Longtime Tahoe couple bakes up sweet Sugar Pine success
February 17, 2015
TAHOE CITY, Calif. — There is a certain scientific method involved in baking, which, particularly at high-altitude, relies on precise measurements, controlled temperatures and an unwavering adherence to recipes.
And when it's done right, in all its buttery, flaky, sweet, savory and succulent decadence, the experience of baked goods transforms from a science into an art.
"It's always a challenge, and there's always something new to learn," said Allison Sayles, owner of Sugar Pine Cakery in Tahoe City's Lake Forest neighborhood. "I get especially nervous with wedding cakes because I'm always being pushed to do more elaborate things, but that's what's so cool about it."
The bakery, which Allison co-owns with her husband, Brett, specializes in custom wedding cakes, an assortment of baked goods, and every type of food allergy modification known to a seasoned baker — like gluten-free, grain-free, nut-free and vegan.
"We try to accommodate everyone we can, which keeps us on our toes," Allison said. "We get a lot of requests for gluten-free wedding cakes these days, and it makes me happy that people know they can come here and ask for that."
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Allison — a petite and lively California native – comes from a large Portuguese family, whose roots are firmly planted in the agricultural hub of the San Joaquin Valley.
"I spent a lot of time on my grandparent's farm when I was growing up, and basically if you were a girl you were in the kitchen cooking, and if you were a boy, you were out milking the cows," Allison said. "So I was surrounded by all my aunts, and my mother and grandmother — who are beyond amazing cooks — and that's where I get it from."
With a sort of marmalade glow, Allison added, "I always tell people, 'I'm Portuguese. I feed people. It's just what we do."
After working a number of catering gigs in her late teens — including, at age 16, driving a diesel truck around San Francisco delivering catering equipment — Allison moved to North Lake Tahoe to spice up her food and beverage experience.
It was the early '90s, and she and Brett had just begun dating when she landed a job as a baker at Headwall Café in Squaw Valley, as well as one at Fiamma Cucina Rustica in Tahoe City, where Allison learned tricks of the trade from owner and longtime local, Sid Willeford, who died in 2013.
"I started with Sid at Fiamma right when it opened — actually, most of us were there from the start — and you become a family when you work together for that long, especially in a kitchen," Allison said.
When Fiamma closed its doors, head chef and owner of As You Wish Catering and fellow Fiamma family member, Michael Farrier, offered Allison a slice of his kitchen space to support her budding bakery business.
Meanwhile, Brett was whisking away at his career as a property manager for Alpine Meadows and Squaw Valley.
"I enjoyed what I was doing, but I was also ready for a change," Brett said.
A TASTE FOR SOMETHING NEW
In 2009, Allison, who attended New England Culinary Institute in Vermont, began leasing space from Farrier to whip up the occasional wedding cake.
"I started selling other baked goods at the farmers market to supplement my rent with As You Wish," she said. "I'd use whatever I could get at the market as the ingredients in whatever I was baking the following week."
Allison enjoyed the change of scenery from confined kitchen to Commons Beach, as did Brett, who often helped out at their Sugar Pine Cakery booth, alongside their now-9-year-old-daughter.
At summer's end, when the market went into hibernation, customers wanted to know where they could find Allison's tasty treats.
"A friend of mine convinced me to open the door at As You Wish one day a week, so I did, thinking that if I didn't make a certain amount, I wouldn't do it again, but then it just kept working out, so I added another day, and then another," she recalled.
In 2013, Sugar Pine Cakery became a daily operation in Tahoe City's lakeside industrial neighborhood — a bittersweet location of sorts, made sweeter by the eclectic pocket of nearby businesses like Bacchi's Inn, Tahoe City Furniture Company and Tahoe City Auto Repair.
"Lake Forest has its challenges, but there are a lot of ways that it works for us too," Allison said. "The businesses here appreciate us, and we appreciate them, and they're the ones that really make it happen year-round."
Another factor in the bakery's year-round sweet success is Brett, who left his job after two decades to help knead the dough with his wife.
With Allison's radiating can-do personality counterbalanced by Brett's laid-back demeanor, it's easy to imagine why their business is a recipe for success.
"I'm so glad I get to do what I love and spend time with my family while doing it," Allison said. "I couldn't do this without him."
Jenny Goldsmith is a North Tahoe-based freelance writer and a former reporter for the Sierra Sun newspaper. Have an idea for a merchant to feature? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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