Retail space will open new chapter for Brickmaiden

Teresa Mathew
Inverness resident Celine Underwood, center, and her staff bake an average of 350 loaves a day, all distributed elsewhere. She now has plans for a shop in Point Reyes Station.  

Behind a wrought-iron gate framed by bundles of ripe wheat, Brickmaiden Breads quietly produces some of West Marin’s best-loved baked goods. Since 2000, owner Celine Underwood has sold her products at shops and farmer’s markets from Berkeley to San Rafael. 

Now Brickmaiden has secured a county permit to build a retail space on Point Reyes Station’s Fourth and Main streets. Plans include an espresso bar and counter service where visitors will be able to peer through large-paned windows into the bakehouse. The front porch will look over a garden of herbs, vegetables, fruits trees and grape vines, all of which will be incorporated into the wares. 

The space will also allow Ms. Underwood to rely less on regional distribution, meaning goods can be baked on a more comfortable schedule. As loaves are currently distributed elsewhere, bake shifts start at 1 a.m. “It’s extremely taxing on everyone’s health to be up at those hours of the night,” she said. This way, “we can actually live a more normal life, slightly, and actually get the sleep we need.”

Ms. Underwood herself lived in a two-story house on the property, which is sandwiched between bustling Cowgirl Creamery and a vacant corner lot, when Brickmaiden began. She was 24 years old. 

“I always had an image of people coming in and getting their bread in the morning, when it was hot and fresh,” Ms. Underwood said. “But that didn’t manifest.” For years, she said, she was satisfied with the idea of living onsite and baking and distributing mainly in town. “But pretty quickly, with finances and running a business, you realize you have to distribute more product in order to balance it all.”

In 2012, Ms. Underwood’s landlords informed her that they were selling the house, but wanted her to remain. They worked out a deal that allowed her to purchase the property, making opening a shop a newly viable goal. But before any serious renovation could be planned, the bakery’s second brick oven collapsed. 

Ms. Underwood had to figure out how to purchase both the property and a new oven as she geared up for the birth of her second child. “This is a very small business, so these things were huge endeavors for me,” she said.

A Kickstarter campaign for the new wood-burning oven, which uses discarded wood from almond and walnut groves, brought in $30,000. It was a generous sum that still fell short of the oven’s actual price tag of around $70,000. 

But the campaign opened the community’s eyes to the fragrant ecosystem hidden behind main street. “I think it put it out there more that we were here and [gave] people a stronger connection to it,” Ms. Underwood said. 

As the business expanded, living in her workspace became increasingly difficult, and five years ago she moved to Inverness. Now, the first floor of the house is used to make pastries and other baked goods, while the second floor has an office, employee space and bathroom. The bread is shaped and baked in a smaller building.

The renovation project, which is exempt from California Environmental Quality Act and coastal access concerns, will turn part of the first floor into a retail space. The front porch will be sloped and the front doors widened in order to comply with The Americans with Disabilities Act access requirements. 

The garden will have informal seating, and in addition to an espresso counter, the retail space will have a toast menu and the familiar breads, cookies and scones. The garden is part of Ms. Underwood’s vision of connecting people to their food. She wants to plant poppies and sesame flowers to make customers think about where the poppy and sesame seeds that adorn their favorite cookies are coming from, and how they are harvested. 

“When they come here, they’re coming here to buy bread, but they’re seeing the whole process through,” she said. 

Opening the retail space will allow the bakers more room to experiment with seasonal tarts and other baked offerings, and will give Ms. Underwood the funds to further expand benefits for employees. Over the last few years she has worked to increase the pay of her bakers, added a retirement plan and sick days, and offered vacation pay to longer-term employees. In the future, she hopes to offer health care for all of her workers. 

But her vision has a hefty price tag. “To recup the costs… it’s going to take my business years and years, and I’m still not sure if it won’t put me under,” she told the Light. She estimates that she has already spent $200,000 trying to open the space.

Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, who helped Ms. Underwood through the county planning process, said his office tries to work with small businesses whenever possible to ensure that they understand the process, whose myriad regulations are often an obstacle for businesses that cannot hire consultants. “We’re glad to do that for anyone,” he said, “but she’s also a mainstay of West Marin and Point Reyes Station, and certainly that played into our thoughts.”

And even though Ms. Underwood’s plans have been cleared by the deputy zoning administrator, the building permits still have to be finalized. She hopes to open by spring, but admitted “that’s crossing our fingers that everyone is moving at a good clip.”

Sue Conley, co-founder of Cowgirl Creamery, expressed her support for Brickmaiden’s plans in a letter to the county administrator. “There will be objections from folks who think that it will add to the congestion in town on the weekends,” she wrote, “but I don’t think that this is true. People who visit Point Reyes Station park their car once and then walk from shop to shop, so no new parking spaces should be required.”

At the zoning administrator’s hearing last month, Inverness Park resident Victor Stangenberg voiced his support for the project, saying he hoped the shop would become a place where young people would be able to get a bite to eat and “hang out a little bit.” he said. 

While Brickmaiden has been a beloved part of West Marin for nearly two decades, Ms. Underwood said that a retail space poses a completely new challenge for her business. “This almost feels like I’m now, 18 years later, finally growing up or something, taking the next step,” she said. “It’s a whole new animal.”