Toast Points: How Bread Got So Hot in SF

By Tamara Palmer  |  January 31, 2014
Credit: The Mill

It's 11:30 AM on a Sunday, and the line for toast and coffee at The Mill is out the door. Inside, the scene is just shy of chaotic.

"It's too loud in there!" a small, agitated child yells at his mother. She tells him she needs to get toast for his father and impatiently plants him at the front door. He's alone, save for some sad-looking dogs tethered to parking meters.

"Wait here!" she orders.

It's official: Toast is a San Francisco phenomenon causing mothers to leave their seriously young children to fend for themselves while they procure a square of dark mountain rye with cream cheese or whole wheat with pumpkin butter and sea salt. The Mill is the current epicenter of it all - the only place in town where one can buy underpants emblazoned with the name of the bread maker, Josey Baker.

An August article on Venturebeat entitled "$4 toast: Why the tech industry is ruining San Francisco" quickly turned this food item into a target for sarcasm. But behind the punchline is a transformed trend that has actually existed in the city for decades. From honey bread with condensed milk to country levain with bone-marrow butter, click through to see how it started and where it's going.

  • Credit: Tamara Palmer

    Josey Baker and the Breadheads

    The notion of $4 toast as represented by The Mill has become a vilifying meme (even though most slices are actually $3.75). But in the midst of the excoriation, few seem to point out that a whole loaf of Josey Baker Bread costs $6. You can make a lot of toast out of that, but that doesn't make for an awesome headline.

    "I get it, '$4 toast' sounds ridiculous, and I have to give credit to whomever came up with it for tagging such a provocative title on our goods," says Baker. "But let's not conflate two very complicated and distinct issues: the rising cost of living in San Francisco and the true cost of food. Living in the Bay Area is more expensive than ever. Median rent just topped $2,900 for a one-bedroom apartment. Is this because of bakers and baristas? No, it's primarily because of the most recent boom in the tech industry, which is migrating northward from Silicon Valley.

    "As for the other issue at hand, making high-quality food responsibly on a small scale just costs more than mass-producing low-quality food using inexpensive ingredients. We use the best ingredients that we can find, which we source primarily from other local small businesses, and we pay our employees well, including health care. Does it cost more to do things the way we do them? Yes, it sure does. Is it worth it? We obviously think it is, but I encourage everyone to make that decision for themselves."

  • Credit: Tamara Palmer

    Asian toast specialists

    Seven years ago, a small Outer Sunset joint called Toast Alley opens with a menu of nothing but thickly sliced toast slathered with toppings like condensed milk, peanut butter and honey, a style popular in Hong Kong. The carb-loaded offerings aren't new to the neighborhood nor its partner on the other side of Golden Gate Park, the Richmond District. Asian cafes have offered toast with these toppings as well as fruit and ice cream for decades. It turns out to be no match for the neighboring boba tea shops that have captured the after-school set. The shop closes without fanfare, replaced by a tattoo shop.

    Hong Kong-style toast is still ever-present at older sweet shops around the city such as Kowloon Tong, while newer places like ETC Dessert Cafe and Akiba favor a more Japanese style of toast squares and boxes. The latter even enlists servers dressed in anime costumes on Saturday nights.

  • Credit: Tamara Palmer

    Toast as a business model

    Since 2008, Trouble Coffee has built a business entirely off of coconuts, coffee and thick slices of cinnamon toast. However niche the idea was - and still is - even in the dessert-toast-saturated Outer Sunset, Trouble successfully added a second location in the Bayview last year. This happened despite what is now a notoriously anti-photo and anti-social-media policy. Hotspot Outerlands opened on the block in 2009 with fresh baked bread and toast on the menu; it's temporarily closed for renovations but will be expanding its bread program when it reopens.

  • Credit: Bill Niles

    Toast for brunch

    St. Vincent chef Bill Niles has made toast the centerpiece of the wine bar's new brunch service on Saturdays. Making bread is a special passion here since Niles and a lot of his kitchen staff previously worked at the nearby Bar Tartine or Tartine Bakery, where they learned from owner Chad Robertson, a leading bread guru whose creations have drawn daily lines for years. The current menu at St. Vincent features a country bread with a choice of housemade spreads such as bone-marrow butter and cultured butter with persimmon jam (both pictured). But Niles and crew are also working on multiple other bread varieties, including one bread made with Carolina grits and another with cocoa and cacao nibs.

    "There's a couple reasons for the toasts," says Niles. "We're really happy with our bread and wanted a new way to serve it. We do a number of fully fleshed out bread-based dishes on the dinner menu, so it also gives us the opportunity to make some small bread dishes that a guest can try a handful of on each visit. In a restaurant like ours, with an amazing wine list, it presents the opportunity for someone to come in and eat some great bread with some interesting jams/butter and a great glass of wine for lunch."

  • Credit: Tamara Palmer

    Soldiers at attention

    Hot British pub the Cavalier not only has the sense to offer breakfast day and night, but also dedicates an entire section of the menu to soldiers, aka little strips of toast that are a hallmark of U.K. comfort food. They're served in various incarnations with something eggy for dipping, including a stout custard with salted chocolate and hazelnut soldiers and a hen hollandaise with ham and cheese soldiers (pictured).

    "We have taken the simple soldier and added a few twists to create fully realized dishes that are great for breakfast or as a snack or appetizer," says executive chef Jenn Puccio. "If you consider the past and present popularity of canapés, crostini, bruschetta, French tartines and now toast, people take immense pleasure in eating delicious things on great bread, and I don't see that changing any time too soon."