Bay Area Vital Vittles organic bakery will close

Vital Vittles, the Berkeley bakery known for its organic whole-wheat bread, is closing after 46 years, Berkeleyside reported. After the publication warned in January that the beloved spot was in dire straits due to the pandemic, it is now set to close on March 31.

“It was my first child,” Kass Schwin, the bakery’s former owner, told SFGATE. “My kids didn’t arrive until years after we started Vital Vittles, so it’s very bittersweet for me.”

Kass Schwin and Joe Schwin (her ex-husband, who died two years ago) opened Vital Vittles in 1976 as a whole wheat flour mill. Three years later, they turned the business into a bakery and started selling their bread in local health food stores. The bakery has been in its current location at 2810 San Pablo Avenue since 1984.

Vital Vittles staff with Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean in 2011.

Courtesy of Kass Schwin

In 2006, the Schwins sold the bakery to Huong Tran, who has worked at Vital Vittles since 1981, and his brother, Binh Tran. Under their ownership, the bakery with a devoted cult thrived for many years – until the pandemic hit, when the loss of a dozen wholesale accounts spelled disaster for the business. It was at this time that Schwin again got involved in the bakery to help the Trans find a way to survive.

“At the start of the pandemic, people stopped shopping in stores, Schwin explained. “And Vital Vittles just hasn’t been able to pivot in a way that they can reach their customer base. And then [ingredient] the prices changed and went up…they just had so many challenges.”

Despite raising over $35,000 in a GoFundMe fundraiser, it wasn’t enough to save the bakery.

Vital Vittles, at 2810 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, is expected to close at the end of this month.

Vital Vittles, at 2810 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, is expected to close at the end of this month.

Molly P. and Rosanna C. via Yelp

“It was impossible to make it work,” Schwin said. “When they started the GoFundMe, it was hoped that they could find a way to get through the pandemic and grow the business and maybe find a partner to work with them, or some capital…and nothing was moving forward. It looked like they were just going to have to close the doors.And then they decided to try to sell it.

On March 16, the owners announced on their GoFundMe page that they had found a new owner. Although the sale is still ongoing, Berkeleyside said the new owners are Carlos Altamirano and Shu Dai, a husband-and-wife team that owns seven Peruvian restaurants in the Bay Area. According to Schwin, the new owners plan to continue selling some Vital Vittles products, which made the transition a bit easier.

Vital Vittles on a NASA mission - astronaut Janice Voss took bread with her to space in 2000.

Vital Vittles on a NASA mission – astronaut Janice Voss took bread with her to space in 2000.

Courtesy of Kass Schwin

“The Tran family is like my family,” Schwin said. “We’ve worked together for 35 years and raised our kids together. But I’m just sad they couldn’t get through it. And it was really hard for me to see how they struggled. Those two last few years…but on the other hand there is some relief that this new business owner may be able to do what he couldn’t and continue because he has other products. I’m a little more optimistic than eight months ago.”

The Trans, she said, are “relieved and just exhausted from the stress of the past two years” but will most likely find new jobs soon (Binh, 50, has a degree in accounting, and Huong, 63 years, expressed interest in switching from baking to sewing).

“We’re just sorry it couldn’t stay open,” Schwin said. “There’s a cartoon we love. There’s a picture of a cafe that says ‘healthy, delicious, whole grain, fresh, organic food’. And next to it is ‘Le Crapola Cafe’. The first has a closing sign out front, and Crapola cafe has a long line around the block, and that’s been our challenge from the very beginning.”

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