After a long run in San Francisco, Just Desserts quietly slipped into a 65,000-square-foot baking facility near Oakland airport in 2003 that currently turns out 6,000 cakes a week in classic varieties such as lemon, chocolate and mocha, as well as individually packaged cupcakes, cheesecakes and mini-bundts, all under the direction of executive chef Mani Niall.
Niall has a storied past. Working at a Los Angeles vegetarian restaurant popular with celebrities, he met Michael Jackson and became his private chef, then wrote three cookbooks and opened his own bakery café.
When a Hollywood prop master called asking for a healthy, non-fried donut that Danny DeVito could munch on during repeated takes of a movie shoot, Niall’s “faux nut” landed him in the spotlight. But he gladly traded Hollywood’s glitz for the Bay Area’s more varied climate, food culture, farmers markets and natural beauty.
As we strolled through the giant baking facility, we passed 140 quarts of cream cheese frosting whipping up in a floor mixer, a massive batter depositor filing pans with carrot cake, a hangar-sized tunnel oven and a tall, spiral cooling-funnel that resembled an amusement park ride (for brownies).
You have described your job as “dessert archaeologist.” What does that mean?
Just Desserts is a company with a great history. We’ve always made our products from scratch, with real butter and eggs and no preservatives. I go searching in our database of recipes and experiment with different combinations of classic flavors, maybe with a new twist on size or topping.
How do you develop new products or flavors?
Some of it is driven by our customers. We had many requests from South Florida for key lime and coconut-flavored cakes. Some of it is watching trends. Now the sweet/salty caramel thing is hot. We decided just to go with caramel frosting and actually had people thank us for forgoing the sea salt on top.
What are some of your favorite local restaurants?
Pizzaiolo, Burma Superstar, Remedy, Aunt Mary’s, Dopo, Brown Sugar Kitchen and The Chop Bar.
How do you stay so trim, surrounded by all those cakes?
I do yoga, hit the gym and am an avid “hooper.” That’s exercising with a hula-hoop. I go to group hoop jams in parks and even lost 12 pounds hooping.