Cooking with Integrity, Despite the Challenges

I don’t always walk the International Blvd. corridor between 23rd and 25th Street alone. I try to convince myself that it’ll be fine and that I’ll be safe, but a few months ago, a random man followed me in his truck for about a block and half near the intersections. He kept pulling over beside me every few feet, stared intensely at me, and motioning me to come over. Since then, I do not travel by foot.

image1-4However, right on the corner of 23rd Street and International, there is a little nook that smells of freshly- baked chocolate chip cookies worth walking for. This place serves veggie quiche with a perfectly golden brown crust, and yes, this place has rosemary shortbread cookies with a lemon-lavender glaze.

Decorated with whimsical artwork, Bakeshop Oakland -formerly named Pop Art Bakeshop- stands out, not just because of  its aesthetic, but because of  Chef Jason Henry’s top priority – a commitment to deliver a fresh product..

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Chef Jason Henry

Founder and owner,  Henry brings his experience in fine dining, as he held the title of head pastry chef for a Los Angeles California-French cuisine restaurant, Joe’s Restaurant in Venice. His unwavering attention to detail and keen eye for presentation will make anyone come back for seconds.

I stopped by on a Friday afternoon to chat with Henry. The last time I was there, I ordered an open-faced breakfast sandwich with an egg, sunny side up. The smell of earthy microgreens and lightly toasted bread tempted me as I walked back to my office at the nearby nonprofit where I worked. I’d open the box every now and then and admire the egg gently placed on top of fresh tomato slices, topped with salt and crushed black pepper. Needless to say, that sandwich did not make it back to my office.

image2-4Anyway, that Friday afternoon was different. I arrived as a couple of employees were taking off. Thinking that it might be a bad time, I searched for Henry to confirm our meeting. When I found him, the sweat on his brow and the frustration in his eyes made me ask, “Is this is a good time?”

“This is a good a time as any,” he replied. He guided me to the back of the kitchen so that I could see the bane of his existence. “This is what I’m working on right now. A sewage pipe burst and now I have crap all over my floor.” My eyes darted from one end of the stainless steel kitchen to the other and I could sense that this was not what Henry wanted me to see.

Despite that incident, he graciously took me to the front of the house, sat me down, and poured me a cup of water.

“This is what I have to deal with as a small business owner. With few resources and only five employees, I end up doing the cooking, the baking, the delivery and maintenance of the place,” he said. When he opened the Bakeshop’s doors in 2010, he envisioned a “neighborhood joint,” a place for people to come in, build community, and enjoy high quality food at a low cost.

image4Five years later, the shop is still standing, but with maintenance expenses rising and customers questioning his prices, Henry ends up conducting more than just business. “I find myself having to educate the client. For a dollar or two more than the price of a Big Mac, they can get a tasty meal and a responsible portion. I want my clients to know that I serve food that takes time and precision to make,” he said.

Commenting about competition from the nearby fast food restaurants, he said simply, “That’s not food.”  From their made-to-order sandwiches and salads, to their flaky biscuits and creamy mushroom gravy, I’d say  the Bakeshop does have an advantage over the fast food restaurants in flavor and quality.

And, unlike its fast food counterparts, the Bakeshop is conscientious in ensuring that employees receive a living wage. “We’ve had to add a small increase to our menu items,” Henry said. “I want to make sure that my employees have time to spend with their families.” The Bakeshop has embraced  Measure FF, giving its employees the increase in the minimum wage and using an employee-centered approach to running the business.

image3-3What I find most fascinating about this little shop at the corner of 23rd and International is the pride and effort the workers put into their food. Whether they are coping with maintenance issues and subsequent expenses, or matching their employees’ hard work in wages, their unwavering dedication to make good food is evident in the final product.

I asked Henry his favorite dish to prepare, and he said, “Whatever someone orders at the moment. I was taught to cook with integrity, and that’s what I want to do here.”

You can visit Bakeshop Oakland at 2307 International Blvd. Oakland, CA 94601, or visit the website at http://www.bakeshopoakland.com for more information.

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