[Update: Pushkin’s opened a gluten-free restaurant serving breakfast and lunch at 1813 Capitol Ave. in Sacramento in December 2016.]
By Vic Dolcourt
At Pushkin’s Bakery in Sacramento’s trendy Midtown, you can find Dudes (chocolate ganache glazed peanut butter cookies), Awesomes (lemon-poppy seed pound cakes), Barracudas (cupcakes named for a 70’s song), No Names (kind of like a cinnamon roll center), music from a faux gramophone, treats with more descriptive names, and made-to-order vegan sandwiches. Although some pastry names may seem odd or even outrageous, they are among the most popular treats at the gluten and dairy-free bakery named to honor Alexander Pushkin, arguably Russia’s greatest and most influential literary figure.
A treat turns into a business
Danny Turner, Pushkin’s co-owner, discovered that he needed to be on a gluten-free and dairy-free diet to stay healthy. Danny and co-owner Olga married in 2010. Olga was frustrated because she could not at first make treats that were suitable for Danny’s diet. After a lot of experimentation, Olga mastered dairy and gluten-free chocolate chip cookies. While still in college, Danny and Olga baked cookies in a shared facility in Auburn – 30 miles from Sacramento – and then Danny and Olga drove them to Mollie Stone’s markets and other retail locations in the Bay Area.
The cookies were sold as a fresh product in the bakery section. This enabled Pushkin’s to use simple packaging; they didn’t have to develop the expensive supermarket-type packaging necessary for goods on the shelf. Within 18 months, the Turners were selling wholesale into 14 Bay Area market locations. Then they did something dramatic: they fired all of their customers! But of course, under good terms. The Turners wanted their own dedicated dairy and gluten-free bakery space, and they wanted to sell to retail customers. They decided that 100% of their focus and energy would be necessary to start their own shop. Clearly, it was a daring move to go from wholesale to retail virtually overnight, as well as cutting off a reliable source of income.
Happy Valentine’s Day
On Valentine’s Day, 2013, Olga and Danny opened Pushkin’s Bakery. “We loved our wholesale customers, but we wanted to meet the people who actually ate our food. And even more, Olga wanted to offer more variety and express more creativity than we could through our particular version of wholesale at that time,” Danny said. Pushkin’s must be doing something right. When Pushkin’s opened it was just Olga and Danny. Now they have a team of eleven employees. The retail shop is open five days per week – Tuesday through Saturday, from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
It’s all about quality
“A surprising number of customers who come into Pushkin’s don’t care that we are gluten and dairy-free,” said Danny. “They like the vibe and they like the taste. We are very strict about our ingredients, and it has taken years to figure out how to put out a tasty product. We hold our suppliers to a high standard, and that really pays off in quality. All of our ingredients are natural, and we don’t use any preservatives. Our products are very fresh. We bake a number of batches per day right in our shop.” Danny also noted that the Sacramento conventional bakers are friendly and open to discussing their best practices. “We’ve learned from the best,” said Danny, “and we’ve incorporated a number of these ideas and business models into what we do. The wheat bakers don’t feel that we are their competitors.”
Always gluten and dairy-free; sometimes vegan
“Olga and I have a single requirement for all of our products: they have to be tasty,” Danny said. “There are some things that we haven’t successfully been able to make dairy-free, so we don’t feel compelled to compromise and offer an inferior version. Some day we may be able to make that product that evaded us, and then we’ll bring it out. Not everything in our shop is vegan. We don’t go out of our way to force something to be vegan. If it is naturally vegan and it tastes good, then we offer it. If we had to compromise on flavor or texture just to make something vegan, then we just don’t do it.”
Growth, Division and Wholesale
After more than a year’s hiatus from wholesale, Danny and Olga decided it was time to enlarge their business to include wholesale again. This was coincident with not-quite-enough kitchen space at their Midtown location. The Turners acquired and equipped a large kitchen approximately 20 minutes away where they mix the ingredients and prepare and package icings and batters for final use in the retail store. Products are baked fresh in the retail store where bakers fill and ice the various goodies. Ovens in the remote production kitchen have been designated for baking for wholesale customers. The question is who will be the wholesale customers.
The big elephant
The big elephant in natural and gluten-free foods is, of course, Whole Foods Market. Placing products at Whole Foods is a huge achievement because Whole Foods is extremely fussy about quality and purity. Consumers know that if you buy dairy and gluten-free at Whole Foods it is dairy and gluten-free because Whole Foods employs assurance processes that many stores do not. Though Danny and Olga initially approached Whole Foods, it was Whole Food’s regional bakery managers calling daily asking for Pushkin’s Bakeryproducts that convinced Danny and Olga to move forward with distribution. After a rigorous inspection by a third party audit firm, it was game on.
“You know, the audit was really tough and almost nit-picking, but in spite of the expense, the audit was really worth it. It tightened our manufacturing processes. In the end, even with all the pickiness, we passed the audit just fine,” Danny said. The good news is that it all happened. Pushkin’s Bakery has now placed product at Whole Foods Sacramento market on Arden Way.
What’s next for the Turners
“We’re now ready to approach a number of wholesale customers, but Olga’s heart and mine is really in retail. We’ll never give that up. We want a balance, and now we are set up for additional locations as we need to expand,” Danny said. He also related that regardless of future retail locations or wholesale customers, the present location of Pushkin’s can’t be beat. It is next to a popular coffee café, and a new co-op market is opening next door. But the current shop is crowded, and it may make sense to spread the access a bit. He is on the lookout for one or more additional locations for Pushkin’s. The expansion may or may not be in Sacramento. Pushkin’s has sold products before in the Bay Area, and some of Pushkin’s customers are coming from as far as Reno. The bottom line is that Pushkin’s could pop-up in virtually any regional location where there is an underserved gluten and dairy-free community.
The best way to find out what is happening at Pushkin’s is the Pushkin website. It also lists the daily menu, opening times and has some fun videos from Sacramento TV. My favorite is Olga making scones. Check the Facebook page to see what people are saying about Pushkin’s.