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    Noe Valley Bakery: ‘We Sell Happiness. It Just Happens to Look Like a Cupcake’

    By David Landis–

    There’s something intensely welcoming when you walk through the door of a neighborhood bakery: the captivating smells of freshly baked pastries, the colorful cupcakes, and the decorated cakes add to an intoxicating sense of joie de vivre. When service is paramount, it’s even better. That’s the formula that has made Noe Valley Bakery (now in two locations—Noe Valley and West Portal) a neighborhood favorite for nearly 30 years. The Gay Gourmet had a chance recently to speak with the bakery’s husband and wife owners Mary Gassen (President) and Michael Gassen (Chief Baking Officer). Here’s what they had to say.

    The Gay Gourmet: Mary, tell me a bit about your background. You worked with chef Barbara Tropp, right?

    Mary Gassen: Yes, I did. I worked at Il Fornaio in Southern California—my first real job after culinary school. I left there and landed with Barbara. She had just published the China Moon Cookbook. She needed help on her book tour, managing her restaurant, and launching a catalogue. I was looking for a job, and landed with her. I worked with her for a year and then with the International Association of Women Chefs and Restaurateurs, until we opened the bakery in 1995.

    Michael and Mary Gassen

    The Gay Gourmet: And Michael, what about you?

    Michael Gassen: I started baking in a bakery in high school to pay my tuition. I worked my way up and kept baking through high school and college. I worked at Acme Bread Company and then decided that something else was better out there for me. I got a job at Il Fornaio to help in Southern California in Irvine. That was exciting. That’s where I met Mary. She was a customer of mine. We were both single.

    The Gay Gourmet: Tell me about your first date!

    Michael Gassen: I was at home on one of my few days off, doing laundry and ironing. I had some housemates and Mary was friends with one of them. They said to her, “Why don’t you go to the house and hang out?” She marched in while I was ironing. I was clothed! She said ironing is fun, but then we went to the movies and dinner, and that was it. We were inseparable after that.

    The Gay Gourmet: You’ve been in business together since 1995. What’s the secret to your success?

    Mary Gassen: It’s not difficult for us to be in business and be married. We are peas in a pod and agree on the big things and don’t argue. We have a separation of duties. Michael does the baking and I do the financial and business management. We stay out of each other’s way. Somebody gave me good advice: you look at your relationship before you become partners and that’s what it’s going to be like when you become business partners. We agree on the big things and it has worked very well.

    Michael Gassen: We trust each other. There’s not a doubt ever about where I stand with her, that she’s always beside me, and what I’m doing is valid. We listen to each other. Regarding success, bakeries are built for pandemics and recessions. We didn’t know that when we started out. We realized that our initial feeling—that we are the hub of the community—was the constant. People always have room for a small treat. It’s the center of a lot of activity in the community. It’s in human DNA to come to a bakery and have the bakery serve as the neighborhood hub. We knew that. We’ve lived in the neighborhood for many years. We felt we are the community.

    Cardamom Knot

    Mary Gassen: I’d add that the secret to our success is consistency and excellence, which Michael provides in the kitchen every day. That’s not easy to do. It’s exhausting work, 7 days a week, nearly 24 hours a day, but he has persevered. The other secret is that we think about our business as part of the ecosystem. Our mission was to revitalize the concept of a full line, old school European bakery. In 1994, that wasn’t the thing. That mission is accomplished. But we have to have dreams. So, we came up with a new mission: to provide love and community connection through excellent baked goods and hospitality. That’s what makes us special. We focused on that and trained people on that. Then the pandemic came and we could not have imagined that what the world needed was love and connection in a big way. It was positioned right there; everything was going to be ok if folks could get a loaf of bread and a cookie.

    Michael Gassen: We’re surrounded by schools and organizations like LYRIC in the Castro, which benefits LGBTQ+ youth. We did Grace Cathedral’s Pride celebration. Supporting our local people means giving back to their graduations, and recognizing they’re living their lives around us. We have the privilege of being welcomed into their lives. It’s humbling. We want to show people we care about where we are.

    Mary Gassen: That doesn’t happen by accident. When we opened our second bakery, we knew we had good people working for us. We hire nice people. Then we realized, we can’t just rely on that. We have to expect people to be loving.

    Michael Gassen: We challenge people to bring their best self. It’s a utopian community where we want everyone to treat each other with respect.

    The Gay Gourmet: What’s the hardest challenge you’ve had to face? How did you overcome it?

    Michael Gassen: For me, I’m a perfectionist, a type A-plus personality where I can be your hardest critic, but also your biggest ally. For me, I recognized that when people show up, they want to be the best they can be. How do I acknowledge what they bring and encourage them to do more? And what can I take from them that makes us better? What can I give to them that they need?

    Mary Gassen: We have 75 employees. I think it’s challenging running a business for a long time. You can get tired. You want something new. We ask for help. We have a wonderful marketing team that we put together that helps us, a woman who does leadership coaching where we set goals, every 90 days. We’ve asked for help and that made a big difference.

    Michael Gassen: You should not be afraid to admit you don’t know everything.

    The Gay Gourmet: What’s your favorite item on the menu?

    Mary Gassen: That’s hard, but yes, the blueberry pecan scone.

    Michael Gassen: The fig bread because it has so many memories from being a kid and the journey to where it became is really special. I had some levain bread today—I love baking that. There’s nothing better than slicing open a loaf of levain. It’s all natural.

    The Gay Gourmet: My friend John swears by your blueberry pecan scones. Often, I find scones to be dry and tasteless. What makes yours different?

    Michael Gassen: (laughs) You really don’t want to pay attention to how much butter is in the recipe! We approach it like making biscuits. We make it from that perspective. Crispier, thicker exterior with a tender, lighter interior, like a biscuit. They’re all hand-formed. Keeping the ingredients to a bare minimum helps to control the quality. The recipe is easy to follow.

    The Gay Gourmet: Do you carry gluten-free products?

    Michael Gassen: We do. We have two free gluten-free cakes. We call them made without gluten. A strawberry shortcake and a dense, devil’s food cake, which is made in a gluten-free version (and slices). We have a flourless chocolate cookie that’s phenomenal (that’s Mary’s favorite cookie) as well as a gluten free fruit frangipane tart.

    The Gay Gourmet: When you’re not at the bakery, where do you like to dine in San Francisco?

    Mary Gassen: Our new favorite is Sorella, the sister restaurant to Acquerello.

    Michael Gassen: Acquerello was a customer of ours. Our other customers included Greens, Hayes Street Grill, and Palio d’Asti, where our bakery started in the back of the restaurant, on Commercial Street. The owner there wanted a bakery for the restaurant and he gave me total autonomy.

    Mary Gassen: We also really like Monsieur Benjamin.

    The Gay Gourmet: Which San Francisco chefs/bakers do you admire?

    Mary Gassen: I’m a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier. It’s a group of women in the San Francisco Bay Area involved in hospitality. I admire so many women: Emily Luchetti and Kim Alter of Nightbird (to name two); it’s hard to pick.

    The Gay Gourmet: How do you describe the difference between cooking and baking?

    Michael Gassen: Mary is a classically trained chef. I’ve learned to cook from her, and she doesn’t bake. We’re using two different types of our brains. Baking is more scientific; it’s daunting for people because of the science. The other aspect is most of the time, I have to touch this thing and shape it, mix it by hand. I have no idea what the texture might be—it challenges people because it’s so different than what people normally do with their hands. Baking is very hands-on.

    The Gay Gourmet: What is your connection to the LGBTQ+ community?

    Mary Gassen: We have one very big connection. Our daughter is queer and nonbinary, and she’s an important person in our lives. We’ve lived in San Francisco for a long time, so many of our friends and customers all through the years have been members and leaders of the gay community. It’s part of our DNA.

    Michael Gassen: We see community with a small “c,” but in San Francisco, it was easy to be a part of everyone’s community. We lived in the Castro for many years—and lived in Noe Valley, too, and Mission and Twin Peaks. Community here means a lot of different things. The gay community has asked for support and we appreciate that willingness to ask for participation from a business.

    One big LGBTQ+ group we support is the LYRIC Center on Collingwood. During Pride month, we give a percentage of sales to LYRIC as a donation.

    Mary Gassen: One funny story: when Gavin Newsom allowed gay marriage in the city in 2004, there was an urgent need for quick wedding cakes without prior notice. We made simple cakes. We had big fun. We prided ourselves on being able to do it quickly.

    Michael Gassen: We don’t want to make a big political statement. We wanted to celebrate the community. It’s a lot of work to be exclusionary. San Francisco isn’t perfect, but for better or worse, it’s a pretty easy place to be for a lot of people.

    Mary Gassen: The gay community and us—we’ve always been a part of the community. Michael’s sister is gay. Our kids’ godparents are gay. Our daughter is nonbinary. It’s not unusual for us. We celebrate gay Pride because we’ve been part of the community since moving here.

    The Gay Gourmet: Any plans for expansion in the future?

    Mary Gassen: We’re open to exploring ideas and we have looked at some ideas. But, we’re not in a hurry to expand. We’re happy to be a functioning part of the community.

    The Gay Gourmet: So, you’re sticking around?

    Mary Gassen: Back a long time ago, a couple ran our establishment as Plate’s Bakery; Eric Eberly and his wife bought the bakery and then bought the building. We leased the space from the Eberlys, and in 2021 they sold us the building. We are the third couple to own the building and run it as a bakery—for over 115 years. It’s been a bakery since 1908!

    Michael Gassen: We’re the longest ownership here. We’re the quiet people in the community. We just do our job and hope people love what we do.

    Noe Valley Bakery’s Blueberry Pecan Scones


    • 2/3 cup pecans
    • 7 ounces (1 3/4 sticks) cold unsalted butter
    • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour
    • 1/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
    • 2 teaspoons baking powder
    • 3/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
    • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
    • 3/4 cup buttermilk
    • 1/2 cup (3 ounces) fresh or frozen blueberries

    Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line 2 or 3 baking sheets with parchment and coat lightly with nonstick baking spray. Cut the butter into 1/2-inch pieces and put in the freezer to harden (about 20 minutes).

    Roughly chop the pecans and in a small pan toast in the oven for 8 minutes or until golden. Set aside. Increase the oven temperature to 400°F. In a large bowl, stir the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, and baking soda until combined. Add the frozen butter pieces, and using your fingers, a fork, or a pastry blender, break up the butter until it’s pea-sized and mixed in with the dry ingredients. Stir in the chopped toasted pecans. Slowly stir in the buttermilk until the dough is a shaggy mass (you want it to be barely combined with visible streaks of flour). Sprinkle the blueberries on top of the dough and gently work them in until they’re evenly distributed, being careful to not smash them. Divide the dough and roll into 2-inch balls and place them on the prepared baking sheets 3-inches apart. Bake the scones for 23 to 25 minutes or until they’re golden brown and crispy on top. Let cool 10 minutes before removing them from the pans. Store at room temperature in a covered container for up to 2 days. The scones can be reheated in a 300°F oven before serving.

    Makes 12 scones.

    Noe Valley Bakery:

    David Landis, aka “The Gay Gourmet,” is a foodie, a freelance writer, and a retired PR maven. Follow him on Instagram @GayGourmetSF or email him at: Or visit him online at:

    The Gay Gourmet
    Published on July 13, 2023