Just Desserts: An Icon of the Old City (San Francisco)

“Life is uncertain. Eat dessert first.”—from Just Desserts’s t-shirts.

This article is about one of the icons of the Old City of San Francisco. The original Just Desserts founded in the early 1970s on Church Street in San Francisco by Elliot Hoffman and Gayle Horvath. A family cheesecake recipe started the company. Just Desserts had retail stores throughout The City.

Hola a todos. I mentioned Just Desserts, a superb and well-known former San Francisco bakery, in an article sometime ago where I talked about the ridiculous $3.00 cake-cutting fee at a greed-based, bougi restaurant in San Francisco’s Castro. $3.00 to cut a slice of cake? No, gracias. One would have to be a complete idiot and into wasting dinero/money to pay $3.00 to have a slice of cake cut. jesus! That restaurant can keep their cake. I prefer to bake my own cakes anyway “from scratch” using organically-grown ingredients whenever possible, then I know what’s in them. Fortunately, at Just Desserts we didn’t have any cake-cutting fee. In the retail stores, cake-cutting was just part of our job, as it should be in any well-established high-quality restaurant (that’s not about greed) and that’s not trying to exploit their customers and put on airs of being pretentious, snooty and bougi, Dahling.

I thought I’d write more about Just Desserts (JDs), as a tribute to the company since JDs was very much a part of the Old City. In those days San Francisco was known as the alternative and proudly radical “Liberal San Francisco.” Yeah well, I can confirm it’s nothing like that today here in 2017. For those who haven’t kept up: Conformist, conservative, sanitised, lobotomised and culture-less best describe this New San Francisco, which is obsessed with millionaire-owned corporate sport$ team$, rather than The Arts and culture. The “Liberal San Francisco” was before the techie dooshes and their millionaire-billionaire companies — receiving corporate welfare from San Francisco through tax breaks — vapid Millennials, and greed-based developers were allowed to come in and begin the demolition of the Old City and make San Francisco into a playground for the super-wealthy and saturated with cookie-cutter and cheaply-built glass boxes called Luxury Designer Condos (Dahling). The Bay Area is now known as Billionaire’s Bay, by the way. And today, there’s nothing equivalent to Just Desserts with its excellent “baked from scratch using the finest and freshest ingredients available” reputation. Oh there are many bakeries around, but they are not like iconic Just Desserts.

When I moved to San Francisco in the late 1970s from the District of Columbia, one of the first things anyone told me after I arrived was, “You have to go to Just Desserts and try their Chocolate Fudge Cake. You’ll love it.” I did and was a regular customer from then on.

Just Desserts had a lot of openly-Queer/GTQBL employees. The company was very pro-Queer. And the Queer community very much supported Just Desserts for decades. There would be lines out the door especially on viernes/Friday and sábado/Saturday night of the original Church Street location for people wanting their Chocolate Fudge Cake.

The cakes one sees today in some big box stores with the Just Desserts name on them are not the same cakes/recipes that the original company made. The new company (that bought-out the original Just Desserts) implies they are the same cakes — the last time I checked I think they used language such as “Classic Recipes” or “Classic Cakes” which is just marketing language — but I know from looking at the list of ingredients that they’re not the same cakes at all. For example, most of the original cake recipes used all butter. They were in the “butter cakes” category. One exception to that was the Carrot Cake, which is usually made with some kind of oil. There is butter in the cakes from the new Just Desserts but there’s also canola oil in them (to extend the shelf life?), including the original Just Desserts’s signature Chocolate Fudge Cake. There was no canola oil in JD’s original Chocolate Fudge Cake. Our ingredients’ lists were mostly short, depending upon the dessert. Guar gum is in some of the new cake recipes which was also not in the original cakes. The list of ingredients for the new cakes looks more like the ingredients’ list one would find in the bakery at Saf*w*y.

Many loyal customers raved about our signature cake, the Chocolate Fudge Cake, the Weekend Cake (that was the Chocolate Fudge Cake with cream cheese frosting, which initially was only available on the weekends, but later became a regular part of the dessert menu because it was so popular). JDs made the best Fudge Brownies anywhere. When they were not over-baked, they were very “wet” and fudgie and smelled wonderful. They were made with three different chocolates and walnuts. Another favourite was the Carrot Cake (no walnuts) with Cream Cheese Frosting. They made a Banana Cake with raspberry filling and buttercream frosting and with walnut crumbs on the side. I found that too sweet. They also made Walnut Cookies, and Peanut Butter cookies with half the cookie dipped in dark chocolate. I mentioned the Mocha Buttercream Cake. That was an absolutely delicious cake. That was multiple layers of vanilla sponge cake with authentic mocha buttercream in between each layer (it was not strong on the mocha) with a dark chocolate ganache covering the cake (which was in a rectangular “log” shape) and a touch of cherry liquor in the ganache. That was one of JD’s best cakes. Mi amigo/My friend often said, “I bet this cake is a royal bitch to make.” I suspect it was too, and not a cake that the excellent bakers looked forward to making with its layers of sponge cake and buttercream, covered with the ganache. The ends of the cake were the best since they had the most chocolate on them and all the different textures.

Just Desserts, the original company, made some bad business decisions over the years and that ultimately ruined them, but isn’t that often the case? They tried to get too big and expand too much. After I left the company, I heard from one reliable source that the bakery on Carroll Avenue had started using mixes. Just Desserts denied that. Generally, mixes are cheaper than baking “from scratch” which Just Desserts had always done to my knowledge. I knew someone in the Administration Department of the company was trying to turn JDs into a competitor of a major company that sells frozen desserts. Bad Idea. We even received a memo from Carroll Avenue (where the Bakery and the Administration offices were located) saying, “Watch out S*r*h Lee.” (roll eyes). I didn’t take that as a joke even if it was meant in jest. The Bakery was going to get into “flash-freezing” their cakes to market them at the national level. Some people told Elliot Hoffman, the founder and owner, that a certain person (Bonnie P.) was going to be the death of his company. That ended up being correct.

Also, JDs had bought out the Tassajara Bakery on Cole Street at Tassajara’s request because Tassaraja was going out of business otherwise. I liked that idea initially, but as I remember, the JDs bakery overbaked the breads so they were not like Tassaraja’s breads even though they were the same recipes. There was also this competition/animosity between Just Desserts and Tassajara which I wasn’t really aware of since I liked both bakeries. But some longtime Tassajara customer’s (who didn’t like Just Desserts) resented JDs buying out Tassajara, but that was the only option from what I heard. Tassajara said Just Desserts was the only bakery they would consider selling out to because of Just Desserts’s superb reputation.

I think many people thought that Just Desserts had gotten too big and somewhat with a monopoly in the area and they resented that. I wasn’t one that thought that but an acquaintance of mine during those days would say to me (before I worked there), “Everything has to be Just Desserts.” And she didn’t say that in a positive way, more in a snippy way, although that woman didn’t care what she ate so it didn’t matter to her where desserts came from. Box mixes and all the garbage in them by competitor bakeries were just fine with her. She’s dead today by the way.

One reason for the decline in JD’s business was the coffee fad which is still going on to this day (2017). A new coffee café opened down the street from JDs which gave JDs competition and around that time it seemed that the coffee fad and what coffee someone was buying was more important than desserts. So JDs retail store on Church Street started looking rather empty while the coffee café down the street was packed. I guess JDs was no longer “the cool place” and “everyone wanted to be seen at the coffee café.” (roll eyes).

Another reason for the decline in their business was the bakery lowered the quality. I remember going in the Church Street store after I was no longer with the company and I was very disappointed and what they had done to their signature cake, the Chocolate Fudge Cake. The bakery had changed it and it no longer tasted like chocolate. I don’t know what they had done to it. Just Desserts had a very loyal customer base and they noticed the changes as well.

It’s sad what happened to the original company. They would likely be around today if someone hadn’t had these grandiose ideas of being a major bakery retail chain. If they had stuck with just two retail stores (Church Street and one of the other locations) and not try to “go national” they would probably be around today.

The new company has started a vegan and organic cake line but as is typically the case with vegan anything, they don’t seem to care what’s in it as long as there are no animal products in it.

The new company is selling these small 6″ single layer cakes in these huge plastic containers.

They have a “Mocha Cream Cake,” but that’s not at all like the original company’s Mocha Buttercream Cake, which I think the new company may be trying to play off of.

I remember the original JDs made a huge Inauguration Cake for San Francisco mayor Art Agnos’s inauguration (it was a huge sheet cake they created on the site of the celebration) because Elliot Hoffman was amigos with Art Agnos. I don’t know exactly how they created the cake on-site but I can take a guess: I don’t remember if I even saw the cake but the way it would be done would be by putting a large board on a table or a platform at the celebration site, and putting many sheet cakes together side-by-side — all with the same amount of weighed batter in them so they’re the same height, roughly — and then frosting this now big sheet cake on-site and adding the cake deco. It would look like one big sheet cake and most people would ask, “How did they get this huge cake in here?”

The Carroll Avenue bakery did an excellent job. They were on the conservative side when it came to making changes though. They were slow about taking suggestions from customers about new desserts. I’m not sure whether decisions like that rest on the Bakery Manager or the administration of the company. A Coconut Cake was suggested many times but the Bakery and/or Administration said their research showed that wouldn’t sell so they never made one. That’s odd considering many bakeries make a Coconut Cake. They made an unusual but excellent German Chocolate Cake (a light chocolate cake with milk chocolate frosting and the pecan/coconut filling), but the bakery pulled that from the stores 2-3 times during its run to refine it because they said they were getting complaints from customers that the cake was too dry. They eventually stopped making it. They made an excellent Vanilla Cake, but they refused to make that a regular menu cake, only as a special order. Then they had the seasonal cream pies — their Chocolate Cream Pie was superb (butter crust, the (dark) chocolate filling and real whipped cream with chocolate shavings on top — but as the story goes that I heard, the Bakery Manager at the time supposedly quit and took the cream pie recipes with him in anger. He “ripped them off the wall” from what I heard.

I remember the lines going out of the store on Church Street with people coming to pick up their Pumpkin Pies for Thanksgiving. The bakery had to make hundreds of Pumpkin Pies over a couple of days I think, and they did a good job of it. I remember hearing about the Bakery Manager at that time saying that the hair on her arms got sheered slightly by holding the hose in the oven that was connected to the pumpkin filling that was going into each pie shell. In other words, they put the pie shells in the ovens first and then filled them with a hose connected to the container that the filling was in – a Hobart mixer?).

Each store was independent of the Bakery. Each store ordered what it needed each day from the Bakery and if someone slipped up and forgot to order Chocolate Fudge Cakes, for example, the Bakery didn’t send any to the store, even though they probably knew we needed them.

Of the many people I worked with at Just Desserts, I don’t see any of them anymore. It’s as if they’ve all left San Francisco. That unique experience is history.  It’s sad to think about really.  Those days were probably the height of the Old City.  At that time, I never imagined The City becoming what is has become today.  It’s a completely different City.  I used to see one of the employees I worked with but that’s no longer the case although he may still be here. I did see one JDs employee a couple months ago in passing but I never worked with him. He worked at one of the other stores. I knew of him from having been a customer at another JDs store before I became an employee.

The Irving Street store was the most unique of all the Just Desserts locations. They had an ice cream soda fountain at that location so one could order hot fudge sundaes, a hot fudge brownie or a banana split made with Just Desserts’s own hot fudge, Double Rainbow icecream and their own freshly-made whipping cream. Just Desserts was all about high quality, well, until the company started going down hill.

Even though I have mixed feelings about the company from working there — the stories I could tell!, but won’t, like the Triple Lemon Cake that someone ran through the dishwasher; WTF? what a waste of a perfectly good cake! — overall I’m glad I had the opportunity to work there. The original company had a long and good run and Just Desserts was a major institution/an icon of the Old City, which many of us sadly miss today.  If I remember correctly, Elliot Hoffman, who was/is a very good person from what I know about him (I never met him), said he just couldn’t bring himself to go into a Just Desserts’s store after the company was sold. Understandable. The original Church Street location was the last store to close. Today, another dessert and bread bakery is in that location, but it doesn’t have the same iconic-status as Just Desserts did.

I think JDs would still be around today if they had kept the original high-quality and had kept the company small. Just like one of Just Desserts’s local competitors at that time with only one store but with not the same high-quality level as Just Desserts. That bakery is still open today. Update (January 2019: Nope, that bakery closed last year and the reasons for its closure are too complicated to explain and I don’t know all the details).  Chau.—el barrio rosa

14 comments on “Just Desserts: An Icon of the Old City (San Francisco)

  1. Jules

    I found this blog while searching for “Just Desserts Poppy Seed Cake.” I used to take the 22 to the Church St and get a big slice for dinner (I was 25!). I miss that cake so much. Do you know if it had a buttermilk base? And was it a cream cheese icing? I think there was a ribbon of cinnamon that ran through the layers as well. Any details you can share would be greatly appreciated. I’m trying to find a recipe that will come close.
    I had to leave SF just before the tech boom completely exploded and changed everything. I loved SF like a friend, and it pains me how it’s changed. It was the best time of my life and I feel so fortunate to have experienced the City in the pre-cell phone and dial-up internet era. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Reply
    1. el barrio rosa Post author

      Hola Jules, well you’ve asked about the one cake that I remember and know the least about! “A ribbon of cinnamon that ran through the layers?” I don’t know about that since it was only one layer — I don’t remember cinnamon running through it — and it wasn’t split with filling in between. We only sold single layers (8″ and 6″). Although I remember that slices sold fairly well. It was called the Lemon Poppy Seed Cake. It may have had buttermilk in it, but I’m not sure. (Tassajara had their version of the cake which I think did have cream cheese frosting, but that was discontinued when JDs took over Tassajara). I can picture it in my mind on the cake stand but unfortunately can’t tell you much about it because I think I only ate one slice of it on one occasion, and I don’t remember any customers asking “what’s in it?” The cake colour had sort of a greyish hue, as I remember. I think the frosting was a lemon “buttercream” frosting (that was the lemon part) although it wasn’t an authentic buttercream like the bakery used in the Mocha Buttercream Cake. No one ever asked about the Lemon Poppyseed Cake for me to get out the black Ingredients’ List Book and read the list of what was in it. That’s about all I can tell you about it unfortunately which probably doesn’t help you at all. I’ll probably be repeating some of what I wrote in the article but I do share your feelings about the New City. These new residents (ugh) come with no verbal social skills. “Hello” and “excuse me” are not in their vocabulary and most seem to have been born without vocal chords. When they do say something they say: “like” or “cuz like” or “it’s like” followed by unintelligent-sounding gibberish with their phone always on and in their hand at their face at all times. They are a piece of work and that’s being kind to them, and they have taken over by the thousands. They came in here as if they owned the place — rather than as an uninvited guest — disrespecting our cultures, neighbourhoods and making fun of some of the locals, and some brought their homophobia with them. Some locals say that “they raped The City.” Some of us avoid weekends out these days because that’s when they are out in droves and we don’t care to be irritated. That tech job must not be all that they had been promised considering the permanent nasty, angry looks frozen on their faces. They’re good at a blank stare and ageist nasty looks to anyone older than them. Longtime locals have asked, “What backwater cesspool did these dreadful people come from?” Yes, I’ve been wondering that myself. Maybe a slice of Lemon Poppy Seed Cake would improve their disposition (if that’s possible), at least temporarily. But if they really needed to change their disposition more permanently, I’d suggest they choose the Mocha Buttercream Cake. Gracias for your comment.

      Reply
  2. Pam

    Lived in the area of the church street shop from 1995-2003. Enjoyed the cakes and I swear i had ice cream with awesome hot caramel on top once (those years are a bit hazy haha). I liked the tiny back garden area. Sad to hear it’s gone.

    Reply
    1. el barrio rosa Post author

      Thanks for that Casey. Nice to hear from another JD’s employee. I was only down there once or twice, as a customer. That location reminded me more of JD’s Embarcadero store for some reason. It felt more corporate and I think the refrigerated cases were the same at both stores with their rounded glass fronts. Whereas Church Street and Irving were more sorta 50s diner-style and more of a neighbourhood feel. Gracias. Chau.

      Reply
  3. JMH

    I loved the original Just Desserts and the amazing breads of the Tassajara Bakery on Cole Street. The Just Desserts’ Weekend Cake was my wedding cake and I have tried to recreate it over the years since the original JD went out of business without great success. There was something about the richness of the fudge cake, mocha cream filling and cream cheese icing that I’ve been unable to completely execute perfectly. I wrote to the new JD asking if they could help me, but was told I should just buy one at Costco or Whole Foods – neither of which carried the new version of the “Mocha Cream Cake” at the locations near me. Every now and then, I check the internets for tips about making the Weekend Cake and that’s how I found your post. I lived in the city during the 1980’s and 1990’s and this post brings back some very fond memories of my time there.

    Reply
    1. el barrio rosa Post author

      Hola. I don’t remember the Weekend Cake having mocha buttercream filling, nor can I picture that in my mind when I see that cake on the cake stand from when I worked there.  I remember the filling being Cream Cheese Frosting like the rest of the cake.  Wedding cakes were nearly always special orders and customers had a variety of filling options to choose from, so maybe the mocha buttercream filling is what you requested as your filling.  None of the new JD’s cakes that I’ve seen are anything like the original cakes or recipes, including their “Mocha Cream Cake.” And JDs buttercream was authentic, which is a bit time-consuming to make. When the Mocha Buttercream Cake was in our coolers, the buttercream was very firm/hard and we used a hot knife to pre-cut slices. When I had a slice for myself, I remember letting the cake sit at room temperature for awhile to allow the buttercream to soften as well as the sponge cake. But it was one of the best cakes I’ve ever had. Gracias for your comment.

      Reply
  4. Ed in the Castro

    Loved their pumpkin pie…..so creamy and smooth and not overly sweet. Whenever I was in Cole Valley I’d go get a Cheese and Onion scone at Tassajara. The scones disappeared when Just Desserts took ownership. Tassajara made some really good breads. The Potato Bread and Whole Wheat were my favorites.

    Reply
  5. San Francisco Resident

    I liked them both – JD and Tassaraja. They were different. The one thing that saddened me when JD bought Tass. was that the Tass. desserts were gone because JD brought their desserts into Tassajara’s store. They should have let Tass. keep their own line of desserts with their bakers, and what happened to their bakers?

    Reply
    1. el barrio rosa Post author

      Hola San Francisco Resident, Tassajara was under the Just Desserts’s brand at that point. It was considered an additional store in the chain so that’s why they didn’t keep the Tassajara desserts, except for their apple pie. The one thing JDs did keep of the Tassajara line was the superb Twin Peaks Apple Pie, which was better than JDs own Apple Pie. That was put in all the stores to my knowledge. I’m not sure what happened to the bakers over there. I think they were given the opportunity to join the bakery crew at Carroll Avenue. I remember ordering a Chocolate Fudge sheet cake for a party from Tassajara-Just Desserts on Cole Street. The cake was disappointing. I could tell it had been made at Tassajara and not at Just Desserts’s bakery. When I placed the special order I had no idea that Tassajara was going to make it. Visually, when they opened the cake box to show me the cake the first indicator of that was the sloppy-looking deco job they had done (it looked like a child had written on the cake). It did not have the polished and refined Just Desserts look I had expected and had seen on all the cakes that came into the store from the bakery. At the party, I was disappointed in the flavour of the cake and that they had overbaked it and the frosting wasn’t quite right. I regretted not ordering it from Church Street where I knew that the Carroll Avenue bakery would have made it. I had assumed that Tassajara was going to send my special order to Carroll Avenue, but they didn’t. I don’t think they had ever made the cake before, so the quality was not the same as what I knew would have come from Just Desserts’s bakery. But I don’t want to give the wrong impression, Tassajara was an excellent bakery and very good at what they made on a regular basis, including their own cakes. Gracias for your comment.

      Reply
  6. Alejandro

    Hooooooooooooooola. Just Desserts was the best. I used to go to the Irving st store for a hot fudge brownie. Yummy. Their holiday cookies were something I always looked forward to….especially the tree shaped shortbread cookie with half the cookie dipped in dark chocolate and the thumb prints with raspberry filling and walnuts. My office always ordered our cakes from them for employee’s birthdays or when people left. Always delicious. Never tried the cakes from the new company.

    Enjoyed reading the “inside scoop” about them.

    Gracias y saludos.

    Reply
    1. castro local

      my office did the same. i worked in the embarcadero center in those days and just desserts had a store downstairs. we all took a vote on it and it was unanimous that it must be just dessert, and our company paid for it!! got this large sheet cake. a few times we had disagreements over what cake to order. chocolate fudge vs. carrot cake vs. poppy seed vs. berries and cream. they always suggested i take some of it home….i didn’t have any problem with that.

      Reply
  7. D8

    Now this takes me back….so glad you wrote this. Didn’t know you worked there. Lucky you having access to all those great desserts! Fascinating reading about that. All the days and nights I spent hanging out in Just Desserts at Church St. They were da best! I usually sat in one of the booths against the wall with a friend. The Mocha Buttercream was divine ….and fattening 🙂
    But that’s ok, I worked it off. Always a treat to get there early for a warm Cinnamon Danish from the bakery with just a light sugar glaze over it unlike the gunky glaze on danish from other bakeries. Delicious Danish. Just Desserts wasn’t cloyingly sweet like the one down the street in those days. Read an article some time ago saying the new company was leaving oakland and moving to Fairfield to expand the bakery, totally abandoning the roots of the company. I think most of the roots of the orig. JD were severed when Hoffman lost control of it. Sad how things turned out for them.

    Thanks for a great article taking me back to the days.

    Reply
    1. el barrio rosa Post author

      Hola D8, Fairfield? I looked at their cakes today while shopping and they say, “Just Desserts. San Francisco” as part of their logo. False advertisement? Maybe part of the agreement on buying the original company was to retain the “San Francisco” part no matter where the bakery was, even if it’s in another state. I found the article announcing the move to Fairfield and it said they had considered moving the bakery to Nevada or Texas. Texas? Yeah, the Cinnamon Danish were special. I enjoyed those. As I recall, the bakery used a little bit of orange juice in the glaze. Gracias for your comment.

      Reply

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