'Very bittersweet': Treasured Bay Area organic bakery Vital Vittles to close after 46 years – SF Gate

Vital Vittles, at 2810 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, is set to close at the end of this month. 
Vital Vittles, the Berkeley bakery known for its organic whole wheat bread, is closing after 46 years, reported Berkeleyside. After the publication warned in January that the cherished spot was in dire straits due to the pandemic, it is now slated to close March 31. 
“This was my first child,” Kass Schwin, the bakery’s previous owner, told SFGATE. “My kids didn’t happen until years after we had started Vital Vittles, so it’s very bittersweet for me.”
Kass Schwin and Joe Schwin (her ex-husband, who died two years ago) first opened Vital Vittles in 1976 as a whole wheat flour mill. Three years later, they turned the business into a bakery and began selling their bread at local health food stores. The bakery has been at its present location at 2810 San Pablo Ave. since 1984. 
Vital Vittles staff with Berkeley Mayor Shirley Dean in 2011.
In 2006, the Schwins sold the bakery to Huong Tran, who has worked at Vital Vittles since 1981, and her brother, Binh Tran. Under their ownership, the bakery with a dedicated cult following thrived for many years — until the pandemic hit, when losing a dozen wholesale accounts spelled disaster for the business. It was at this point that Schwin got involved in the bakery again to help the Trans try to find a way to survive.
“In the early days of the pandemic, people stopped shopping in stores,” Schwin explained. “And Vital Vittles just wasn’t able to pivot in a way to be able to reach their customer base. And then [ingredient] prices have been changing and going up … they just had so many challenges.”
Despite raising more than $35,000 in a GoFundMe fundraiser, it wasn’t enough to save the bakery.
Vital Vittles, at 2810 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, is set to close at the end of this month. 
“There was an impossibility to make it work,” Schwin said. “When they started the GoFundMe, it was hoped that they could find a way to get through the pandemic and grow the business and maybe find a partner to work with them, or capital … and nothing was going forward. It looked like they were just going to have to close the doors. And then they decided to try to sell it.”
On March 16, the owners announced on their GoFundMe page that they had found a new owner. Although the sale is still pending, Berkeleyside reported that the new owners are Carlos Altamirano and Shu Dai, a husband-and-wife team who own seven Peruvian restaurants in the Bay Area. According to Schwin, the new owners plan to keep selling some Vital Vittles products, which has made the transition a little easier.
Vital Vittles on a NASA mission — astronaut Janice Voss took bread with her to outer space in 2000. 
“The Tran family is like my family,” Schwin said. “We’ve been together for 35 years working together, and we raised our kids together. But I’m just sad that they weren’t able to make a go of it. And it was really hard for me to see how they struggled these past couple of years … but on the other side, there is some relief that possibly this new business owner will be able to do what they weren’t able to do, and keep it going because she has other products. So I’m a little more hopeful than I was like eight months ago.”
The Trans, she said, are “relieved and just exhausted from the stress of this past couple of years,” but will most likely find new jobs soon (Binh, 50, has an accounting degree, and Huong, 63, has expressed interested in pivoting from baking to sewing). 
“We’re just sorry that it wasn’t able to stay open,” Schwin said. “There’s a cartoon that we love. It has a picture of a cafe that says ‘wholesome, delicious, whole grain, fresh organic food.’ And next to it is ‘The Crapola Cafe.’ The first one has a closing sign out front, and the Crapola Cafe has a long line around the block, and that has been our challenge from the very beginning.”
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Madeline Wells is a reporter for SFGATE covering food and drink in the Bay Area. She grew up in the Seattle area and received her B.A. in English and Media Studies from UC Berkeley. Prior to SFGATE, she was an associate editor at East Bay Express and freelance writer covering the Bay Area music scene. Email: madeline.wells@sfgate.com