Meet the Sullivan Sisters, the Rising Generation at Acme Bread Company

Selina Knowles, Communications Coordinator
June 13, 2024

From the start, The Acme Bread Company’s story is intertwined with the Sullivan family’s. “Acme Bread was founded in 1983, in the year before my sister was born,” Rachel Sullivan begins her retelling of the bakery’s origins. “That’s always how I frame it.” Just over 40 years ago, Rachel’s parents Steve and Suzie Sullivan founded Acme Bread in Berkeley, with a mission to provide the best possible bread at affordable prices, while prioritizing employee welfare and sourcing sustainable ingredients.

Since then, the bakery has grown to also include a stand at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market, a retail location in the San Francisco Ferry Building, and wholesale bakeries in West Berkeley and South San Francisco. The Sullivan family has grown, too. Now, Rachel, who recently transitioned from working on Frog Hollow Farm, and her older sister, Becca, are actively following in their parents’ footsteps. 

Two hands hold a large sourdough round

From “Love at First Sight” to Building a Family Bakery Together 

Before hatching the bakery business plans, Steve worked as a busboy at the famed Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse. “Baking out of his dorm room” at UC Berkeley, as Rachel puts it, turned into finding his passion and profession in baking. With encouragement from Alice Waters, Steve traveled to Europe to explore French cuisine, developed a passion for bread baking, and eventually withdrew from the university to bake bread for the restaurant.

Around the same time, Steve met Suzie (set up on a blind date at Chez Panisse by Steve’s brother, who worked with her). It was love at first sight. Rachel says that on one of her parents’ early dates, her mom asked Steve, “So, when are you going to open a bakery?” 

Since founding the bakery in 1983, Steve and Suzie have been a team, with Steve baking the bread and Suzie originally managing the distribution, the customer engagement, and the books. Since good, carefully made bread was difficult to find at the time, they founded Acme Bread primarily to provide it to local restaurants and food shops, while also serving freshly baked bread to customers directly.

They started their operations down the road from Chez Panisse, alongside Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant. Alice Waters eventually opened Café Fanny next door to this space. Acme has maintained this bakery in addition to expanding to bakeries in South San Francisco and San Francisco. The Sullivans credit Acme’s team of dedicated partners and coworkers for helping the business grow to what it is today. 

Becca Sullivan at Acme Bread Company’s original bakery in Berkeley.

Growing Up Alongside Acme

While Acme Bread Company was getting off the ground, Becca was along for the ride. “I pretty much grew up there, my first four years. I was very lucky, but it was not a normal first four years of a baby’s existence, that’s for sure,” says Becca. 

She would often take her naps in a cradle in the bakery’s back office, while her mom managed the books, and later, in a stroller next to her mom at the retail counter. “As soon as I could contribute within the bakery, I was happily and joyfully participating,” says Becca.

Born 10 years later, Rachel says that Acme was a bit more established when she was growing up, but she does have some fond memories at the Berkeley shop. “I remember running over to nearby Cafe Fanny and asking for a paper cup, then coming back to the bakery and asking the baker to put either dough or flour in it. With flour, I would make it into my own dough,” says Rachel.

Both sisters spent time selling at the bakery during their summers, and they each took a different path to committing to the family business. 

Becca Sullivan (left) at Acme Bread Company in Berkeley.

Exploring Beyond Acme and Bringing New Talents Back to the Business

After high school, Becca worked with students in Brazil before pursuing an education in Latin American Studies and agriculture. At one point she was asked to fill in for an Acme employee who went on leave. When that employee ended up moving back to their hometown, Becca made the decision to remain full time. 

She first worked in the original retail shop, where she focused on improving workplace conditions and developing new retail products, then managing that shop, and now managing that bakery location. Becca’s pride in all that the family business stands for brought her back into it. “I’m really, really proud to be part of it. And now that Rachel’s on the team, it’s really special,” says Becca.

In college, Rachel studied agricultural sciences with a focus on soil science and sustainable agriculture. From there, she joined the Frog Hollow Farm crew, first as Farmer Al Courchesne’s assistant, then as the Farm Operations Manager. Rachel held a range of duties on the farm, including crop selection and planting schedules, managing organic certification and food safety audits, and developing a worker wellness program.

After seven years with Frog Hollow Farm, Rachel heeded her parents’ request to work with them at the bakery, starting in October 2023. Now, Rachel splits her time between the Ferry Building retail locations and one of the Berkeley bakeries. 

She’s taking on a range of initiatives, from surveying employees to continue improving working conditions to developing new products. For Pride month, Rachel developed the new Rainbow Sandwich offering, a plant-based sandwich, packed with locally sourced ingredients and full of flavor. This month, one dollar per each sandwich will be donated to the Pacific Center for Human Growth

Rachel Sullivan at Acme Bread Company in the Ferry Building.

Sustaining an Ethical Small Business with Community Collaboration

After Steve embraced his culinary inclinations in one of the farm-to-table movement’s pioneer restaurants, it’s no surprise that choosing quality ingredients has always been at Acme’s core. The company has used organic flour since 1999, and it regularly sources from local farms, including Dirty Girl Produce, Zuckerman’s Farm, Frog Hollow Farm, and others at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market.

But lately, this commitment has not been without its challenges. “We want to be able to provide an affordable, really delicious product, with responsibly sourced ingredients,” says Rachel, “But it’s hard when costs are rising so much.” 

The cost of flour increased significantly at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and climate change threatens to further impact crop yields and supply prices. Acme also sources top quality organic flour from Keith Giusto’s family-run Central Milling, grown in California and the western United States. Because of these market fluctuations, Acme’s typically slim profit margins breach new narrows.

Rachel recognizes that rising costs and changing market conditions are common experiences for many small businesses, including Acme’s neighbors at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. This inspired Rachel to initiate a collaborative effort with Frog Hollow Farm and Tomales Farmstead Creamery. This month, visit all three stands at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturday to enter a raffle for a gift basket with goodies from each business.

“The Ferry Plaza Farmers Market is like home to me, on one level because I shop at the farmers market, but I also worked for Frog Hollow for so long and consider them family,” says Rachel. “Vendor to vendor, you’re showing up every week with the same folks next to you, able to share ideas and support each other.”

Tomorrow at 12:00 pm, join Frog Hollow Farm for a cooking demo at the Foodwise Classroom, featuring Acme Bread Company. Support Acme Bread Company at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market on Saturdays, and visit their tasting table in front of the Ferry Building on Saturdays in June to learn about their gift basket giveaway raffle

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