Former pastry chef Michelle Gayer and her namesake Minneapolis bakery have caught the attention of this burgeoning food city, turning out Old World pastries and bread in a 400-sq.-ft. stall in Midtown Global Market.
Michelle Gayer, pastry chef and owner of Salty Tart Bakery in Minneapolis, doesn’t believe in advertising. And in today’s connected world, where food-savvy consumers go where Food Network or Bon Appetit magazine tells them to eat and seek food not just for fuel, but for instantaneous bragging rights among their friends and family via a panoply of social media outlets, she almost doesn’t have to.
“We’ve grown and grown and grown with no advertisement,” Gayer says. “I’ve never advertised once, I have no marketing plan. People just come to us.”
It helps that Gayer, a 2010 James Beard Foundation Outstanding Pastry Chef nominee, is something of a brand herself. She spent roughly 15 years as a pastry chef for high-profile chefs including Charlie Trotter and Nancy Silverton before transitioning to bakery owner. It also helps that she and her pastries have been featured in almost every Minneapolis media outlet, that she’s been named best pastry chef by Bon Appetit and that TV personality Andrew Zimmern has called her now signature macaroons better than his mom’s on Food Network’s “Best Thing I Ever Ate.”
“People are more into food nowadays,” Gayer says. “I was shocked at how many people even knew what the James Beard Foundation was.” Still, the deadpanning Gayer maintains that the notoriety isn’t important–her place will always be at the bench.
“I don’t want to be on TV,” she says. “I don’t want to put a mint leaf as a garnish on that dessert because someone else wants me to. I’m a baker. I’m a line cook. I don’t want to smile all the time. I don’t like that.” Then, she laughs, adding: “I’m not bitter! Why do you think my bakery is called the Salty Tart?”
From kitchen to classroom to bakery
A native of Iowa, Gayer moved to Chicago to attend culinary school at Kendall College, where she developed a penchant for pastry. “The same finesse you use for a piece of fish is what you use for a strawberry. The same skill set, the same food philosophies apply to both the sweet and savory sides of food production,” she says.
After graduating, she worked as a pastry chef in St. Louis for two years before returning to Chicago, where she knocked on the back door at Charlie Trotter’s namesake restaurant with her resume in hand. She was hired as a full-time pastry cook within a week.
She spent several years as a pastry chef at Trotter’s in Chicago and Las Vegas, leaving for two years to work for Nancy Silverton at La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles. There, the exposure to bakery production as opposed to the professional kitchen made an impact on Gayer (pictured, below left).
“I love Nancy’s aesthetic,” she says. “It’s that California, laid-back, not fussy style.” Gayer began dreaming of forgoing all the tiny plated desserts and persnickety garnishes in favor of opening a bakery of her own. So when she got a call with an offer to help grow the pastry line at Franklin Street Bakery when it expanded to a new 20,000-sq.-ft. facility in South Minneapolis, she jumped at the chance and moved her family to Minnesota in 2004. “I thought it would be a really great practice round to open up a bakery with someone else’s money and just get some more experience in the larger wholesale field,” she says. The two-year job also helped solidify what she did (and didn’t) want when she opened her own business.
“I did some pastry work but it just didn’t work out for me because a lot of my job was sitting at a desk, and it was the first time I had a computer or a desk,” she says, laughing. “I had to find things like new packaging that goes around the sides of the cheesecake so it doesn’t touch. And I thought to myself, this is not what I want to do.”
She was pursued by Midtown Global Market with an opportunity to open a bakery within the 71,000-sq.-ft. public market while she was teaching baking and pastry classes at Le Cordon Bleu-Minneapolis. For Gayer, it was a chance to open a bakery with slightly less capital and risk involved than with a standalone business.
“The opportunity to do a turnkey operation appealed to me,” she says. “This place was a bakery before, which was nice. And they said, ‘We’ll help you do this; we’ll help you find the financing. You have to come up with this small amount of money, and we’ll help you do it.’”
Midtown Global Market occupies a portion of the historic former Sears building just south of downtown Minneapolis. A joint effort among four area nonprofit organizations, the market opened in 2006 offering a mix of restaurants, cafés, specialty grocers and retail shops with a goal of showcasing the neighborhood’s ethnic diversity and entrepreneurial spirit. The market only accepts applications from independent business owners, offering incentives, such as business classes, loans, a graduated rent payment option, and marketing and promotional assistance, to inexperienced business owners or those who need startup capital.
A stall of her own
Gayer opened the 400-sq.-ft Salty Tart in 2008 with three employees and a solely retail product line that included sweet and savory croissants, puff pastry, macaroons, cookies, cupcakes and artisan breads, including sourdough, baguettes, whole wheat and milk bread buns. About a year into owning the business, wholesale demand for the milk bread buns soared. The bakery’s wholesale business exploded from nothing to 21 clients over the course of 18 months, forcing Gayer to start renting commercial production space in the market to accommodate the extra milk bread and baguette orders. “We would mix everything here and then send it down the hallway where my staff would cut, roll, shape and bake.”
Aside from the sheer increase in production, the bakery simply couldn’t support all the orders from a cash flow perspective. “We decided we just couldn’t keep invoicing all these clients, so we switched to cash and carry.”
With that decision, the bakery lost a few clients and has since cut its list to 10 restaurants, food trucks and fellow market vendors–and only sells milk bread buns. It sells an average of 3,400 wholesale milk bread buns per week.
“We’d like to get back to primarily retail,” Gayer says.
Salty Tart draws steady breakfast and lunch business each day from Allina Hospital, a sprawling complex located just behind the market. In addition to daily sandwich offerings, which have helped boost check averages, the bakery offers housemade soups in the winter. Since the market is open until 8 p.m., the bakery also sees a lot of evening business from commuters, which is why Gayer added take-and-bake peach crisp (parbaked), brownies and cookies (unbaked), as well as individual and two-count packaged cupcakes as well as packaged 7-oz. cake slices. On weekends, Salty Tart’s daily traffic swells to 300 (up from 200 during the week), as tourists will typically spend a few hours browsing vendor stalls.
More than macaroons
The top-selling item at Salty Tart is the coconut macaroon, with about 525 sold per week. Gayer calls the dense, chewy confections her “accidental” signature dessert because of their immense popularity; another 250 are shipped each week from call-in orders, which Gayer began taking after Zimmern swooned over the macaroons on “Best Thing I Ever Ate.”
“We know when that episode re-airs because the phone rings off the hook,” Gayer says. “So that meant we had to add another department and figure out how to package and ship them. Now we ship macaroons to all 50 states.”
To make the macaroons, sugar is dissolved in water with tapioca syrup and vanilla beans. After boiling for seven minutes, the mixture is poured over coconut flakes and mixed for another seven minutes. While it’s mixing, cream cheese and egg whites are added. Then they’re scooped, hand rolled until completely smooth and baked until golden brown.
Cupcakes also are popular; varieties include Surly Furious Chocolate with locally brewed American IPA beer; vegan chocolate with whipped dark chocolate olive oil ganache; sangria with vanilla cake, peach compote and white wine buttercream; and seasonal pumpkin with chai ganache, spicy buttercream and candied pepitas. The bakery also offers a daily baker’s choice for $2.75.
Another top seller, the labor-intensive pastry cream-filled brioche (pictured, left), is produced only in single batches of 36 per day. The brioche dough is made from scratch and sheeted, then filled with housemade pastry cream, proofed, egg washed, topped with sugar and baked. Ham and cheese croissants and seasonal sweet and savory puff pastries (with varieties like stone fruit and sweet onion with heirloom tomato) also are big sellers. All told, the bakery offers around 65 products.
“The product line hasn’t changed; it’s diversified as we’ve grown,” Gayer says. “We’ve added a larger variety of items. It’s kind of our nemesis.”
The bakery also sells about 21 custom cakes per week in 6-, 8- and 10-in. rounds. Popular combinations include chocolate cake with dulce de leche filling and chocolate buttercream; vanilla cake with lemon cream filling and vanilla buttercream or white chocolate mousse; and Surly chocolate cake with honey sweetened sour cream filling, and fudgy chocolate icing. Gayer won’t do fondant or sculpted cakes, despite frequent requests. “I’m not a decorator. No gumpaste flowers. And no star tips. Ever.”
Keeping up with production demands
The bakery now has a staff of 14–with all but one employee working full time. It recently added a third shift to keep up with the demanding manual production schedule.
A bread baker comes in at 3 a.m. to mix all the doughs, which include sourdough, milk bread buns, baguettes and whole wheat bread. At 4 a.m. two additional bakers arrive to help divide and score bread. An hour later, the pastry and front-of-house staff arrive to start special orders and bake and garnish pastries, as well as prepare the shop for opening at 7 a.m.
At 1 p.m. more pastry cooks arrive to make cake batters, fillings, buttercreams and croissant and puff pastry dough. On Wednesday afternoons from May through October, levains are made in preparation for the weekly Mill City Farmers’ Market. The bakery offers pastries, croissants, cookies, macaroons and bread, including currant, cheddar jalapeño, olive, baguette, French, sprouted grain, savory and sweet focaccia, milk bread buns and sourdough.
The cookies are the only products replenished throughout the day. Stales are marked down for the following day, and day-old cupcakes and cakes are pulled from the display case, portioned and packaged for customers to grab and go.
Part of the community
Through the market’s connections, Salty Tart was able to get involved in the annual 12-day Minnesota State Fair, during which the bakery sells about 20,000 macaroons. Gayer also is involved with community causes like Share Our Strength, the nonprofit organization that aims to end childhood hunger in America.
This spring, she and Minneapolis chef Tim McKee hosted a Cakewalk fundraiser, which featured food prepared by local restaurants and pastry chefs, a cakewalk raffle, drinks from area mixologists and dancing. The event raised $27,000, and Gayer has plans for making it an annual event. “I want it to be big. I’m hoping to get chefs and pastry chefs from around the country to come.”
Although her skills and technique were shaped by decades of plated desserts and pastry production, Gayer doesn’t miss her pastry chef days noting that she’s made “lifelong friends” in Minneapolis and she’s doing pastry her way.
“My philosophy is fresh daily, seasonal, true to method and technique,” she says. Puff pastry is made this way, and that is how we do it; we don’t really mess with the product.”
And despite her plans to open a second standalone bakery with a full breakfast menu (and perhaps a popup donut shop or ice cream truck), at heart she is still a baker and a line cook–the words, “Embrace your inner line cook” were even scrawled on Salty Tart’s cooler door with a dry erase marker.
“I always want to continue to bake. It’s hard to balance with all these extra pressures, and I struggle every day with this,” Gayer says.