Nobody wants their bakery to become a dinosaur. And yet as Michael Gassen looked around his shop, Noe Valley Bakery in San Francisco, he wondered if something needed to be done to avoid the threat of extinction. Throughout the Bay Area, new bakeries and dessert shops were popping up all over, grabbing attention away from this well-established bakery celebrating 20 years in business this year. Gassen and his wife, Mary Gaylord Gassen, the owners, decided it was time for a culture change. They needed to act, and right away.
“I love traveling to New York, Munich, Paris. I am very adventurous in food,” Michael Gassen says. “But my bakery was very conservative. There was a disconnect. I realized that I can’t run my business differently than I run my life.”
The first step toward jump-starting their action plan came with the help of Kickstarter, the world’s largest online funding program for creative projects. Late last year, the couple raised $19,000 in a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the remodeling – both physical and virtual aspects – of their business.
They are building framed custom cabinets made with painted wood and granite tops for their cookie showcase and are installing a new cake case from Structural Concepts. “We are trying to stay modern but traditional, so we have a foot in both worlds,” Gassen says. “Now the remodel matches the standard of the product we do here.”
To update their online presence, they hired a videographer team to film video and help rebrand the website and added other creative features like a virtual cake book, which allows customers to order various cake options with ease.
“My wife did all the legwork on Kickstarter, and we learned quite a lot,” Gassen says. “Most people think of Kickstarter as a money grab. It really becomes more about community.”
The Gassens enjoy the advantage of knowing a lot of people in the food business. One such friend is celebrity chef Yigit Pura, the first winner of Top Chef: Just Desserts and a partner in Tout Sweet Pâtisserie in San Francisco. Pura agreed to offer an exclusive recipe included within Noe Valley Bakery’s digital recipe book. In their Kickstarter campaign, a $50 pledge earned the donating party full access to the digital recipes.
For $1,000 (and two people did pledge at this level), the recipient got to spend a day with Michael Gassen at the bakery. The most popular pledge was a $50 Christmas morning prize that included freshly baked stollen, a holiday blend of teas and granola from Toot Sweet.
“Our project was not very sexy, so you have to get creative,” Gassen points out. “If you don’t hit your Kickstarter target, you get nothing.”
With the help of a lot of social media PR on Facebook and Instagram, they squeaked in over their fundraising goal of $19,000. All rewards are redeemable in 2015, marking the year of the bakery’s 20th anniversary.
Because the San Francisco food culture is “fast and furious,” they hired a public relations agency to keep the momentum of Kickstarter going throughout the year.
In the backroom of the bakery, Michael Gassen is intent on “being dynamic” with every product they make. From the savory ham tarts that feature gruyere and Jarlsberg cheese to the use of fresh herbs such as rosemary and dill, he is turning to premium ingredients wherever and whenever feasible.
“If I’m going to use butter, I’m going to use vat-cultured local butter,” he says. “It’s absolutely fabulous. That’s the way I love to eat. We are changing the culture here. Today, I’m making kouign amman (a cross between a croissant and sticky bun). It’s all about being dynamic.”