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Olive Café & Olive Baking Company Mix Sourdough Bread with Sweet Neighborhood Charm

Not many kitchen ingredients can claim family status. But if you bake sourdough bread, your starter – a bubbly mixture of yeast and lactobacilli, converting starches and sugars into acid 24/7 – can start to seem that way. Feed it a regular diet of flour and water, and the microbiome can help you bake that chewy, tangy bread in your ovens for years. Even generations, if you ask Sarah Mattinson.

Sarah’s starter came from a friend’s father, a fellow restauranteur who knew about her formal education in breadmaking. Years ago, he gave Sarah a mason jar of his own supply. From that tiny batch, Sarah has cultivated two massive containers of sourdough starter, a combined 11 gallons’ worth of live cultures. They form a base for the beloved sourdough boule at Olive Baking Company and Olive Café, Sarah’s neighboring businesses on Mission Beach – a bit of baked-in history for the stores, of one chef passing down an heirloom ingredient to another.

“There’s no commercial yeast in our sourdough,” Sarah says. “And we also supply his restaurants with the bread. That sourdough starter is our baby. We have to feed it even if we’re closed on Christmas and Thanksgiving.”

In Olive’s early years, Christmas and Thanksgiving were the only days Sarah didn’t work. She took over the café in 2005, then a tiny corner shop with one oven, two employees, and a small enough space that you couldn’t do dishes and cook at the same time. Nearly two decades later, her dream of building a neighborhood gathering place has come to life. 

Since then, Olive Café took over the building next door and now offers indoor and outdoor dining. Sarah opened Olive Baking Company just across Mission Boulevard in 2015; today it supplies 16 local restaurants with pastries and tangy sourdough bread. Sarah just earned 2023 Restauranteur of the Year honors from the California Restaurant Association’s San Diego chapter. And with 30 employees, she’s finally able to take a day or two off each week.

Through it all, Sarah has been as busy as her 11-gallon starter. But she hasn’t forgotten her original purpose – to raise a cornerstone of community in Mission Beach, San Diego’s “classic boardwalk beach town.” The staff at Olive Café and Olive Baking Company bring ceaseless energy to their craft. And SDG&E, their delivery partner for gas and electricity, helped energize those dreams from the start.

Sarah Mattinson, Olive Cafe
Sarah Mattinson, Olive Cafe

If You Can’t Stand the Heat…

A typical day at the bakery begins at 4:30 a.m., when Olive’s staff arrives to fire up the ovens. The café and bakery open a half-hour apart – the café at 7 a.m., the bakery at 7:30 – so the team only has a few short hours to pump out the cinnamon rolls and scones that get snapped up by their customers. Between the two facilities, Olive has five ovens to work with. At the bakery, it turns out Kolache (kuh-LAH-chee), a traditional Czech treat with filling-stuffed balls of warm, soft dough. Then come the dinnerplate-sized sourdough boules, crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside, cooked in cast-iron pots at more than 400 degrees.

Between all the baking, the ovens are “constantly going throughout the day,” Sarah says. Though these ovens are powered by natural gas, Olive needs plenty of reliable electricity, too. Large refrigerators keep produce and other ingredients fresh, while espresso machines, overhead lights and Sarah’s computer – where these days, she starts by cranking through email – need plenty of juice.

SDG&E delivers the gas to bake all that sourdough, but long before the bread came another kind of dough: financial assistance, in the form of rebates for newer refrigeration units. They knocked off a few hundred dollars, enough to “really make a difference in being able to expand or replace equipment,” Sarah says. “I didn’t have a big nest egg to start, and that really helped me out when I was getting equipment. It’s a good connection because you’re getting more energy-efficient equipment, and then you’re also saving some money on the other end.”

Like Olive Café, many other businesses around San Diego and South Orange County benefit from SDG&E programs, ranging from the Business Energy Solutions (BES) program, which offers free energy audits for small commercial customers, to the Comprehensive Energy Management Solutions (CEMS) program, which offers cash incentives to help large commercial customers offset the cost of energy-efficient equipment.

Cast-Iron Community

Sarah spent her childhood in upstate New York, around the corner from a deli and a post office that shared the same space. The unlikely bedfellows formed a neighborhood hub, a “little community that everyone would go in and check out – grab their mail, see what’s happening,” she says. “I just really knew I wanted to start something that served breakfast and lunch, to start people off with good coffee, good pastries and good conversation.”

Start something she did. After graduating from the University of San Diego, Sarah worked at her uncle’s bakery in San Diego’s Little Italy by day and an Italian restaurant by night—then eventually took Olive Café over from its previous owner nearly 20 years ago. A few miles removed from the hustle of downtown, the boardwalk community saw enough regulars for Sarah to plug in as a morning institution.

“Community was my whole reason in wanting a café,” she says. “You get to know people. It’s their one outing for the day, and they’ll come and get breakfast with us or come and meet their friends. We have biking groups and walking groups. We have one guy who’s 102 years old, and he still walks in.”