Big Sur Bakery is a pilgrimage within a pilgrimage. You might miss it while driving along Highway 1 through one of the most staggering stretches of coastline on the Pacific coast—I did at first pass, and was forced to backtrack for baked goods—but it’s become an essential destination in Big Sur, as much as the jagged cliffs and foamy surf and stunning views. At least for hungry people.
Michelle Rizzolo came upon the place 15 years ago, when a friend in Los Angeles told her and her then-boyfriend Philip Wojtowicz about a restaurant space he’d just leased on a remote part of Highway 1. Rizzolo and Wojtowicz went up to visit, saw the wood-fired oven, and fell in love. Over the next two months, the two slept on the dining room floor while they renovated the space and developed and tested recipes for what would become Big Sur Bakery. Their menu started as baked goods paired with the output of an espresso machine; now, the restaurant serves three meals a day, and you can buy pastries and bread a la carte at all day long (or at least for as long as they last—go early for the pastries). The place is a little oasis from the grandeur and precarious edges of Highway 1, and it’s beloved by tourists and locals alike. I recently spoke with Michelle—who now runs both the kitchen and the bakery solo—about maintaining a business in such a remote location, and how she and her team work to meet the fantasies of its customers, whether they’re in search of paradise or just some vanilla ice cream.
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F&W: I’m curious about the challenges of running a restaurant that’s such a destination. I think a lot of people think Big Sur and they think fantasy—does that come into play when you’re considering what to serve or how to run your business?
MR: When we first started out, we were just that place behind the gas station; the expectations were way down, and then guests would have these incredible experiences; we lucked out. Now, so many of our customers have very emotional relationships with our restaurant. Maybe they’ve waited all year to come, and they’ve really built up the experience before their visit. Then, if when they get here, they don’t feel special, or that they were accommodated, they can have an emotional reaction. So that can be challenging. I don’t think other restaurants have to deal with that in the same way we do.