Bakery Beginnings: Q&A with Gwen Bassetti - Grand Central Bakery

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Bakery Beginnings: Q&A with Gwen Bassetti

On the eve of Grand Central Bakery's 40th anniversary at Pioneer Square, founder Gwen Bassetti sat down to reflect on the bakery's early years and how she came to be known as "Seattle's Godmother of Good Bread."

On the eve of Grand Central Bakery’s 40th anniversary at Pioneer Square, founder Gwen Bassetti sat down to reflect on the bakery’s early years and how she came to be known as “Seattle’s Godmother of Good Bread.”

Q. How did the bakery get off the ground?
One of my original partners, Marian (Mastretti) Harris, was working for an architect down in Pioneer Square. She knew that The Grand Central Building was to be renovated with urban renewal money and made into retail spaces. So Marian and Marion Boyer – we were all faculty wives at the Lakeside School – brought me into the discussion, and we ended up wanting to open a sandwich shop.

A few had opened in San Francisco and it was the big new thing. I grew up with homemade bread and had always made it for my family. So I said, if we were going to do that, I’m going to make homemade bread. We called it “The Bakery.” It was earthy ‘70s, and it was immediately popular. There weren’t Starbucks on every corner and little coffee shops all over the place. So it became kind of a cool thing to do, come down to Pioneer Square.

Seattle's Grand Central Hotel was restored and transformed into retail space in the early 1970s.

Seattle’s Grand Central Hotel was restored and transformed into retail space in the early 1970s.

Q. What was on the original menu?
We opened at 7 a.m. and served breakfast pastries and lunch. There was a veggie sandwich that was very popular, with cream cheese, sprouts, avocado, cucumbers, and tomatoes in season. We did egg salad and ham. We had hand-thrown pottery, an espresso machine, and the guys at Starbuck’s up the street made us a custom blend – we were probably among the first of their wholesale customers. I was doing the baking initially, and my idea was we’d have a different breakfast pastry every morning. Cinnamon rolls were 25 cents, and we soon started making them every day because customers asked for them. They were very much like the ones we serve today, with eight-grain cereal in the dough.

Founder Gwen Bassetti, inspired by Carol Field's book "The Italian Baker," introduced artisan bread to Seattle in 1989.

Founder Gwen Bassetti, inspired by Carol Field’s book “The Italian Baker,” introduced artisan bread to Seattle in 1989.

Q. How did you go from ‘70s sandwich shop to artisan bread pioneer? 
In the spring of 1977, my husband Theo took an early retirement. We moved to property in Goldendale, Wash., and I sold out completely of The Bakery to raise sheep, shallots, and my four kids. My husband died suddenly and very unexpectedly in the fall of 1986. Two years later, my close friend Alan Black bought the bakery, rechristened it as Grand Central Bakery, and eventually brought me back into the business. I took him to San Francisco to show him what was going on with (artisan) bread. We then completely remodeled the bakery, bought a small Italian hearth oven to put in the basement and started baking Italian-style artisan bread. A baker named Thomas Solis – he worked for Joyce Goldstein at Square One in San Francisco and was recommended by Carol Field (“The Italian Baker” author) – came to Seattle, and we started developing formulas before the oven even got there. In September we started selling some of the first bread. It took off like crazy. The headline in the Seattle Times was “Run, Don’t Loaf to Grand Central.” We had lines out the door. Later that year, Leslie Mackie, who later went on to found Macrina, became head baker, and I moved into the business end of things.

Bassetti brought Leslie Mackie (left) up from Portland to be head baker. Mackie went on to found Macrina Bakery.

Bassetti brought Leslie Mackie (left) up from Portland to be head baker. Mackie went on to found Macrina Bakery.

Bassetti's son Ben, here with sisters Megan (left) and Piper, opened Grand Central Bakery in Portland in 1993.

Bassetti’s son Ben, here with sisters Megan (left) and Piper, opened Grand Central Bakery in Portland in 1993.

Q. How did your kids get involved? 
In 1991, Ben (Davis) had graduated from college and was figuring out what he wanted to do with his life; he thought he might go to architecture school. He was curious and looking for a job, so he came to work with me and Leslie (Mackie) at the bakery. He liked it and he was good at it. Within the year we began to talk about him going to Portland to open a Grand Central there. Piper joined him eventually as a pastry baker, and several of their very close friends became involved as well.

 

Q. Do you see any connection between those early days of pottery and pastries in Pioneer Square and the Grand Central we know today?
The commitment to good food, healthy food. In the beginning we didn’t even talk about organic or saving the planet or any of those things. It was Back to the Earth, scratch cooking, a reaction to all the white bread and canned soup and casseroles. And our bakeries are still about good food from scratch, with a little bit of nostalgia to it. That will always be in fashion.

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