Tucked away on an innocuous side street with no visible signage, one would have thought that location and lack of identification alone would put a small business like Shawn’s Bakery and Cafe at SE 24th St. on Mercer Island out of business, but it didn’t. In fact, owner Shawn Huffman argues his low profile actually strengthened the ideals he wanted to see in his community. His bakery and café is locally supported so his store doors are continually opened by familiar local faces.
This June, Huffman decided after two years it was time to put some signage up, solidifying his shop’s permanence in the neighborhood. Today, a hand-painted green and gold sign hangs over the entrance to Shawn’s shop.
For the past 37 years Huffman has been refining his craft as a chef, dabbling in an assortment of cooking methods, after graduating from the California Culinary Academy, now the Cordon Bleu Culinary School in San Francisco.
“I get a lot of people who are looking for anything that’s not a Starbucks,” Huffman said. In a time where small business owners are often pushed out of the market by big corporation giants, Huffman said he feels lucky to have a loyal customer base keeping his bakery afloat.
Huffman is a one-man operation, baking all his bread from scratch, managing the store, buying ingredients and cleaning up after the long workday, only to start the whole process again at 3:30 a.m. When it comes down to deciding what kind of bread he should bake, Huffman leaves that important question in the hands of his customers who frequent the shop on a daily basis.
“One of my customers suggested I start making challah bread on Fridays,” Huffman said. “I’ve just listened to my customers — like, I had never heard of a pretzel roll and those have really saved me since I came here.”
Huffman went on to say the pretzel roll suggestion inspired the idea of maintaining an email list of bread requests from his customers.
Huffman explained he felt motivated to venture into bread options and styles he would have otherwise shied away from or might have stuck to guaranteed sales like buttery croissants, because nothing was off the table.
Motioning a hand over a fresh loaf of golden-brown braided challah bread Huffman said, “There are a lot of steps that go into making this bread. In baking, you kind of have to let things tell you what to do during certain stages.” Unlike other types of cooking, “you can’t force things,” he said.
When Huffman looks to the future, he hopes for modest changes in his store, like adding staff and expanding the accessibility of his food. Huffman knows people won’t go off the beaten trail to find his little shop, but he is curious if he can use the proposed bus intercept and light rail commute to his advantage.
Huffman is exploring the idea of selling easy to eat baked goods, like pre-made sandwiches and pastries, that commuters could munch while on their way to and from work.
“I don’t know how you get your foot in the door, but I gotta find out because that would be really neat,” Huffman said.