You remember Gourmet Gulch, right? That stretch of Fair Oaks Boulevard from Howe Avenue to Munroe Street, so named because of its menu of then-iconic restaurants. Places such as Wulff’s, Mace’s, Mitchell’s, Lautrec, Amadeus, Moveable Feast and Fish Emporium.
All are memories, but the bakery among them is still there and flourishing like never before. Ettore’s European Bakery & Restaurant celebrates its 30th anniversary today. How is that possible?
“I needed to make a living, so I just continued working,” said Ettore Ravazzolo, offering a typically simple answer to a difficult question. After all, he has touched the lives of multiple generations of Sacramentans through his pastry art, and holds a place among the city’s culinary elite, a group that includes Darrell Corti, Biba Caggiano, Patrick Mulvaney and Mai Pham.
Recently, Ettore and his wife, Meggan Rush-Ravazzolo, the company vice president, took time to talk in the bakery’s private dining room (“We call this our ‘living room,’” Meggan said).
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Meanwhile, in the dining area itself, customers maneuvered to place their orders and find tables, soon chatting and munching on salads and sandwiches, crusty scones and luscious danish. Servers weaved in and out, delivering plates of chicken salad and bowls of soup. People lingered in front of showcases filled with cakes that look like the crowns of queens, and pastries that glisten like jewels.
Over here was a cluster of Lunch Ladies in designer dresses and heavy bling, regulars for years. Over there were businessmen in ties scanning newspapers and surrounded by 20-something couples more intent on each other than their quiches.
The Swiss-born Ettore, 63, is a vibrant presence, seemingly much taller than 6 feet. He speaks with a pronounced accent, chooses his words carefully and illuminates a room with an occasional smile. His aura is mostly one of focus and seriousness, as though he wears the weight of the past 30 years along with his white baker’s jacket.
“My biggest responsibility is not making pastries,” Ettore said, though he’s best known for his exquisite cakes. “It’s keeping a business that contributes to the success of Sacramento.”
Yet he prefers to go about it mostly under the radar. For instance, in the spirit of “giving back to the community,” he quietly donates to causes and groups that range from the Youth Development Network to school sports programs. It was Ettore and Meggan who recently gave $30,000 to sponsor the baking lab at American River College’s newly built culinary school facility.
Ettore has touched lives in more subtle ways, too. For instance, on at least three occasions the families of loved ones in hospice care have reached out to the bakery. They explained that among their relatives’ last wishes was to have one more taste of Ettore’s baked goods – in those cases, the cinnamon roll, blueberry scone and chocolate mousse cake. Ettore and Meggan were moved and gladly complied.
First stop, Sacramento
Ettore’s story is the classic American Dream fulfilled. At age 16, he began a three-year apprenticeship at the Hofer Bakery in Zurich, living in a small upstairs room of the owner’s house. At 19, he joined the Swiss army and served as a chef, later taking jobs in bakeries around Switzerland. All along, he had his eye on the prize.
“We believed America was the land of opportunity,” he said. “The image we had as teenagers was you go to America to become successful, because we saw on TV that people had big homes and big cars there. A month after I arrived (in the U.S. in 1977 at age 26), I knew I wanted my own business. I soon learned you need money to do that, but you don’t make a lot of money as a pastry chef.”
Ettore beelined to Sacramento as his first stop because a friend here owned the three-store Eclair bakery, where the newcomer worked for a year while improving his English. Then he left for a series of jobs in Florida, Georgia, Missouri and Texas. “I was always traveling around, working here for a half-year and there for a year,” he said.
In 1983 he returned to Sacramento to run his friend’s Viva Croissant bakery (on the same site as the current bakery) and because he felt a connection to the city (“John Sutter was Swiss and he founded Sacramento”).
“I worked for an absentee owner and treated (the bakery) as my own,” he said. “I had no experience, but I had (baking) skills, a good work ethic (of 100-hour weeks) and honesty.”
Ettore bought the bakery in 1985 – the owner financed the deal – and hired two high school students as part-time employees. “I was driven,” he recalled. “I had the (mental) image of taking an opportunity and making it into a success. There was a lot of luck and a lot of mistakes, but I (focused) on the dream of entrepreneurship. I would achieve one goal and say, ‘What is next for me?’”
Ultimately, Ettore quintupled the original 1,180-square-foot croissant bakery into the landmark it is today. (He opened a bakery in Folsom in 2002, which closed in 2007.)
All the baking, cooking and catering were done on-site – elegant wedding cakes remain a vital part of the operation – but the burden on the kitchen became so great that Ettore set up a nearby 5,100-square-foot production facility in 2012. Among other items, that’s where thousands of cakes are baked to supply the nine-store Nugget Market chain, a deal Ettore brokered with Nugget CEO Eric Stille that same year.
Inside the facility are 10-kilo bags of Belgian chocolate, sacks of flour and sugar, huge tubs of butter, cake batter in giant mixers, and racks of pastry shells for fruit tarts. While one baker assembled the parts for caramel-pecan cheesecakes, another artfully constructed a wedding cake.
“Ettore is like a mad scientist when he works, and everybody thinks he’s in the kitchen making everything himself,” Meggan said. “But we have 85 employees between the bakery-restaurant and the production facility.”
‘Love in the mix’
Ettore and Meggan are very much a team in the business. Her day-to-day hands-on duties as vice president (“If you drop it, I pick it up”) include marketing and overseeing the Nugget account. She studied acting at UCLA and has “25 years in the restaurant industry, from dishwashing to management.”
They met in 2004 when she was an associate producer-writer for Channel 31’s long-gone “Good Evening, Sacramento,” and doing on-air reporting for News10.
“The (‘Good Evening’) anchor called in sick and I was the only one in the newsroom,” Meggan recalled. “The director said, ‘Go out and interview Ettore. Don’t try to be funny.’
“I got there and Ettore was absolutely engaging,” she said. “After the shoot he said, ‘What you do is so interesting, I want to learn more. Can I take you to lunch?’ I said, ‘I do like lunch, but I like dinner better ... .’ We were married two years later. He swept me away from the glamour of TV into the restaurant industry, where I can now fix the toilet with the best of them. I always tease Ettore that I wasn’t sure if I was going to marry him or not, until I had his petit fours. There’s love in the mix.”
Ettore has made an indelible mark on Sacramento by not compromising his art. Or, at least, not compromising it by much.
“I don’t want to produce what everybody else produces,” he insisted. “I want to make things that are new and exciting, but you do have to change (for) new customers with different tastes.
“I brought something to Sacramento that people never saw before, but that can be a handicap,” he said. “When I created my first pastries here, people asked, ‘What are those?’ and wouldn’t buy them. I’m proud that I (eventually) educated Sacramento.”
For years, Ettore stubbornly refused to make chocolate chip cookies because every other bakery sold them (he later developed a special recipe and the bakery now stocks “chocolate chunk” cookies). Another “mistake” involved pumpkin pie, a seasonal American staple he wouldn’t go near.
“Instead, I made a European apple tart and a pumpkin cheesecake that nobody else had, but people wanted pumpkin pie,” he recalled somewhat ruefully. “When I found out that other bakeries were selling (hundreds of them during the holidays), I started making them, but that was after 10 years in business.”
There has been talk about Ettore opening another bakery or establishing a mail-order business. Any plans?
“I would love to look in that direction, but I want to take it a little easier,” he said after a pause. “I need to (figure out) how this business can flourish for the next 30 years and who will take the lead. So I look to my own family. (Meggan) could be part of taking over if we go in that direction.”
Ettore has two sons from his first marriage. Harrison, 21, and Riley, 18, a high school senior. Ettore and Meggan have one son from their marriage, Lucas, 7.
“All three boys have been and will be raised in the family business,” Meggan said. “We would love if any of them chose to have their careers at Ettore’s, but they are encouraged to choose their own paths in life.”
Harrison is now working in a bakery in Switzerland “so he will understand where I come from,” Ettore said. “I’ve offered him to be part of my business, but there is no real plan to make that happen. At least it could be something to look into.”
Meanwhile, Meggan has an agenda of her own. “I want to expand Ettore’s presence and work with different fingers of the community,” she said. “My goal is to continue Ettore’s legacy. ... We might go into a second and even a third location, using Ettore’s recipes for everything we make.”
It’s been a long ride for Ettore. Looking back, what are his thoughts?
“I still remember the first day, and now it’s been 30 years. How did it happen so quickly?” he said in a voice rising in incredulity. “It feels unreal. I’m proud of the business, but I (have to) credit my loyal employees and good friends. It’s just nice to know I’ve achieved something in a town I love.”
Call The Bee’s Allen Pierleoni, (916) 321-1128. Follow him on Twitter @apierleonisacbe.
Ettore’s European Bakery & Restaurant
2376 Fair Oaks Blvd., Sacramento
(916) 482-0708; www.ettores.com
Hours: 6 a.m.-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 6 a.m.-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays; 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Sundays; brunch is 7 a.m.-2 p.m. Sundays.