As the former chef of Mr. Holmes Bakehouse, the viral sensation best known for popularizing the cruffin, Brittany Dunn has seen some wild pastry mashups. Back in the day, and by the day we do mean 2016, she used to take a croissant, twist it into the shape of a muffin, inject it with creams, and trick it out with toppings. But not anymore. Step up to her sunny booth at the farmers’ market, where seagulls soar overhead and seals bob behind in the bay. And behold an array of naturally stunning pastries: spiral buns with just a touch of white glaze, croissants with a crush of green pistachios, danishes dotted with seasonal fruit, and blonde boules of sourdough.
Welcome to Saltwater Bakeshop, one of the coolest up-and-coming bakeries in the Bay. Which is currently selling at several farmers’ markets, and on the lookout for a permanent home in San Francisco. And of course, available for pickup through Pastel.
Dunn originally hails from San Diego, and loves living near the ocean, hence the salty name. She started working in restaurants at age 16, and attended the Art Institute of California in San Diego, then one of the best culinary schools in the country. She rose through a couple of bakeries in San Diego, and briefly consulted for King’s Hawaiian, yes, as in the sweet rolls of 90s kids' dreams. Ready for the next step in a big city, she applied for Mr. Holmes in LA, and instead got accepted in SF, and that’s how a beach baker found herself in a basement in the Tenderloin. “I started to kind of fall in love with the city and especially the food scene,” Dunn says. “It’s like no other. It’s just so ridiculous, the different kinds of foods you can get here, and the produce, farmers’ markets, and culture.”
Reminisce, if you will, that this was peak cruffin mania, when pastry fans were lining up at 6am in the rain, and ’grammers gravitated to the neon pink sign, “I got baked in San Francisco.” Dunn baked big volume for Mr. Holmes for nearly three years from 2015 to 2017, long before the cruffin influencer filed for bankruptcy. From a “pretty small” kitchen downstairs, her team put out 900 to 1,200 pastries a day, and swapped flavors every month, from a pop tart rocking bright purple ube and hot pink prickly pear to a carbonated cola jelly doughnut. “It was insane the amount of product we were producing out of the amount of space,” Dunn says. She managed the team in SF and helped open a new spot in South Korea. Until totally burnt out, she “took a break” by slinging sourdough for Portside Bakery for an interlude.
She opened Saltwater Bakeshop as her first solo venture in 2018. “I felt like I was already doing everything, and I was doing it really successfully, but it wasn’t mine,” Dunn says. She had new ideas for menu items and craved more control and space to grow. “For me, starting Saltwater was an idea of taking all the things that I love and putting it out there and seeing how it was accepted.”
That means both crumb-explosion croissants and chewy sourdough, relying on quality ingredients and seasonal fruit, but with laid-back style. The ham and cheese croissant has won the popularity contest, folding in rosemary ham, gruyere cheese, and housemade mustard. Right behind is the chocolate pistachio, filled with several bars of Valrhona, and topped with a crush of mossy green pistachios. The cult favorite is the orange blossom cardamom bun, a pretty twist of croissant dough, drizzled with vanilla bean icing (known to some as Cardi B). Farmers’ market buddies grow the strawberries and blueberries that rest on danishes and the French toast.
Bucking a few trends, the sourdough style isn’t too dark, it doesn’t have gaping holes, and the dough isn’t so soupy that it spills over the table. Rather, Dunn prefers a pleasantly chewy blonde crust and slightly tighter crumb. She says the sleeper hit was the spelt loaf, which was originally a tough sell, but the nutty flavor and crunchy cornmeal make an exceptional grilled cheese, especially if you’re into stinky cheese. And once a quarter, Dunn crafts a special menu item and donates the proceeds to a good cause. Such as a cinnamon bun that supports La Casa de las Madres, an organization that supports women and children dealing with domestic violence. (At the time of writing, both of those special items are only available at the farmers’ market.)
“Going for it is a terrifying thing. Most businesses fail within two years,” Dunn says. “And my two year mark hit right when the pandemic happened.” But despite losing wholesale business to restaurants and cafes and having to cut staff, Saltwater has sailed through the storm to a successful four years. Dunn currently bakes out of a shared kitchen in San Mateo (yeah, she’s friends with the cookie dad), and fell in love with the farmers’ market rotation, currently serving several each week. But she lives in San Francisco, and plans to find a permanent home for Saltwater in the city, hoping to sign a lease this summer. Stay tuned for big cardamom bun moves.
Saltwater Bakeshop is at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays, Clement St. Farmers Market on Sundays, and Fort Mason Farmers’ Market on Sundays. And the croissants and sourdough are available for neighborhood pickup across the Bay Area through Pastel.