How Michelle Rizzolo turned Big Sur Bakery into a destination for food-lovers everywhere.
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.
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.
F&W: Big Sur is pretty remote. What was your traffic like when you first opened, and how did you build relationships in the community and cultivate a loyal customer base?
MR: It was a really slow build. Sometimes, in the middle of winter during those first few years, we’d have five people for dinner. But then the Ventana Inn and the Post Ranch Inn started recommending us to their guests, and from that point the business built and built and built. We were really lucky because we opened our doors and we were a bakery, and who doesn’t love a bakery? Big Sur had never had one. Here, it’s hard to get anything reasonably priced, but we opened this morning spot where people could come and sit and look out at the view, have a scone and a cappuccino and talk with their friends. It became a bit of a community hub, a meeting place. And for people who live here, I think it felt more theirs than anything else had in a really long time.
F&W: Has your menu changed significantly since the first year you opened?
MR: We’ve always had this attitude that we should have a great chicken on our menu—it should be the best chicken anyone’s ever had, but there should be a chicken dish on the menu. There should be a cheese pizza on the menu. There should be a basic sourdough loaf, and there should be vanilla ice cream in the freezer. On top of whatever else we’re doing, those basic things, and our butter lettuce salad, have always been on our menu and they’ll always be on our menu. Especially when we first started and not everyone knew what arugula was, we wanted to make sure we always had something to offer anyone who came through our doors. We wanted to provide a comfort level for people who ate here.
This was our way of making this place approachable. At the very beginning people were driving up and getting gas and maybe walking up to the restaurant, and then deciding whether they wanted to eat off our menu or not. They had a car full of kids. You can get people to come in if there’s a cheese pizza on the menu. Our attitude was: none of those things are beneath us. Phil always says you judge a chef by how good his chicken is. In a place like ours you have total freedom, but [you have to acknowledge] that the basics are really important too. We never wanted to be the kind of place where our own families couldn’t come in and have a nice basic meal.
F&W: How do you resist the instinct to resent tourists or high volume, or feeling like the idea of Big Sur is becoming too much? Or do you ever feel that way at all?
MR: My attitude is always that the people who travel through Big Sur and want to see Big Sur are here for the same reasons I am here. I try to instill compassion in my staff. Our customers just drove on a road that could have frightened them. Or they’re hungry, or they’ve been in a car with their families for a while. They come in here and they want to have a nice experience and they want to have good food. They want to be able to relax. We have to think like tourists in a way: we have to think like people who have never been here before. The only time I get upset is when I’m concerned about meeting sales demands—we often sell out of the bakery case, and we don’t have the ability to produce more, because we bake our products daily. That’s a hard thing to accept when people are disappointed.
F&W: Is that one of the reasons you started selling your stollen during the holiday season? What else have you done to deal with the enormous demand that you’re working with?
Yeah, the first couple years I made stollen I just gave it away to the people who delivered to us—it was my gift to them. Then we started doing mail orders, and then we realized, wow, this is a product that we can be really proud to send out of Big Sur—it’s better the next day, it’s better the next week. That period between Thanksgiving and Christmas is our slowest three weeks in all of Big Sur; now, stollen pays our bills.
Otherwise, we’re just trying to make our systems better and more efficient. We tweak the daytime menu to try to service the customers who are driving through the region. We think of what they want and how fast they want it, and what you can do simply while still representing that quality experience. Dinner for us is always going to be the same number of people. There are only so many hotel rooms. There are only so many campsites. The real key to our business is daytime traffic. It’s letting people have an experience even if they don’t want to be here all day. Getting them exactly what they need in an efficient way has been really challenging for us, because we just think, why wouldn’t you want to sit here for 45 minutes and wait for a pizza? Look at where you are! But not everyone wants that experience.
Dinner is still the dreamiest. Because at 5:30 here, especially in winter, people sit down and don’t want to get out of their seats. They want to be here all night. It’s absolutely dreamy, it’s romantic. The customers get to talk to the servers forever. That’s my dream experience. But I’m a different person than the majority of people who drive through during the day.