"We wanted to confound expectations. That's what we wanted to do here," Mani Niall said as he gestured around his bakery, whose vaulted ceilings and exposed pipes gave the place a charmingly unfinished feel. The cafe is quiet on this early weekend morning, though seats are slowly filling up with locals reading the newspaper or meeting friends. To prove his point, he talked about the chocolate-peanut butter cupcake on my plate. The cupcake is the bakery's best-selling product, and it's gluten-free.
Sweet Bar opened 7 months ago to much local excitement. Niall, who has no formal culinary training, owned and operated the popular Mani's Bakery in Los Angeles for 20 years. Mani's was a sugar-free bakery that, in Niall's words, "struck a nerve with the population." Mani's offered a variety of organic, vegan, and gluten-free baked goods, all of which were sweetened with fruit juices instead of cane sugar. These alternative sweets were novel at the time, but Niall knew it was important to offer customers with dietary restrictions an enjoyable dining experience. He wanted to challenge the fat-free, carb-free diet fads of the '80s and '90s, demonstrating that dessert could be both healthy and tasty. After Mani's closed, Niall knew he needed to get back into the bakery business. "I missed it terribly," he remembers.
This newer iteration of Niall's menu features many classic bakery items; croissants, scones, muffins, cupcakes, and coffee cake were on display when I arrived mid-morning on a Saturday. Many items sell out fast, especially the breakfast sandwiches and frittata that comprise part of the morning menu. Later in the day, a full lunch menu is available including pizza, salads, sandwiches, and also wine and beer. The large, open cafe is becoming an event space for local artists and writers, encouraged by Niall's desire to engage with the Oakland community.
Sweet Bar makes standard pastries special by using organic ingredients and offering a variety of gluten-free and vegan options. Small placards in the display case provide plenty of information about ingredients and sourcing, but Niall noted that customers are often surprised to find that their favorite items are vegan or gluten-free. Niall sees pastry as a means of educating his customers about alternative diets, and demonstrating that vegan and gluten-free pastries can also be delicious.
Niall hopes to expand to farmer's markets, festivals, and even open the Sweet Bar Bikery, a mobile bakery to visit busy intersections and business districts around the city. Until then, you can find tasty pastries at Sweet Bar in Uptown Oakland, seven days a week, and click through the slideshow see what's baking.
Sweet Bar Bakery 2355 Broadway, Oakland CA, 94612 (510) 788-4997, www.sweetbarbakery.com
About the Author: Leah Douglas is a freelance writer in San Francisco, and loves learning about, talking about, reading about, and consuming food. Her other work can be found at her website.