Truckee isn’t exactly the place you’d expect to find a New York pastry chef...
Especially one who worked under Francios Payard at Restaurant Daniel and celebrity baker/author Claudia Flemming, or was the pastry chef at restauranteur Danny Meyer’s iconic Gramercy Tavern.
But then again, Truckee is a special town, full of surprising people. And the Coffeebar Bakery is not just your basic morning-muffin operation.
The Bakery is a wonderland of coffee and pastry that could bring tears of gratitude to the eyes of a jaded Parisienne. You’ll be forgiven if, on your first visit, you stand slack-jawed in front of the long case, trying to figure out what to order. You’re in Cass Rodriguez’s world now.
Cass, who manages our Truckee baking operation, found her way here from New York via...New Zealand. She and her husband had decided it was time to get out of Manhattan and took a year off to enjoy some quintessential Kiwi adventures...fishing, hunting, camping, skiing, sailing, and bungee jumping. As their year came to a close and they made ready to return to the US, she heard bread calling her name.
“I actually thought we were going to move to San Francisco,” she says. Baking great bread, she explains, usually means being on a coast, where culture of both sorts thrives. But the still-strong lure of outdoor adventure drew the couple to Truckee. (Though Cass confesses that she still requires periodic ocean “fixes”.)
Cass made her debut in Truckee as the owner of Joe Coffee (coincidentally, in the very building that became the first Coffeebar). With her commercial baking and restaurant experience, management had seemed like a logical path. But the adventure-loving baker wasn't ready to hang up her apron. She wanted to focus on doing what she loved.
We knew we'd found the right person to take our Bakery to the next level when Cass joined Coffeebar in March, 2020. But she stepped into that role just days before shutdown, and found herself in an utterly surreal situation.
"When we were able to reopen for carry-out business, the Bakery was almost idle. We were barely baking anything,” she recalls. “Maybe eight croissants a week for our Reno-Tahoe stores.” But demand began to rebound as customers became more comfortable going out for coffee. “Now we’re doing a thousand croissants a week.”
And let’s talk about those croissants. To begin with, they’re enormous. A super-sized croissant is usually the sign of a heavy, doughy disaster, but at the Bakery, Cass and company have mastered the fine art of laminating dough.
“We make it the traditional French three-fold way,” she explains of the classic process that alternates ultra-thin layers of dough and butter. “That produces 217 layers of crunchy dough.” Cass is rightly proud of the ham and cheese croissant, the go-to breakfast of choice for folks heading to the slopes or the trails, and the crisp-but-tender cinnamon rolls. (The Lion Roll, which substitutes cardamom, has inspired its own slavish following. One Yelp reviewer confessed to making the drive from Reno for a freshly baked Lion Roll a couple of times a month.)
The Bakery is co-located with Whole Treats, a gluten-free bakery that operates its own, entirely separate operation under the same roof with its own case of goodies, to avoid introducing any allergens. There is literally something for everyone at the Bakery.
It’s also the nerve center of food purchasing and prep for Coffeebar’s savory dishes. “We make the soups, frittatas, sausage rolls, and prep the meats and cheeses for the stores,” Cass says. There’s plenty of administration in her role, but Cass’s favorite days are still when she’s the opening baker, and arrives at 3 AM. (!)
“When I do the morning bake I can see what’s working and not working, and get my eyes on everything,” she explains. “I like to jump in the Element (delivery van) and deliver to our stores, then come back and do it all over again. Getting in front of our store employees gives me lots more firsthand information about what our customers want.”
But the aspect of her job that energizes her the most is having the opportunity to teach her team.
“They’re the hardest working group I’ve ever managed,” she says. “They put so much passion into what they do. You can’t teach that.”
Ashley is the culinary team lead. A former oncology nurse, she started baking as a relief from the stress of her work. Now, Cass reports, “She’s just amazing. She cares so much about the product. Baking is a daily race against the clock and the discipline she learned in the medical environment enables her to keep everything running on time.”
Baking is a special kind of love. Unlike cooking, baking is a precise science--and it often attracts highly analytical minds. Amanda is a former Sam Houston State University professor, a scientist who worked for the Burkhart Center for Autism Research and Education in Lubbock. “She’s becoming a very good professional baker,” Cass enthuses.
Holly came to the Bakery with a restaurant background. She’s focused on making baking a career, but she’s also passionate about one of Coffeebar’s core values--sustainability. She’s thrown herself into sourcing organic and local ingredients for the Bakery through the Tahoe Food Hub.
In the spirit of “connecting the dots from farmer to guest” which informs Coffeebar’s coffee roasting program, Tahoe Food Hub is a non profit that works with small family farms within 100 miles of Truckee, enabling them to participate in a regional marketplace that offers them fair prices and equal representation.
“We can get unique products from specialty farms,” Cass says. “We avoid buying from the big guys as much as we can.” With the advent of summer, the Bakery begins producing an array of fresh fruit pastries.
Logan is a ski instructor who got into baking as a hobby, and is now making the leap to doing it professionally. A graphic designer as well, it’s easy to tell when she’s the one decorating our Lion cookies.
Then there are the two besties, Rachel and Chantal. Recent Truckee High graduates, both took Culinary as a high school elective and jumped at the opportunity to join the Bakery team and get paid for their passion. Rachel is also a horsewoman, a hobby that tends to impart a deep sense of responsibility, and Chantal is studying nursing online. The young women bring “passion and love” to their work, says Cass. “They just put their heads down and get the job done.”
Audrey is super-organized and has excellent time management, thanks to home-schooling her kids. “She also directs people well,” notes Cass. “She’s incredibly hard working. Her daughter used to work at the Bakery and actually recommended, then trained her mom as her replacement.” Audrey is finishing a degree, as well.
Still a high school student, Santina is working part time and eager to expand her hours this summer. “Anyone under 18 is not allowed by law to use the heavy equipment in the Bakery,” Cass says. “But she scales ingredients and assists the bakers. She’s a very social person and great at the front counter.”
“It’s one thing to love baking, it’s another to do the hard work,” says the Michelin-star restaurant veteran. “You’re on your feet, you’re dealing with large, extremely hot ovens, you’re lifting heavy bags of ingredients. It’s a massive level up from being a hobbyist baker. You’re going from a dozen cookies at a time to 300. There’s no measuring cups or measuring spoons. All the ingredients are weighed on a metric scale. They arrive in this kitchen and they’re definitely not in Kansas anymore! Everyone has to learn to be efficient, to work clean and neat in your own space, and of course--we all do dishes, too.”
Cass thrives on training. “I love teaching new things,” she says. “And I love that our Bakery is such an incredible place to learn.”
For badass women of Coffeebar Bakery, that’s the icing on the cake.