Tracking D.C.'s Bakery 'Explosion': What's Behind The Rise Of The Region's Tastiest Retail Trend
A few months into the pandemic, Jason and Yuri Oberbillig began selling Japanese and French-inspired pastries from a tiny counter at the front of Cleveland Park Italian restaurant Al Volo. The compact pop-up operation, SakuSaku Flakerie, allowed guests to order a coffee and pastry to go or bring their goodies to the serene patio behind the restaurant, well before the dinner crowd arrived.
In March, the couple decided to take a leap: expanding SakuSaku’s footprint sixfold by opening a brick-and-mortar location on Wisconsin Avenue in Tenleytown, giving the Oberbilligs the ability to expand their menu and produce three times as many baked goods.
“We really needed our own place that would be ours from beginning to end,” Jason Oberbillig said.
SakuSaku is just one of more than two dozen bakeries that have opened new locations in the D.C. area in the last three years, giving rise to a new batch of retail tenants in the market. Retail experts say the trend is thanks to a handful of crucial factors that all converged at the same moment — factors like pandemic rent pricing, the rise of remote work and landlords looking to add amenities to their buildings — which all allowed a slew of bakeries to emerge.
“There was really a window about a year, year and a half, two years ago, and some really good operators with great ideas were able to take advantage of it,” Alan Zich of Blake-Dickson Real Estate told Bisnow. “I think the city is far richer because of it. It’s one of those ironies of the pandemic.”
The range is enormous: Toimoi, a bakery that melds Asian flavors with French pastry technique, is opening a 600 SF shop in Chantilly after launching at area farmers markets during the pandemic. Yellow, the Levantine pastry destination from the Michelin-starred Albi team, opened its first standalone in Georgetown in December and is set to open a 40K SF Union Market headquarters this summer.
Tatte Bakery & Café, a Boston-born Israeli chain, is about to unveil its 10th location in the D.C. area after premiering in the city less than three years ago.
Maman, a New York City-based, Southern French-inspired bakery brand with nearly 30 locations, made a rapid leap into the D.C. market this year. Within the span of a month, it opened Georgetown and Union Market locations.
Now, Maman co-founder Ben Sormonte told Bisnow it is preparing to open three more: a 3,500 SF location in Navy Yard at 1300 Yards Place SE, a 2,300 SF location in Penn Quarter at 750 Ninth St. NW, and a 900 SF "petite" version in Dupont at 1220 19th St. NW.
“We're seeing … an explosion of bakeries,” Zich said. “And I think the pandemic probably added some fuel to the fire there.”
Click the icons in the map below to see information on more than 25 bakeries that have opened in the D.C. area since 2020. Zoom out to see additional locations in the suburbs.
Zich, who brokered SakuSaku’s Tenleytown deal, estimated that rents for the types of retail spaces that bakeries occupy dropped between 20% and 25% during the pandemic. But on top of that, landlords were willing to work with tenants to offer attractive lease terms and incentives.
“People were able to get really good deals about two years ago because landlords were, in some cases, in panic mode to fill spaces or to handle vacancy or deal with tenants that were not paying,” Zich said.
The result was that operators, especially of small businesses with tight margins like bakeries, were able to make moves into retail space that may have been previously unattainable.
“People were waiting on the sidelines for competitive rents, and then when rents hit what a lot of operators thought was a sustainable number, they pounced,” Zich said.
In addition to the shifting dynamics caused by high retail vacancy rates — which are lingering at 13%, according to Dochter & Alexander’s first-quarter report — principal Dave Dochter said a primary cause for the bakery boom was the remote work shift.
As the pandemic removed the requirement for many D.C. professionals to commute to the office, people sought out “third places” away from home where they could work around others. Bakeries and cafés that offer free WiFi became a popular choice.
“Part of that timing is people having a desire to get outside of their home or their office environment,” Dochter said. “[They’re looking for] socialization or just something that's a little more casual.
“The behavioral patterns for consumers have changed, and there’s probably no going back.”
On top of that, he said bakeries provide owners of office and apartment buildings with a new amenity for their properties to give prospective tenants an incentive to sign on.
“Any sponsor, whether they have an office building, whether they have a mixed-use project or whether they have a retail development, they're all trying to curate a similar type of environment that's inviting and fresh and has a good, quality product,” he said.
The pandemic, it turns out, was a perfect environment for cooking up bakeries.
In Adams Morgan, Armenian café Yerevan, which has a dedicated pastry case for delicacies like honey cake and baklava, opened in August 2021. Two months later, Ukrainian baked goods destination D Light Café & Bakery popped up down the road, also brokered by Zich, and French pastry/Ecuadorian coffee shop Soleluna premiered in February 2022.
Over in Union Market, Bread Alley by Stephen Starr, of Le Diplomate and St. Anselm fame, started sending out loaves of bread in September 2021.
In 2023 alone, at least a dozen bakeries have emerged or announced plans to open in the region.
In January, previously wholesale-only Manifest Bread opened up shop in Riverdale. Modern Asian bakery Rose Ave swung open a brick-and-mortar in Woodley Park this spring after nearly three years of serving up ube doughnuts and matcha chocolate chip cookies out of a stall at The Block food hall downtown.
“The business has been booming this year,” Toimoi bakery owner Shurou Pu told Bisnow.
Her French-Asian bakery is preparing to make a similar move. She is in the process of setting up her first permanent location in Chantilly at 4520 Daly Drive, which she expects to open by the end of the month.
For the past two years, Pu has been selling her stuffed croissants and mochi waffles from local farmers markets on weekends and making her goods at a shared kitchen, where she can only work on the weekends.
The new location, most of its 600 SF reserved for the kitchen space, will allow Pu to hire another baker and operate the front of the house five days a week.
“We can make production over there and we can do pickups during the weekdays and do more like a walk-in business with our customers as well,” she said.
At weekend markets, her goods sell out in just three to four hours, with customers lining up early in the morning to get her products. With a space of her own and the ability to hire additional help, Pu said she believes she can double or triple her production.
Two more bakeries could be coming soon from deals that Zich said he brokered. One was for a new Thai restaurant with an adjoining bakery at 2122 P St. NW, near Dupont Circle. And last week, he closed another deal for what he called an “established” local bakery coming into the former Bethesda Bagels space on Connecticut Avenue in Dupont.
“That's an example of where space that had been fairly expensive pre-pandemic, we were able to secure a deal that is, I think, very sustainable in the long term for the new operator,” Zich said of the Connecticut Avenue deal.
“Three years from now, we should have around 20 bakeries in the DMV,” Fresh Baguette CEO Florent de Felcourt told Bisnow.
De Felcourt said the plan is to open three to four bakeries per year, beginning this year with a 2K SF space at the former Uptown Tap House in Cleveland Park, set to open by year’s end.
In conjunction with those openings, Fresh Baguette is building a new 30K SF commissary in Germantown to add to its 10K SF location in Rockville. Both will work to support its growing number of bakeries.
Even Bread Furst, an upper Northwest bakery whose owner, Mark Furstenberg, steadfastly refused expansion plans for nearly a decade, is now growing for the first time. A Bread Furst cafe is expected to open at The Phillips Collection this month.
“I had no expansion aspirations, none whatsoever,” he told Bisnow. “I had no trouble saying to people, ‘Why would I want to do that? I’m 80 years old, 82 years old, why would I want to do that?’”
On top of his age, Furstenberg had another reason to avoid expansion: an experience in the early to mid-1990s with his first bakery, Marvelous Market, located near the D.C.-Maryland border in Northwest.
“I made the stupid mistake of expanding before I really knew what I was doing, and I resolved when I failed and I lost Marvelous Market that I would never make that mistake again,” he said.
Furstenberg was used to getting expansion inquiries from real estate agents, operators, even customers, as often as once a week. But The Phillips Collection was an offer he couldn’t refuse.
“When we got the one from the Phillips, that affected me differently,” said Furstenberg, who used to visit the collection frequently as a teenager with his grandmother on her “culture outings.”
Along with the physical growth of these bakeries, Zich and Dochter said the businesses they are familiar with are succeeding financially as they expand.
“It's not only that they're opening locations, but generally, they're doing pretty well,” Dochter said.
With this booming bakery landscape, Zich and Dochter said there’s always the possibility of the market becoming oversaturated. But the concept of too many bakeries in the market was one that de Felcourt was quick to eschew.
“I come from a country where you have a bakery on every corner, so I don't see any [problem with] saturation in the D.C. market,” he said.
The sector's growth may start to wane as pandemic-era rent deals come to an end.
“We’re past that period during the pandemic where everyone thought they could get space for free, or people were sort of uncertain,” Zich said. “I would say finding good spaces at affordable prices is definitely becoming more of a challenge.”
It also helps that most of these bakeries have carved out their own niche, Dochter said, such as Japanese-French, Levantine and Thai.
“Each one has a little bit of a different twist on what they're doing and what they're offering,” he said.
All these new, diverse operations are an ironic upside of the pandemic, Zich said, a moment of pain that brought a new richness to the bakery scene.
“Washington is a great market for that because we have a dynamic, very cosmopolitan population, and we're willing to try different things,” he said. “And so I think the scene has become very, very diverse and very colorful. And I think that's a great thing.”