Kass Schwin, president of Vital Vittles, has gradually evolved from a baker to a problem solver. Over the past 25 years operating Berkeley’s homegrown organic bread business, she thought she had been through it all.
How about the time in 1982 when someone lost a sewing needle in the bags of whole wheat flour? They had to examine each finished loaf with a giant magnet, only to throw away the whole day’s baking when they couldn’t find the needle.
And then there was the time when they lost power while the loaves were browning in the oven. The crew had to turn the gears by hand, then dump the leftover rising dough into the trash. That day, they dutifully punched down the discarded dough when it grew out of the garbage bins.
But after the attacks on the World Trade Center disrupted the economy last month, Vital Vittles, on this side of the country, almost did not receive the ingredient they needed most. During the chaos of disaster, the New York company that distributes their organic grain could not deliver its products. Vital Vittles was again tested as it went down to its last grain of wheat.
“It’s really a hard business to run,” Schwin says, as she recalls the company’s vulnerable times, past and present. “We’re still struggling; it’s not a slam-dunk at all.”
Overcoming these difficulties is exactly what makes their 25 years in operation so sweet. The 20-person team plans to celebrate their silver anniversary with an open house today from 9:30 a.m. until noon. They’ll provide samples of their strictly kosher and organic goods, and run tours of the bakery for the public.
According to Schwin and the crew, “The joy is in still being here.”
Vital Vittles began in 1976 with a granite stone mill. They were the first of their kind to grind and sell organic grain, while being heavily influenced by Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring.” Realizing the need for a finished product for the organic grain, those at Vital Vittles progressed into an off-hour bakery, and then into a full-time organic and kosher bakery.
“Our bakery started before other good (organic) bread,” Schwin says. Those at the bakery pride themselves in contributing to the rise in organic foods, for instance by supporting organic farmers. “We started good things,” she says.
Five days a week, baking starts at 5 a.m. in the converted firehouse that is their headquarters. They handle up to 2,200 pounds on heavy baking days and their product line ranges from cinnamon rolls, to multigrain bread, to vegan cookies. Every ingredient is organic and they bar dairy products to remain kosher.
Although they open the bakery for retail three days a week, they’re still mostly wholesale. They distribute their goods to health-conscious Bay Area stores such as Whole Foods, and lately, the Grocery Outlet.
“Feeding people is what motivates me,” Schwin says. “I love it when people can taste something healthy and it tastes good.”
In the beginning of their quarter-century of business, their main challenge was finding organic ingredients like organic corn oil. Organic suppliers were not around in the same numbers as they are today. But today marketing and competition is the company’s main problem. Because more well-known brands like Orowheat have started to produce organic bread, Vital Vittles must defend and fight for its shelf space in grocery stores, according to Schwin. Also, larger corporations have bought many of the suppliers that they deal with. Since they deal with fewer companies, their business has become more vulnerable.
Their defense to these recent changes has been to keep customer interest strong by creating new products. For instance, creative bakers now produce vegan chocolate chip brownies and banana bread in order to stay ahead of the competition.
Huong Tran, a “superwoman” who has been a part of Vital Vittles for two decades, concocts many of the new baked goods. Recently, she used organic baking to solve a perennial problem among parents. “Kids don’t like vegetables,” she says about the product her son inspired, named “Daniel’s Carrot Bread.” “We have to find some way to make them eat it.”
Their flexible tactics have kept them afloat throughout the decades. Despite Vital Vittles’ Berkeley bearings, some of their bread is distributed through UPS across the country. The company has won supporters far outside Bay Area limits. A handful have joined simply through the company’s website.
One customer on the east coast recently requested that the Vital Vittles send bread to cheer up a friend. “I think your bread looks like it’s made with caring and love,” the customer said to them. The friend that needed the extra joy views the shaken Manhatten skyline each morning.
Schwin says she hears compliments like these all the time.
Older customers have told her that they stopped using laxatives after switching to their bread. Others claim to have lost weight through the food.
“I feel like people’s lives change when they start eating our bread,” she says.
Barron Willis, local carpenter and customer for nine years, says that the bread complements his vegetarian lifestyle and lightens his health problems.
“It’s refreshing,” he says, while he and his wife buy fresh goods straight from the bakery door. “It’s the only bread that we eat.”
Janice Voss, an active astronaut, even honored the company by bringing Vital Vittles bread into outer space with her. A photo of the bread in zero gravity greets customers by the bakery door.
Despite the changes over the years, Vital Vittles still has some enduring standards. They still doggedly hand-make their bread. They only hire “nice” people (many of them former refugees or devoted customers). They focus on small-scale baking. And they use the same granite stone mill from 1976 as the starting point for their products.
Finally, those at Vital Vittles still believe that their healthy, yet popular product sells itself.
“You know what drug dealers say,” Schwin says, as she slickly pushes a reporter some bread to sample. “The first one’s free.”
The Silver Anniversary celebration is 9:30-noon at 2810 San Pablo Ave.