WAIMEA — There are people who like what they do for a living, and then there are people who absolutely live, breathe and love what they do for a living. Kay and Kevin Cabrera, owners of Sandwich Isle Bread Company in Waimea, fit into that latter group, and we are the lucky beneficiaries of that dedication to craft.
There’s a novel I read some years ago called Like Water for Chocolate. What’s stuck with me is its premise, which is that food is, in some magical way, the concrete product of the cook’s feelings. So, an angry cook makes food that tastes angry, not so good; a happy cook, makes food that tastes happy; and so on. The point is that the maker needs to approach his or her craft with the right attitude to produce a “right” product. I can’t help but make this connection with Sandwich Isle Bread Company: They’ve got the attitude right, because pretty much everything about their products just tastes … “right.”
Kay and Kevin’s life in baking started about 35 years ago. Kay, a graduate of the UH Food Service program, “thought I knew enough to be a professional baker. One of those people who hear others say, ‘Your stuff is so good you ought to go into business.’”
So, she did, opening Kay’s Creations in Hilo. Kevin “backed into baking,” he says, starting with delivering Kay’s products and eventually moving into baking. The shop was so successful that literally on the last day they were open Kay got a phone call asking her if she wanted to be Business Woman of the Year. But it turned out that life had happened in the meantime, and they had by then decided that being in business for themselves was just too much at the time. They decided to leave on a high note and move on.
So, move on they did. Kay into a job as pastry chef at a Mauna Lani restaurant, and Kevin to several baking positions at the Kohala Coast resorts, and eventually to the Mauna Kea, where he became the first and only Baker Chef in the state.
He specialized in bread, and only in bread. This was at the time of the artisan bread “revolution” when we all started to realize that that spongy white stuff in the plastic wrappers wasn’t all there was to bread. Kevin was fortunate in that his employer sent him all over the world to refine his skills at artisan bread conferences, and this was crucial in developing his repertoire. There became literally no kind of bread he couldn’t make.
Then, life again happened.
Kay moved her baking home as a freelance pastry chef, consulting to restaurants needing to bring their baking up a notch and she baked custom wedding cakes.
One story she tells is about a very expensive cake she made for an Oahu wedding at just about the time the airlines were getting nervous at liquids being on planes. Turns out cake filling was considered a liquid (who knew?), the result being Kay had to fly the cake over to Oahu on a chartered helicopter, with Kevin flying over commercially to meet her and deliver the cake. We’re talking dedicated bakers here, and discerning customers!
Another customer asked that the icing on the cake match the lace on her wedding gown; so the decoration was done from a swatch of that lace. This kind of high maintenance got to the point where Kay felt “everybody who ordered a cake was getting a week out of my life, and it got to the point where I just didn’t want to do that.”
In a happy happenstance around this time, Kay and Kevin attended a kneading conference (no joke, there is such a thing) in Maine and were immersed in the world of all things artisanal about baking. They came home inspired with ideas for a portable wood-fired oven and the techniques for how to bake bread in it.
The rest is history, a long and laborious history the Cabreras would say, but one that happily resulted in the locally famous wood-fired bread produced at the Parker School Farmers Market in Waimea, where Sandwich Isle has sold out weekly for the past 10 years.
They continue there, but in the last year have expanded with the purchase of the old Leilani Bakery site in Waimea’s KTA Shopping Center.
It is here that the glory — there is no other word for it — of an expanded selection of pastries and breads really shines. In addition to the tried, and vast, selection of specialty breads and breathtaking pastry creations, they “try new stuff all the time, and now have several baking apprentices.” They still handle special orders and weddings cakes, and the wood-fired oven is also available for special events like pizza parties.
“All our adult lives have been built around baking’” says Kevin. “We’re going to die in front of the ovens” — jokingly (I hope), adds Kay.
Hurry up and treat yourself to a slice of bread or pastry nirvana before that happens.
Dennis Boyd is the director of West Hawaii Small Business Development Center, which is funded in part through with the U.S. Small Business Administration and the University of Hawaii at Hilo.