My dream came true yesterday. I toured Alameda's morning bun factory.

Well, the tour was for my daughter and her fellow second-graders — I was a chaperone to drive them to the industrial sector of Bay Farm and to help keep them from wandering off. And more precisely, the Semifreddi's staff said they prefer to call it a bakery, rather than a factory. And finally, I should add that I do have grander dreams, visions, etc., etc. than seemingly simple sugary pastries made of buttery dough. In any case, for the purposes of this blog post, we'll call this a dream come true.

We were asked to not take pictures inside the bakery — and so, modeling good behavior for the 7- and 8-year olds, I followed the rule. Here are some highlights:

  • The Semifreddi's bakery sources its ingredients from wide network. Flour arrives every 3 days in 50,000 pound deliveries from Miller Milling, the tall white edifice in Oakland visible from the Park Street Bridge (which in turn receives its wheat by rail from California's Central Valley and four states across the Great Plains). We walked past a pallet of chocolate prepared by Guittard, whose factory in Burlingame can be smelled on many days by BART and Caltrain riders at the nearby Millbrae Station. Salt comes from San Francisco Bay's salt ponds. Fennel seeds come from India, as Semifreddi's staff say they have a stronger flavor licorice than the fennel that grows wild throughout the empty lots of the Bay Area. Oils, imported from multiple countries, are packaged and delivered from a distributor in San Leandro. Cinnamon is sourced from Indonesia, and Kalamata olives are source from Kalamata, Greece. Sourdough breads are made with wild yeast and Fructilactobacillus sanfranciscensis; other yeasted bread products are made with commercial yeast made in Mexico by a French company. The supply network is both locally rooted in the East Bay and international in reach.
  • Flags hanging from the bakery's ceiling represented the similarly wide range of countries in which Semifreddi's staff where born. The bakery employs about 150 people, and there are staff working in the building 24 hours a day. The tour guide spoke to Semifreddi's culture of promoting from within — most of its managers began their careers on the bakery and warehouse floors. As in many food service businesses in California, all signage was in both English and Spanish.
  • Semifreddi's delivers product from its Alameda bakery as far north as Novato, as far east as Livermore, and as far south as San Jose. "The Bay Area is our world," as the motto on their lobby wall puts it.
  • Unsold bread is collected from grocery stores and other "accounts," brought back to the bakery, and turned into croutons — or chicken feed.
  • Each student left with a giant goodie bag. I let the three kids in my car pick one item each to open while we drove back from Bay Farm to Alameda Island. Two chose their "super garlic crouton" bags to munch on, and one chose her baguette. They showed more restraint than I would have — they all left their morning buns in their goodie bags for later.
  • Or more likely, they were eager to eat the yeasted bread products they had just been learning about and seeing in action in giant mixers, giant deck ovens, and a robotic loader that the bakers used to rapidly ferried loaves into and out of each level of the deck ovens. After each tray of loaves was inserted, a plume of steam would emerge.
  • It wasn't the right time of day to see morning buns being prepared — the dough sheeters were clean and covered. The tour guide's overview focused on the core ingredients of sourdough bread — like the elements of wheat and the power of yeast — which is probably a healthier topic to describe for students than the way in which an excessive amount of butter is folded over and over again into flour to create the laminated dough of morning buns and other pastries. Still, as we were all leaving to ferry our charges back to school, I did get a moment to ask one of the long-time co-owners of Semifreddi's about the morning bun. To my question about why this particular pastries is so popular in the East Bay, Michael Rose said for over 40 years bakeries around here have been baking sugared croissant dough in the shape of morning buns. Semifreddi's has never claimed to be the first (unlike multiple other Bay Area bakeries that claim credit). I won't say that Semifreddi's makes the best Platonic ideal of a morning bun, but I do think that they do make the best given how wide their distribution is — you don't have to go to a specialty bakery at one time of the morning — and how comparatively affordable their morning buns are. I got to quickly share my compliments and thanks... as I was tugged back to our car by my daughter and her classmates.
  • Another chaperone-dad joked that for the next field trip we should try to tour the Peet's coffee roasting facility that is next door to Semifreddi's.

If I may use this field trip to also made some points about Alameda:

  • Alameda and the inner East Bay are uniquely positioned to create tasty food. This has been true for decades, if not centuries. The bounty of ingredients arriving by truck and rail from the Central Valley mixes here with specialty ingredients sourced from abroad through the Port of Oakland. And the Bay Area's mix of immigrants brings both the cultural knowledge and the physical know-how to combine many of these ingredients.
  • Food businesses, especially baking, are labor intensive and require an experienced workforce. While machines assist at many steps throughout the process of baking and packaging bread, it's human hands that are involved in the most critical steps.
When graduate school got particularly tedious, I started sneaking off for a couple hours a day to take classes at a community college's professional culinary arts program. What a breath of fresh air it was to experience the tactile and social world of commercial kitchens, as a contrast with the airless world of social-science research at an "R1" university. Even the required food-safety course felt more impactful than many of the skills I was learning at my "day job." The other students, preparing for careers in restaurants and bakeries, nicknamed me "Ph.D." with perhaps both equal parts respect and derision. I never did progress past the intro level commercial baking course, but those experiences gave me a visceral appreciation for how much hands-on expertise is required to physically and consistently create all the "product" in a commercial bakery.
  • Packaged food products are also somewhat under appreciated here in the Bay Area. While Berkeley markets itself as home to the "California cuisine" of Chez Panisse, its culinary impact is likely larger in terms of packaged foods: My dad still refers to the tall office tower in downtown Berkeley as the Powerbar Building, as its logo once adorned the top. Clif Bar is still based in Berkeley, as is Annie's. Yes, Alice Waters may have taught us how to toss lovely salads of hand-washed lettuces — but don't we probably collectively eat more boxed white cheddar mac and cheese from Berkeley?
If this were a blog about East Bay food instead of a blog about Alameda civics, I'd share an extended riff about the crusty bread of the Bay Area and how Semifreddi's makes the homey "PC" to Acme's sleek "Mac"... but this is a blog about Alameda, so I'll just highlight how much competition there is for selling crusty bread to grocery stores and restaurants. The margins are probably quite tight.
  • Alameda is home to food businesses blurring the boundaries of freshly prepared and processed foods in novel ways. Most readers of a recent New York Times piece headlined "$3 Billion Later, Where's the (Planet-Saving, Lab-Grown) Beef?" were probably wondering about the taste and texture of cultivated meat — while I was reading for details about whether Eat Just would be expanding or shrinking its real-estate footprint in Alameda's Marina Village Research Park. That office park recently renamed itself as a "research park" to market itself to more of these sorts of companies working on biotech, materials science, and topics of applied research. Creating novel food products like egg substitutes and lab-grown meat fits exactly into the Venn diagram-like overlap of unique strengths of Alameda and the inner East Bay — from the overlapping network of food supply chains to the educational "supply chains" of scientists coming out of UC Berkeley and UC Davis.
  • Alameda would do well to nurture a full spectrum of food related businesses, from the high-flying efforts like East Just (that only reach such great heights due to venture-capital dollars) to decades-old workhorses like Semifreddi's (that will celebrate 40 years in business later this year) to new entrants (like Firebrand that recently built a commercial bakery and cafe at Alameda Point with partial support of a loan from the City of Alameda). Alameda would also do well to not self-sabotage leases of vacant city-owned buildings to new food businesses, as Councilmembers Herrera Spencer and Daysog have been doing recently.
One factor I would be curious to better understand: the comparative rates and structures of business taxes in East Bay cities. I want to say that Oakland's business taxes are effectively higher than many neighboring cities, and so that's why many of these food production facilities are currently located in Alameda, Emeryville, Berkeley, and San Leandro. Someday I'll actually check municipal taxes — or get get back to reading past the introductory chapters of Hella Town: Oakland's History of Development and Disruption.
  • Let's end by going back to all the experienced hands needed to shape those loaves of bread around the clock at Semifreddi's. While the latter probably don't have the advanced degrees of the researchers at Eat Just; they probably aren't paid as well and can't afford to live as close to their workplace; they aren't given coverage in The New York Times. But it's only thanks to their skill that crusty bread — and morning buns — are baked consistently and delivered at a reasonable price throughout the Bay Area. At this moment, when news outlets are frantically questioning California's new state-wide minimum wage for big chain restaurants, let's give credit and thanks — and a living wage — to the people who work long, hard hours on their feet to cook, bake, pack, clean, and deliver the food we all eat and enjoy.

The Morning Bun Factory