After nine years of baking — eight of which were at the popular Tartine Bakery, under Chad Robertson’s tutelage — Nathan Yanko was ready to make his own bread.
“It was just time to do my own thing,” said Nathan.
Fortunately, his wife, Devon Yanko (formerly Crosby-Helms), ran her own personal chef business, Fast Foodie.And, he gave her plenty of warning for the two to spend months planning to dive into their project head-first — even when it means getting up at 1 or 2 a.m. every day for weeks and weeks.
On Memorial Day, they opened the doors — sort of — to M.H. Bread and Butter in San Anselmo, named after Nathan’s great-grandfather, Maximillian Hirtreiter, a baker and patisserie owner. Memorial Day also happened to be the day a popular 10K running race passes right in front of the door to the bakery. They’d done no marketing, they had no dishwasher, and they had to make tarts to order for the line of people out the door. But, they had been baking for wholesale clients, like Farmshop in Larkspur, Shed in Healdsburg, and Petaluma Market.
“We basically just opened our doors and handed out baguettes,” said Nathan.
San Anselmo was not the pair’s first choice. And, even after they settled on San Anselmo, the location they’re in — on the south end of the main downtown strip — was “Plan B,” said Devon.
“We had a list of places all over the country that were theoretical,” she said. They even developed a whole business plan for a large bakery in Healdsburg. But, she said, they realized all their friends and family were in the city and the Bay Area — and, as runners, they spent a lot of time in Marin County on the trails. So, they moved to San Anselmo and planned to open a small “mom and pop” bakery on the other end of town.
That was the plan until the bakery that had been in the location they’re in now shut down. Sweetlife Bakery and Cafe closed in February and the owner called Devon, asking if she wanted to purchase a used bread slicer. Instead, they decided to move into the spot — a significantly larger spot, with a full kitchen for a chef to make food, drinks to be served, and tables for people to sit and enjoy their meals and, most importantly, their bread.
Because, the thing is, it really is all about the bread. To fill out the bigger place, the pair brought in friends and hired a 25-person staff, including chef Arielle Segal, who most recently was sous-chef at Mill Valley Beerworks. Segal makes a range of sandwiches, salads, soups primarily from local ingredients. (They all go to the Marin Farmers’ Market every week.) But, the menu really focuses on featuring Nathan’s specialty: bread.
Nathan learned how to make bread at Tartine, but now he’s trying to find his own unique take on it. That means the bread on any given day isn’t exactly the same — though he acknowledges the changes are small things that 95% of the population won’t notice. He tries different shapes, different grains, different buttering in the pans.
Devon specializes in the croissants and cinnamon-nut rolls (sold out by the time I got there mid-morning). She also spent six weeks under Nathan’s tutelage baking wholesale before they opened the bakery. She jokes that she thought she’d just be sweeping floors, but Nathan was so used to teaching people, since lots of bakers come to Tartine to learn, that within weeks she was making bread too.
Now, the two of them make all the bread every day for the bakery and for all their wholesalers. It’s a big job. And, it’s a job that means the two of them spend nearly every hour working together every day, all the time — with very little sleep.
“Under 12 hours is a good day,” said Nathan.
But, the good days, they said, are really good.
“His passion for bread is why we’re doing it,” said Devon — and he is definitely passionate about what bread can mean for a community, about building a community here in his own small town, and about feeding the community and those neighbors, many of whom helped get the bakery up and running.
The pair are also very good runners and relied, in large part, on their athletic friends and networks to help raise $33,000 via Kickstarter to start the bakery.
By good runners, I mean: really good. Devon set a new course record when she won the Oakland Marathon in March (before the bakery opened) and Nathan’s earned podium finishes in prestigious ultra-marathons like the HURT 100-miler.
Of course, since opening the bakery three months ago, it’s been a little harder to train for 100-mile races. Devon runs at 2:30 a.m. before coming into the bakery. Both of them wake up around that hour to start the bread-baking process. The starter for the bread has to be managed nearly around the clock, meaning they add to it around 8 p.m. and again at 1 a.m. Do the math: that’s not very many hours of sleep in between.
“It’s like having a newborn,” said Devon, who just had her first day off since they opened. But, soon, the newborn will grow up.
M.H. Bread and Butter
101 San Anselmo Ave., San Anselmo
Monday: 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Wednesday and Thursday: 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 7 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Sunday: 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.