With their power to conjure longing and nostalgia, evoking home and family are the raisons d’être for three San Francisco bakeries located in Southside San Francisco.
Sonya Kim was prompted to launch Whole Cakes, on 16th Street, by her desire to find food that wasn’t too sugary to feed her newborn child. After her family moved to San Francisco from New York she decided to take time off from her corporate job. She discovered an interest in baking and questioned whether she could return to a then traditional 9 to 5 job, ultimately deciding that she didn’t want to.
Although Kim isn’t professionally trained, she honed her skills baking for her child and other pre-school parents. She started selling cakes online, then opened a Downtown outpost, which closed during the pandemic. Last March, a day before the City’s shelter-in-place order, she launched Whole Cakes in Potrero Hill.
“That was clearly not the plan,” laughed Kim, who noted that she’s still getting to know the neighborhood and business is slower than expected. “People don’t walk, and location plays a big role.”
Whole Cakes offers “bakery items that your mom would make for you,” she said. “You can trust that everything we use is high-quality organic ingredients.”
Kim works directly with farmers and millers and doesn’t use pre-made items. All jams and condiments are created from fresh ingredients.
“I don’t have too many techniques to make it look Instagram-perfect,” said Kim. “But when you taste it, it’s clean, simple, and fresh.”
While Kim’s primary business is cakes, she sells more than 20 different cookies daily, and offers a variety of breads, including a chocolate sourdough.
Isaac Yosef traces Frena, his certified kosher and halal bakery — the only one in San Francisco — to his great-grandfather, Moshe, who brought traditional recipes from Iraq to Israel.
“In the Mediterranean region most bakeries offer savory goods,” said Yosef, who contrasted this approach to San Francisco bakeries, which tend to focus on sweets. He wanted to bring “a new type of bakery well-known in other parts of the world” to the City.
Central to Frena, located on Sixth Street, is its brick oven, where most items are baked: savory stuffed pastries such as bourekas and sambusak; breads like challah and Jerusalem bagels. The difference between a Jerusalem and New York bagel?
“They’re huge, soft and fully covered with sesame, a key ingredient in the bakery,” explained Yosef.
In the spirit of tikkun olam, a Jewish evocation to heal the world, Yosef wants to set a good example in a hard-pressed neighborhood.
“Every person that asks for food, we never leave hungry,” said Yosef, who donates leftover food to shelters and City Team Ministries, a nonprofit organization that provides meals, shelter and clothing to those without a permanent address.
Since opening, Yosef has hired more than 40 formerly incarcerated residents of the nearby Taylor Street halfway house and is in touch with case managers there to offer employment opportunities.
Yosef claimed his pita bread is the nation’s best, and recommends pairing it with Frena’s dips, like babaganoush and fresh hummus, which also work well with his bagels. Less well known—but a personal favorite of Yosef’s—is Frena’s Italian rustic pizza. The simple, olive-oil style, 12-inch pie is made from dough that’s proofed for two days. Per Italian tradition, Yosef recommends no more than two toppings, which might consist of cheese, grilled olives, or fresh mushrooms.
At Les Gourmands, on Fifth Street, owner Sylvain Chaillout also carries on a family tradition. A fifth-generation baker, he works alongside his parents, serving croissants, brioches, quiches, eclairs and other freshly baked viennoiserie, based on original family recipes from Normandy, France.
“Food is knowledge,” Chaillout said. “The five generations of education that goes into our products makes a big difference. No chemicals, but knowledge. No machines, but hands. This is getting back to real life with real food.”
Located in the Mosso SF apartment complex—which also houses fast-casual Thai-Vietnamese eatery, Mr. East Kitchen, and acai bowl café, Vitality Bowls—Les Gourmands occupies a prominent corner space and has a small outdoor area where guests can enjoy their baked goods.
A visit to his shop is “an artistic trip; like being in Paris with a five-generation baker involved in the creative and foodie world,” Chaillout said.
The biggest draw for most Les Gourmands visitors is the almond croissant, created from Chaillout’s grandfather’s recipe.
“You just have to try it to feel the difference,” he said.
To him, the chouquettes – pastry puffs – are a must.
“It’s like a puff without cream,” he explained.
Also in the area are Neighbor Bakehouse, on Third Street and L’Acajou Bakery, on Ninth Street.
Photo: Neighborhood business owner Sonya Kim, center, decorates a cake at Whole Cakes. Credit: Bettina Cohen