‘We’re not a rocketship to Mars; we’re a bakery’: Acclaimed Manresa Bread opens on the Westside

Manresa Bread founder and head baker Avery Ruzicka.
Manresa Bread founder and head baker Avery Ruzicka.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Santa Cruzan Avery Ruzicka, Manresa Bread’s founder and head baker, brings the bakery to the Westside, joining outposts in Los Gatos, Los Altos, Campbell and Palo Alto. Along with Companion and Kelly’s French Bakery, that makes the Westside the epicenter of contemporary bread-making locally.

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A Q&A with Manresa Bread's Avery Ruzicka

As I sit down at a cheery orange bistro table outside of Manresa Bread’s new outpost on the Westside of Santa Cruz, I’m aware that I purchased too many pastries. I know this and yet, in addition to a box of pastries, the navy blue bag next to me also contains a large, stately loaf of the bakery’s traditional levain, and the pointed ends of two sourdough baguettes poke out like a pair of perky rabbit ears.

But as I pull apart the chewy, toffee-flavored layers of a kouign amann, I have no regrets. Nor do I hesitate to pull a cranberry and goat cheese Danish from the bag, biting into the tangy fresh goat cheese and tart cranberry jam in a puff of powdered sugar. I nibble on a tender butternut squash muffin, shockingly plush for something that’s gluten free. Laminated layers fly everywhere as I tear into a chocolate croissant; by the time I finish, I’m so covered in shrapnel that it’s unclear if I ate it or it exploded.

Finally — unable to resist, despite my decadent breakfast — I rip off the heel of the dark levain loaf, revealing its moist crumb and filling the table with the warm scent of yeast. Manresa Bread has come to town, and I am in heaven.

Despite the fact that it’s named after a beach in Santa Cruz County, it took nearly 20 years for the Los Gatos-based Manresa restaurant group to establish itself on the ocean side of the hill. David Kinch, the chef-owner of the three-Michelin-starred Manresa, opened his fine dining restaurant in Los Gatos in 2002. In 2020, he opened the Italian Riviera-inspired Mentone in Aptos, and on Monday, Manresa Bread, Manresa’s bakery offshoot, opened a fifth location in the buzzy Westside neighborhood of Santa Cruz.

Manresa Bread's Westside Santa Cruz outpost, its fifth location in the greater Bay Area.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

The woman behind the bread is Avery Ruzicka, Manresa Bread’s founder and head baker. The bakery was born more than a decade ago at Manresa when Ruzicka was working in the kitchen and found herself drawn to perfect the restaurant’s bread recipes. Manresa Bread officially launched in 2013 and began selling at local farmers markets and established the first bakery in Los Gatos in 2015. Since then, four more locations have opened, in Los Altos, Campbell, Palo Alto and now Santa Cruz. Over the years, Manresa Bread has gained national recognition and attention for its exceptional bread and pastries, and in 2020, Ruzicka became a finalist for an esteemed James Beard Award.

Ruzicka, like Kinch, lives in Santa Cruz, and for the past six years she has called the Westside neighborhood home. She confesses that she’s been looking for the perfect spot in the Santa Cruz area to open a retail shop for Manresa Bread for some time and finding it just a stone’s throw from her house is “a dream come true.” “When this opportunity came our way it just felt like it was the perfect thing,” said Ruzicka.

Located on Ingalls Street between Fair Avenue and Swift Street, Manresa Bread joins notable bakeries Companion Bakeshop and Kelly’s French Bakery on the Westside. The new spot is tiny — Ruzicka calls the 300-square-foot space “a postage stamp” compared to the other locations. Here, guests can swing by to pick up fresh loaves of naturally leavened bread, including baguettes, ciabatta and her famous levain, and a selection of daily pastries.

There isn’t any baking on site; all of the baking is done in a single commissary kitchen over the hill and distributed to all Manresa Bread locations in the wee hours of the morning. Prepared food is not available here, and drinks are limited to a few cold beverages in a fridge; Ruzicka points out that there are already three local coffee shops on the block — Cat & Cloud Coffee on Swift Street, 11th Hour Coffee in the Swift Street Courtyard and Verve Coffee on Fair Avenue — and guests are welcome to grab a drink to enjoy on the Manresa Bread patio.

For Manresa Bread fans who have been making pilgrimages over Highway 17, it’s a welcome addition to the area just in time for the holiday season. In addition to pies, Ruzicka is once again offering panettone, a traditional Italian Christmas bread that is notoriously time-consuming and labor-intensive but unforgettable if made by a skilled baker. “If you make a panettone, and you can’t stop eating it, that’s what it should be like. It should almost melt in your mouth,” said Ruzicka. “The real test of a panettone is if you realize you can’t walk away.”

This year, Manresa Bread is also launching a holiday cookie tin, inspired by the ones Ruzicka’s family used to make and exchange with friends in Chicago and Wisconsin. The tin contains a mix of cookies, nuts, granola and cheese crackers — a “fun mix of things” Ruzicka said she hopes will be the best version the receiver has ever tasted. “Those are the simple pleasures and that’s what a bakery is, right?” she said. “We’re not a rocketship to Mars; we’re a bakery. We want to make things that are just really delicious that you can’t put down and that you can’t wait to try again.”

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Lookout: Can you describe your baking philosophy?

Avery Ruzicka: For me, baking is a labor of love. There’s this repetitive comfort, but then there is this constant ability to always be learning. When you’re revisiting something, you think you know something about it but baking constantly teaches you something new. So we get to do these creative and intellectual pursuits that we then get to share and make ourselves and other people happy with something delicious.

A selection of pastries at Manresa Bread.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lookout: What kinds of products do you offer at Manresa Bread?

Ruzicka: It’s important for me to do a lot of naturally leavened products. All of our breads are sourdough breads. We mill our own organic grains, primarily from California. Our team mills flour daily. All of our breads are cold-fermented, which means that they’re fermented overnight [in refrigeration] for at least 24 hours before they are baked.

Manresa Bread is a bakery, not a pastry shop, in the sense that our current menu is primarily baked goods. We don’t do a lot of cakes, mousses or things like that — although that’s something I want to be doing more of once we have a larger facility. We produce things like croissants, kouign amann and cookies utilizing our freshly milled flour. We’re really trying to bring simple products to our customers utilizing local ingredients.

I’m from North Carolina, and the greatest joy of California for me, besides the ocean, is the produce. I’ve become a pretty avid gardener myself — not that I have any clue what I’m doing but I really love it for the same reasons that I love to bake. Getting to celebrate the seasons with our local produce is something that we really enjoy. I hope what customers are going to find with us is quality that they can taste.

Lookout: Why do you mill your own flour?

Ruzicka: In the summer of 2014, before we opened Manresa Bread, Manresa was closed for its summer sabbatical. We were in the preparation for building up the original commissary and getting ready to open the bakery. I went back to New York and did a big tour of a whole bunch of bakeries and then I went back down to North Carolina and did a stage at a bakery called Farm & Sparrow. There, I tasted freshly milled flour for the first time in my life. I knew immediately that I tasted something different. That was the impetus for me to prioritize the milling process as an integral part of our business. I do think you can taste the difference.

I don’t like to say that bread should be one way or the other. I think that in the world of bread there is space for all styles of bread. For me, there is a flavor difference when using fresh-milled flour but the reason is because the properties of fresh flour are distinct. Fresh flour absorbs a completely different quantity of hydration than a pre-milled flour. Even if it’s a whole grain, it doesn’t matter. Flour that you’ve milled yourself versus purchased — they’re going to absorb a different amount of water. And then that different amount of hydration is going to mean that the fermentation is different.

All of these things are what results in a flavor difference. If you were to try to eat a little raw flour of either, you wouldn’t necessarily notice a big difference, but it’s the properties within these flours. That’s what results in a product that tastes different, looks different, feels different and has a different mouthfeel.

Manresa Bread is located at 330 Ingalls St. in Santa Cruz and is open daily from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. or sellout. For more information and for holiday preorders, visit manresabread.com.