his mother eventually had to tell him to “lay off the cakes for a while” because she’d taken more desserts to the office than could be eaten. Inspired by summers spent watching Graham Kerr, “The Galloping Gourmet,” on PBS, the thought that he could cook or bake for a living crossed his mind, but was sublimated by the assumption that he’d have to get that “real job.”
With a communications degree in hand and thoughts of going into public relations, Shawn ended up getting a job in retail where he thought he could eventually move from management training to corporate communications. Instead, he ended up staying in retail for a decade, working at places like Macy’s and Mervyn’s in their corporate buying offices. But management provided some valuable skills—allowing him to see how businesses work firsthand, learning how to do financials and generate reports, as well as gain background in customer service.
Needing a change after 10 years, Shawn took his buying skills in another direction and began working for a small firm in Berkeley that did contract ergonomic furniture and interior design for corporate offices. For almost another decade at two different firms, Shawn did everything from office space planning to office design, including selecting furniture, fabrics, floor coverings and even wall coverings. He says he enjoyed the creativity of taking an empty space and making it visually and aesthetically pleasing while making sure it was ergonomically sound for the workers. “Helping people be more productive was really a lot of fun,” he said.
After being laid off, Shawn decided to go back to school to pursue a culinary degree in hopes of someday opening a dessert café. As he tells it, nights out with friends or with his partner and family have always had a tendency to end with going out for coffee and dessert. Whether after a show or after a night of drinking, dessert was always the evening’s finale, so to speak. And when he moved to Oakland, he realized that nothing like that existed in town. There was no place to go—whether in the afternoon or late evening—to just get coffee and cake. So why not create it?
But then he walked into the pastry kitchen. His immediate reaction?
“This is awesome! I want to play with that toy, I want to put stuff in that oven, I want to use that mixer. This is so cool,” he thought.
“And [from there] it was pretty easy for me—the decision between being covered in grease all day or covered in flour all day. Flour!”
Shawn discovered that the pastry program fed all of the things he enjoyed. A lifelong lover of learning who always enjoyed school, pastry allowed him to pursue creativity, science and the ways you can communicate with other people with food and how it fosters relationships between people, he says.
“The opportunity to make something that is going to make someone’s occasion that much more special or make their day better or put a smile on their face was just an extra added bonus to me in doing it,” he says.
After graduating from culinary school, Shawn got a job at Oakland’s famed Bakesale Betty as lead baker, and he eventually became the bakery’s manager. At first he wasn’t sure how he might take to keeping baker’s hours or making the same things the same way every day. In his previous jobs there was always some kind of new project to take on.
He found himself enjoying all of it, in spite of not being a morning person.
“I didn’t find it boring, I always enjoyed it. There was always something to be mindful of in what you’re doing,” he said.
At Bakesale Betty’s he was responsible for all the baked goods but bread—cookies, sticky buns, pies, whatever was on the day’s menu. As he became manager he got the chance to learn more about how to run a food business, including working with vendors and clients and doing special orders. “It was a really great opportunity to see what that looks like in that kind of fast, casual business,” he said.
Early in his time at Bakesale Betty, Shawn says he had a brief conversation with his boss, Alison Barakat, about wanting to open his own dessert café someday. After a few years of working at the bakery, Alison began pushing him to start his own business. She encouraged him to go get his business license, talk to other people in the community and make a start on his own.
“She gave me the kick in the pants to get out and just do it. And the rest, as they say, is history. And I still love it!”
Although many employers might not go to those lengths to encourage their employees to leave the nest, Shawn says that kind of encouragement is more typical of the food industry than others. “I always got from [Alison] that kind of encouragement and support,” he said. And in culinary school, he said, his chef instructors taught their classes that part of a chef’s responsibility is to pass their knowledge on to others and encourage others to do well.
“That’s the tradition. There’s a long history of apprenticeships and stages and people learning from someone who knows better and progressing in that way and then passing it along,” he said. “You’re always learning.”
“Alison was very much like that,” he said.
Shawn says he loves that providing that kind of encouragement and recognition is a hallmark of the industry and that they feel an obligation to help the next generation grow. And, he says, that culture of support is very much a part of the East Bay food scene. He attributes it, in part, to a mutual understanding of just how difficult it can be to start and run a food business.
“It’s hard. It’s not easy. We all get how challenging it is. But what’s cool is—I think because of that—people are willing to help and be supportive. And they see that coming to them and they put it back out there.”
For example, Shawn says reached out to two other prominent Oakland bakers, Mani Niall at Sweet Bar Bakery and Brian Wood from Starter Bakery, to get advice about starting his business. Rather than seeing him as potential competition, they were both happy to help.
“Both of them were just really open about why they do what they do, how they got to where they are and just helping me figure out ‘what do you really want to do?’ he says. “That had a big impact on me—how generous they were with their time and their advice.”
After leaving his position at Bakesale Betty, Shawn began Tart! Bakery by catering and doing all the baked goods for the Arbor Café. He was able to start his business catering out of the Betty kitchen, then he moved to Oakland kitchen incubator Kitchener as he got a bit larger.
Shawn says his previous work in corporate settings has been extremely helpful in starting his business. “Many of the things I learned in retail, and in the contract firm, have a direct relation to what I’m doing,” he said. In fact, unlike many creative types, Shawn loves doing financials and digs a good spreadsheet.
“I love spreadsheets. Excel’s my buddy. Creating reports is a really cool thing for me,” he said. “Admittedly, it’s a lot more fun making eclairs or meringue. However, if I’m sitting in front of a computer and I’m doing my financials I’m completely in the zone.”
Through his affiliation with Kitchener, Shawn was also able to go through an entrepreneurial readiness program sponsored by Centro Community Partners. They helped him revise his business plan, and, as a result, he’s been able to pursue more catering and pop up events. Earlier this year, Shawn also applied for a Kiva Zip loan so he could grow his staff, get new tools and invest in things like a canopy for outdoor gigs. “It’s been steadily growing in that way,” he said.
Right now the Tart! Bakery’s menu consists of three types of scones, pies, quick breads and cookies. Shawn says he’d like to start working more with sweet doughs. He also bakes cupcakes for the Kitchener Collective in Corte Madera and does other special desserts, such as bars, cakes or verrines for events. Ever the learner, Shawn says he specializes in “whatever it is I haven’t done yet. That is the thing that really excites me. I’m always looking ahead to try to create something new and learn something new.”
Shawn’s holiday challenge for himself this year is a quest to make an edible fruitcake. He says he’s never been a huge fan but since he married into a serious fruitcake family, he’s determined to make a better version of the much-maligned holiday staple.
“I decided it’s time for a decent fruitcake. That’s my December challenge. I think it will make fruitcake lovers happy. And it will be OK for non-fruitcake people, as well. That’s my goal. It’s a pretty daunting task!”
Although his immediate focus is on establishing the Tart! Bakery brand and getting the word out, Shawn’s eventual goal is still to open that casual dessert place. Although he says his business plan has the storefront slotted for 2017, he’s hoping he might be able to jump in next year. He hopes to feature both “homey” desserts like cakes, pies and cookies as well as “composed” desserts served along with coffee, tea or after dinner drinks.
Although making the transition to baker has forced Shawn to face down many a fear, he says that being able to do something he thoroughly enjoys is completely worthwhile. And he hopes that his experience will serve as an example for his two sons that if you have a dream, it’s worth pursuing.
“If you put in the work, you will reap the rewards. It’s not always easy, but it has been really one of the—short of parenthood—one of the most rewarding things I’ve done. It’s nice to still feel that way,” he said.
What drew you to food?
Oh my god! It’s so good! It’s just—yum! But I think it is really the transformative nature of food and the connecting nature of food—how food can really connect people within families, within groups, across cultures. I think it’s pretty safe to say it’s one of the few—one of the only—things that really does that. It binds cultures together, having a common food source, food stuff, food tradition, and it crosses over with its similarities. And the longer I do it, the more of those kind of things I discover, which is so cool.
And, by and large, we all need to eat. I, of course, chose dessert, which is not something that everybody needs but everyone should have! Absolutely!
That goes back to being covered in flour all day as opposed to covered in grease!
I really firmly believe that you’re either a baker or a savory person. I get baking—it clicks in my brain, it makes sense. It makes me warm and fuzzy geeking out on sugars and flours and that interaction of different things and what eggs do in different forms—I love that. Savory cooking for me is a little unstructured in a way that makes me very uncomfortable. I fully admit that—it just is. The idea that one would just walk into the kitchen, pull a bunch of stuff off the shelf and just sort of throw it into a pan and it comes out food—I don’t really get that. It’s not how I’m wired. You give me a formula or a recipe, I can read that, follow it, maybe do little riffs on it, but I get what will happen if I change from an organic, amazing, deep muscovado dark brown sugar to a light golden brown sugar in a formula. I know what that will do, I know how it will change the flavor, what happens with that. You get me in front of a spice rack… I’m definitely on the baking side. I respond well to existing structure because then there’s a square, and I can do all this kind of stuff within the square and that’s fantastic, but when it’s all nebulous—I admire that, I really, really do.
Where does your inspiration come from?
It really comes from everywhere. Sometimes is comes from the farmer’s market—seeing what’s out there, what’s going on. But I would say more often than not it comes from a single ingredient, something very random. Like bacon. Or prosciutto. Or I’ll see something come across my news feed, like, ‘cherries are the big thing right now.’ Oh, cherries, people do a lot with cherries, what can be done with cherries? And I’ll think, cherry juice, then cherry jam and all the different kinds of cherries—and it sort of comes from there. Usually what happens to be going on in the seasonal zeitgeist at the time. And I’ll try to think, ‘Oh, I wonder how I can take that and mix it around or do a take on something I’m already doing or come up with something completely new.’
We’re lucky being here in California and in Northern California. Things that are really popular—or the seasonal things that we can get—it’s really wonderful.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve gotten in building the business and what advice would you have for others?
Say ‘Yes.’ I think it’s probably the best piece of advice. That kind of dovetails into my mantra for this year, which is ‘Everything you’ve ever wanted is on the other side of fear.’ I’m just paraphrasing—I have no idea who originally said it, but I came across it and it’s really true. But that’s been a lot of it for me for this past year. I’ve noticed that, when there’s something that I’ve wanted to do or a direction I wanted to go in or ‘that looks like a really great gig, I should throw my hat in the ring for that,’ almost instantly there’s ‘yeah, but there’s work, and it’s going to be tough and this and this and this’—and then I remember that and I say ‘I want to go there, and there’s going to be a lot of stuff that’s going to be very, very scary.’ But if I reflect back on my life, pushing through that fear has always been a positive benefit. I’ve always learned from it in a positive way regardless of the outcome. So that’s I think probably the best I would give anyone, is if it looks scary, do it anyway. And treat every opportunity as a learning opportunity.
What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced thus far?
Ahhh, I think my biggest challenge, wow, pick from the list! I think for me, the hardest thing has been patience. Because I want it yesterday. I just want to do it now. And talk about, of all things, patience is something that I need more—[which is funny because] most everything I do is ‘do this, set it there then let it sit.’ Patience and just letting things happen at their own pace—that’s been really hard for me. Harder than cash flow and financials and sourcing ingredients and all of that, just trusting in the process has been really hard.
What’s the best thing about what you’re doing for a living?
Oh my god, I love it! It feeds me in so many different ways. Not just literally. Figuratively as well. It just feeds my brain, it allows me to be creative, it has provided me with some really amazing friendships and relationships. There are people that I’ve met that are wildly talented from all walks of life that I probably wouldn’t have met, if I’d still been doing the corporate thing—from chefs to bakers to artists—just all kinds of folks. And that has been fantastic.
What’s your favorite item that you make?
Actually it was something I just made, and it became my favorite item. It was a little peach cobbler. My grandmother—that was the dessert that she made for me. That was my dessert. She would not make that for anyone else, but she would make it for me. And granny was totally old school—she would get a big colored Pyrex bowl, she would pull out one of those guys, do all the filling, cover it and bake it. In the bowl. So I would get the whole thing—that would be my dessert. Peach cobbler. And for a long time, peach cobbler was my favorite thing but I never really wanted to do cobbler because I was always really afraid it would be disappointing. And when Tina [Ramos] asked me to work on a couple of sweet things for La Snackeria, one of the things that we talked about was a cobbler thing, and I thought, ‘OK, now’s the time. Let it go. Just make it.’ And it was so awesome! It was really great. That has become, for me, hands down, my favorite thing that I make. I smell it cooking, and it totally is like being in my grandmother’s kitchen.
What other local food artisans to you admire?
There are some folks I actually know, some I don’t know that I really admire for either their talent or the product that they put out or just their work ethic that are so inspiring. La Snackeria—at the top of the list would have to be Tina Ramos. Everything that I think is good about the Oakland scene, she has. The sense of community, the dedication to her craft and what she does, and how she encourages other people. Totally fantastic. I really admire Dafna at Inna Jams. Her jams are freakin’ magic. She just does—wow! And that’s all her—she started her own thing, and it’s just so amazingly good—just really wonderful. I think she is just great! Someone else would be Charlie Hallowell—I admire him a great deal. I admire him because of what he’s been able to do, starting with Pizzaiolo, and opening the other restaurants he’s opened. But I also admire his story about where he came from, and I’ve had his food and it’s good. I was at Penrose one night, and he made our meal and it was great to watch him back there and watch him cook. And then that end result that came out was like—ah, I see the connection. He’s become a restaurateur, but then he’s back there and just seeing his comfort and seeing him operate in the kitchen and then seeing and tasting the care that I felt was present in the meal that was presented—that was one of those full circle things for me. I was sitting there thinking, ‘Wow.’ I really admire that a lot. There are a lot of other people doing great things, but those are a few I can think of.
If you had to choose your last meal, what would it be?
Honestly, that one is kind of easy. My husband’s fried chicken, my grandmother’s peach pie and vanilla ice cream. Done! That hits all of the buttons for me right there—those things. Pretty basic—not too fancy pants.
Favorite Bay Area food/resto/chef?
Holy moly—oh heck yes. Talk about someone I should have mentioned that I admire as well—Sunhui Chang, and it’s almost a two-pronged thing with him. In terms of favorite restaurants, Fuse Box, which he owns with his wife, Ellen Sebastian Chang–they are two of the most genuine, phenomenal, giving supportive people I think I’ve met in a very long time. And that was from the first moment I met them, they were just so open. Ellen Sebastian Chang—she’s like a playwright and into theater and she’s done things all over the place—she’s been in the Bay Area for a lot of years just doing amazing work. Sunhui is just this great chef—they are just the most fantastic people. And then I went to the restaurant and ate the food. He’s got one of the most fantastic palates around! He is able to create food that is simple and straightforward and satisfying and complex in all of those things. The whole layers of flavor thing is not necessarily how I would describe it, but it’s one of those where you go, this is so spot on in it’s simplicity and straightforwardness—that’s gotta be hard to do. I just like the menu—what I love about Fuse Box is I always discover something new and interesting that I thoroughly enjoy. And I think that is fun and exciting an inspiring, and I think he does that very well.
My other favorite restaurant is Dopo. It’s on Piedmont Avenue—over the years, it’s consistently good, solid food—I think it’s Northern Italian. It’s wonderful, it’s hearty and balanced—and, again, it’s another one of those where, this is just spot on, good flavor, excellent service—and the food is just executed really well. I always have the Diplomatica – it’s always the first thing I order—it’s a chocolate dessert. It’s essentially an espresso-soaked cake with chocolate mousse and it is phenomenal. I’ll go and literally first order that and then whatever else is on the menu. Over the years, we’ve gone there a number of times and always had really good, solid, tasty meals. I always know if somebody’s in from out of town, we can take them there and they’ll either like it, love it or be completely blown away. Dopo is a really lovely, lovely restaurant. Just lovely—even their lunches. We’ve gone there I think, the last two years, for our anniversary.
Those two, for me, really stand out—they’re the tried and true that I know I can go to and leave with a smile on my face.
Photos courtesy of Shawn Walker-Smith and Tart! Bakery.