“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 $3.00 to have a slice of cake cut. jesus! That restaurant can keep their cake. I prefer to bake my own cakes anyway “from scratch” using organically-grown ingredients whenever possible, then I know what’s in them. Fortunately, at Just Desserts we didn’t have any cake-cutting fee. In the retail stores, cake-cutting was just part of our job, as it should be in any well-established high-quality restaurant (that’s not about greed) and that’s not trying to exploit their customers and put on airs of being pretentious, snooty and bougi, Dahling.
I thought I’d write more about Just Desserts (JDs), as a tribute to the company since JDs was very much a part of the Old City. In those days San Francisco was known as the alternative and proudly radical “Liberal San Francisco.” Yeah well, I can confirm it’s nothing like that today here in 2017. [Update: And even less so here at the beginning of 2021]. For those who haven’t kept up: Conformist, conservative, sanitised, lobotomised and culture-less best describe this New San Francisco, which is obsessed with millionaire-owned corporate sport$ 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 employees. The company was very pro-Queer, which I appreciated 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. After the merger, JDs gradually replaced some of Tassajara’s baked goods on Cole Street with those of Just Desserts, which pissed off some Tassajara customers.
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 the bakery 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 to make it look like one big cake, 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 unfortunately. I didn’t think it was too dry; I thought it was really good. The cake part did have a unique texture. I think that was due to the whipped egg whites which were folded into the batter? It wasn’t a “wet”/overly moist cake — like the typical German Chocolate — and maybe that’s what customers expected from German Chocolate Cake. I was glad it wasn’t like all the others. Like I said, it was unique.
They made an excellent Vanilla Cake, but they refused to make that a regular menu cake, only as a special order.
I remember a couple of times where the bakery slipped up and somehow stuck a layer of Vanilla Cake in on top of a layer of Chocolate Fudge. It was a surprise cake, I guess you could say. We’d get a new cake off the shelf to cut for slices and discover this. Chocolate and Vanilla. Only happened a couple of times. I don’t know if it was a mistake or the bakery’s Frosting Department was playing a joke on us, since it would have happened when it came time to frost the cakes.
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.
There was also the story we heard about the Bakery Manager and Elliot Hoffman (the owner) butting heads. As I remember, one year the Bakery Manager stopped the production of Holiday Cookies earlier than in previous years, saying the bakers didn’t have time to make them. That didn’t go over well. I always looked forward to the delicious Holiday Cookies: the walnut thumbprints filled with raspberry preserves, the tree-shaped shortbread cookies with half the cookie dipped in dark chocolate with mint extract added to the chocolate. They were really good, and what else? They’re the ones I liked and remember the best. There were 4 others, as I remember. A total of about 6 different cookies. From making cookies at home, I know they were quite a production to make — especially the time-consuming chocolate dipping (by hand) of the tree cookies — and I guess Hippocrates (the Bakery Manager) was tired of it, and or the bakers complained about having to make them. Normally, I think the Holiday Cookies were available until New Year’s Day. Or was it Epiphany? New Years, I think. That year, I think production of the cookies stopped at or around the 24th of December, earlier than usual. I remember asking a co-worker, “Where are the holiday cookies?” since they were not in the case and she said: The bakery has stopped making them earlier than usual and then told me this story.
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 pumpkin 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 San Francisco becoming what is has become today. It’s a completely different City unfortunately. 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 ice cream 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