Editor’s Note: Bars Bakery is now closed.
The time: 2:55pm. The date: Saturday, Sept. 24. The location: Bars Bakery, on the corner of Selby and Dale in St. Paul. The bakery case: Empty, save for two doughnut muffins. Scratch that — make that one muffin as a customer slips in just before the 3pm closing time to grab coffee and a treat.
“We have been really busy, there’s no question about it,” says Sandi Younkin, who opened the small but stylish bakery just two weeks prior. “We’re working hard to keep product in the case! We’ve been trying to keep up with demand and not disappoint people when pickings are slim.”
If Younkin’s name sounds familiar, you’re not imagining things. The founder of Swede Hollow Cafe, Younkin spent eight years serving up sweets and sandwiches in St. Paul’s Dayton’s Bluff neighborhood before selling the restaurant in the early 2000s, and her canning prowess is on display at Tangletown Gardens, where her pickled vegetables demonstrate how one can make tasty use of excess produce. But having never settled into one career after leaving the restaurant business behind, Younkin realized it was time to strike out on her own again.
“I never really found a niche. After five years of bouncing around, it was time to create another job I liked!” she laughs.
Luckily, she didn’t have to look far for a business partner. Her daughter, Kara, had just graduated from the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs and wanted to embark upon a family-oriented venture that would allow her to spend more time with her young son. (“The truth is I have a really bad oven at my house and I had to open a bakery to bake!” Kara chuckles.) Together, Sandi and Kara developed a concept — a simple bakery, with good coffee and a small selection of packaged foods, including those Tangletown Gardens pickles. The menu would include a mix of sweet and savory treats that would appeal to morning commuters, neighborhood families looking for a fresh option for lunch, and weekend loafers who are content to enjoy a decadent scone or roll with their coffee. The location near the intersection of Selby Avenue and Dale Street was a familiar scene for Sandi, who lived nearby when she first moved to St. Paul 30 years ago and still shops regularly at the neighborhood businesses, and it brings in plenty of foot traffic.
“We thought it would be a good spot. The size is what we were looking for. We preferred to stay in St. Paul. I like Selby — a lot of things are happening here now,” Sandi says.
Working with local contractor Steve Kruser, the Younkins designed the bakery to be two-thirds kitchen and one-third take-out space, with room for three small tables inside the shop and three on the adjacent sidewalk when weather permits. Most of the business so far is take-away, though — customers pick up a cup of Intelligentsia Coffee for themselves and grab a box of goodies to bring home or to work.
“I’d like to squeeze in more tables. I still wanted [the bakery] to be a place you’d gather, like in Europe,” Sandi says. “So far, it’s worked out that way. There’s always a spot for someone to sit down.”
And when customers do sit down, the items on their plates are anything from one of the cinnamon or caramel rolls Sandi created at Swede Hollow, to a snickerdoodle or molasses cookie, to a roasted green pepper and speck scone. A self-taught baker, Sandi incorporates locally grown and seasonal ingredients — such as Hope Creamery butter and Tangletown Gardens produce — into most of her wares. Her savory tarts, a popular lunchtime purchase, feature meat and vegetable combinations like potato, leek, speck, and ricotta, or squash, sweet corn, broccoli, ricotta, and goat cheese. And of course, there are those namesake bars: lemon bars, four varieties of brownies, congo bars, multiple kinds of shortbread, butter toffee blondies, and maple nut bars, to start.
“We started with a base [of recipes], and we’ll keep expanding. You want to create as you go and respond to what people want,” Sandi says. “We want to have a fruit, nut, and chocolate option every day.”
With long weekdays that begin with 4:45am prep and end past the 6pm bakery closing time, the Younkins do rely on help from their husbands, who provide bookkeeping and technology, along with moral, support. A few strategic hires, such as a Saturday baker and Sunday prep assistant, round out the crew, but so far, the mother-daughter duo is keeping their team small to preserve quality of product and service. They’re content to bake and brew until the neighborhood’s sweet (and savory) tooth is sated.
“Everyone asks what our best seller is, but when you’re out of everything at the end of the day…” Kara trails off. There’s no need for her to finish the sentence when the empty bakery case (a certain Heavy Table writer got that last muffin) speaks for itself.
Bars Bakery, located at 612 Selby Ave. in St. Paul, is open 7am-6pm Monday through Friday and 7am-3pm Saturday.