By Tiffany Ran
March 16, 2017
On a rainy Sunday nearly a month after its soft opening, the line at the Southcenter Mall’s new 85°C Bakery and Cafe still extended around the store. Customers were invited into the store in small groups while the rest waited outside on a ramp built around the store’s perimeter. A store employee offered umbrellas to patient customers waiting in the rain. At 1pm that Sunday, eager customers waited about an hour to step inside. The weather was gloomy but even outside, the air smelled of fresh baked bread. There, they stood at eye level with the breads and pastries on display inside: trays of egg tarts, robust cheese twists, violet-marbled taro bread, black sesame–flecked red bead buns, and the bakery’s signature brioche, a love child between a brioche and a souffle.
Taiwanese breads and pastries are known for their subtle savory-sweet flavors and puffy, cloudlike texture reminiscent of traditional steamed buns. Unlike western-style breads, Taiwanese pastries often use lower gluten flour to create the beloved pillowy texture described in Mandarin as “cotton-like.” The success of 85°C, a 13-year-old Taiwanese bakery and cafe chain, has led to a great popularity for this style of breads and pastries abroad. Founder Cheng-Hsueh Wu started 85°C Bakery Cafe in 2003. Inspired by a cafe experience at a five-star hotel, Wu aimed to bring quality coffee, breads, and pastries to the masses at an affordable price. The company’s name is based off the belief that 85 degrees Celsius is the optimum temperature for coffee. Its unique sea salt coffee propelled the bakery/cafe to hometown stardom. The company beat Starbucks to become the largest coffee and bakery chain in Taiwan two years after its first store opened in Taipei. In a 2008 interview, NBC referred to 85°C as “Asia’s Starbucks.”
“We chose the Seattle area based on requests from our patrons. We picked the Southcenter Mall primarily for its ease of transportation and parking, and its proximity to major freeways that connect to Seattle. Our target is towards family consumers, and that plays a role in our choice of location,” said Emily Hu, marketing director of 85°C Bakery Cafe.
At its Tukwila Southcenter Mall location, customers come from as far as Canada and Portland, as well Seattle and the eastside. This is the first of potentially many 85°C locations in Washington. The company currently has over 400 locations in Taiwan, over 500 in China, 7 in Australia, 8 in Hong Kong, and 26 stores in the States with a forthcoming 27th location opening soon in Glendale, California. Its first U.S. location in Irvine, California drew unending lines from open to close and led the company to open 24 other stores throughout the state.
Tukwila’s opening day in late February drew about 2,000 people who purchased 900 of the store’s discounted sea salt coffees. Lynnwood and Capitol Hill locations are set to open by the year’s end.
“We have not had an experience in the company where the excitement and hype has lasted this long [past the grand opening],” said assistant general manager Lisa Hatten. “We have a really strong international following in the United States. It’s a little taste of home for a lot of people that are here or have relocated here, and those who travel a lot and have experienced it abroad,” she adds.
For these reasons, consistency not just in product but also in menu is a priority for the company. 85°C does not franchise any of its stores, preferring instead to open every location with company resources and using only recipes developed by its lead pastry chefs. Popular flavors in Tukwila like the marble taro bread, a rounded soft bread filled with sweet taro paste, and any savory pastries with meat like the spicy sausage or ham and cheese, remain in line with preferences in its California store. In Taiwan, classics like the baroh danish, a fluffy bun with a sweet streusel-like topping, continues to be the country’s top selling item.
“Some Tukwila customers have experienced our breads at California locations and they would expect that whatever flavors they enjoyed there to also be available in Seattle. In the future as the company matures, we can consider the possibility of diversifying our menu based on neighborhood or regions,” said Hu.
Tukwila’s 85°C receives multiple shipments a week from the company’s central warehouse bakery in California, where its breads and pastries are made using recipes crafted by the company’s lead pastry chefs. Breads and pastries are shipped batched and frozen, then proofed, baked, and garnished at its various locations including Tukwila. Tukwila will likely serve as a central kitchen, supplying breads to local 85°C outposts like the prospective Capitol Hill location.
“I’ve been working in bakeries for over 20 years and I’ve never experienced a bakery like this where you put out fresh product every 15 to 30 minutes from the time we open to the time we close,” said Hatten.
At Tukwila, staff rush to replenish trays as one set of customers leave and more are let in. Even customers lined up to pay will, upon seeing new breads enter the floor, leave the line to fill another tray. One customer sighed over a brief glimpse of the coveted bacon and cheese bread brought out and quickly snatched up by others in the brief time she stood in line. It was mid-afternoon on a Sunday, and some flavors like the milk pudding bread, a soft bread with a pudding swirl, had already sold out, but the line outside persisted until the store closed at midnight.
“In the food industry, everyone is still pursuing freshness and fresh baked bread is what people enjoy so we need to fulfill this demand. This is also a challenge,” said Hu. “Operations-wise, every store needs to keep their ovens running to bake one batch after another and it’s challenging. But fresh bread is what made us popular so this will never change.”
The success of future Seattle area stores may lead the company to set up an in-state warehouse bakery where product can be batched, frozen, and delivered across shorter distances.
The opening of the slated Lynnwood location will likely pull away customers from Tukwila in the south, but Hatten believes such growth will eventually lend to a more leisurely experience where one can stroll in and enjoy a midafternoon pastry with a sea salt coffee, no wait required and at the same friendly price point that its founder had intended. ♦
Tiffany Ran is a food writer and works closely with restaurants in Seattle, on the line, behind their social media accounts, and beside the hardworking folks who make it all happen. Follow her on Twitter @palateb2w