Culinary Ladies of the Eighties: Valerie & Stephanie Schuster
Upper Crust Bakery is a sister act
By Virginia B. Wood,
12:00PM, Wed. Jul. 15, 2015
Austinites Valerie and Stephanie Schuster were raised by a good cook, but lost their mother to cancer before they were 10. The loss bonded them forever over time spent together in the kitchen. Neither of them considers herself a baker, but their Upper Crust Bakery has been one of Austin's most successful outlets for more than 30 years.
Neither of the Schuster sisters attended college. They married young, started families, and then found their careers. "Valerie was always the foodie," Stephanie Schuster recalled recently. "Even when we were kids, she was the one with the culinary inspiration, always interested in trying new things. Valerie was the one who really wanted to open a bakery." Although Valerie Schuster did spend some time working the counter at one of the original Texas French Bread outlets, she had no formal baking training when she founded Upper Crust in 1984.
According to Stephanie, a baker named Carl Davis taught Valerie how to make the laminated doughs necessary for croissants and Danishes. Davis helped Valerie develop much of the original product line and stayed with the company for several years. Though Stephanie always took care of the bookkeeping, she didn't join the bakery full time until about three years into the deal. The bakery thrived, developing a loyal clientele, and expanded into the current location at 4508 Burnet Rd. in the early Nineties.
Though Stephanie is by no means a baker, she is responsible for Upper Crust's most popular pastry. "I noticed we were wasting perfectly good croissant dough trimmings when the bakers cut the croissants, and it bothered me. Something about my Teutonic sense of precision, I guess. Anyway, we started making cinnamon rolls with the croissant dough trimmings and I think we were the first bakery here to do that," she explained.
It wasn't long before there weren't nearly enough scraps to keep up with the demand for those cinnamon rolls and they began to generate the need for their own daily batch of dough. Rich and buttery with a crunchy coating of cinnamon sugar, they would become Upper Crust's signature item, the best selling and most often imitated pastry on their menu.
Although Upper Crust attracts customers from all over the city, it is a well-loved Rosedale neighborhood hangout with some customers so regular the staff refers to their orders by name. In the mid-Nineties, the sisters took over the corner gas station next to the bakery and turned it into a lunch spot with prepared food to take out. The bakery still serves a light lunch, but the 1995 opening of nearby Central Market, with a cafe and chef cases full of prepared food, doomed the takeout food operation almost before it got started. The building now provides storage and office space as well as an extra kitchen during peak seasons.
At some point, Stephanie took over running the bakery full time because Valerie's life took her to Ireland regularly, where her husband, Tim Cookingham, guided bicycle tours for REI. He now owns his own company called Planet Earth Adventures, offering guided bicycle and walking tours in Scotland, Ireland, and Austin and the couple spends part of every year at their home in County Mayo near Kilbride. According to Stephanie, Valerie has a huge and very productive garden, making it possible for her to send such treats as Culros Cottage raspberry preserves to family members and friends here in Austin.
Stephanie credits her longtime staff for the consistency and success of Upper Crust over the past 30 years. Original baker Davis was with the company for year and her current kitchen manager, Brandon Kercheville, and bakers Mike Gerig and Joseph Gurkin all have tenures of multiple years. She says the bakery does a big business in seasonal pies and all their regulars have favorite items, whether it be the seriously chocolatey Black Gold cookies, the sweet Paraguyan cornbread, or luscious slices of Italian cream cake. She admits that her daily treat is a peanut butter-oatmeal-chocolate chip cookie. (I can't stop by there without getting a cinnamon roll and an elephant ear.)
Stephanie reports she's seeing an increase in requests for wedding cakes these days, but says "the process of doing wedding cakes is a lot more complicated. We don't do fondant or sculpting, but if they're looking for a cake with great flavor in our simple style, we're happy to work with them," she assured us.
Based on Stephanie's description of her family, it's obvious the tradition of cooking and spending time together in the kitchen is an important part of the family dynamic, so I asked her if any of the next generation of her family has shown an interest in the business. "The kids certainly spent time at Upper Crust when they were young. Probably enough time to see that it's really hard work," she said with a good laugh.
Considering that the Schuster sister are savvy businesswomen who know good food when they see it, recognize culinary talent when they encounter it, and create a welcoming work environment that supports both things, there's little doubt they'll find the right successor when and if they are ever ready.
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