Peek through the windows of Sun Street Breads any time between two in the morning and two in the afternoon and there's a good chance you'll catch the kerchief-covered proprietress, Solveig Tofte, measuring flour by the bus tub and dumping it into a mixer nearly as big as a Jacuzzi. All through the night and into the early hours, Tofte works her way through a methodical routine. There is dough to be portioned with a plastic scraper, weighed on a digital scale, and shaped. There are scones to be brushed with egg wash and kolache to be filled with poppy seed cream. By the time the shop opens at 6:30 a.m., the last of the cinnamon rolls are just being tossed in sugar, a flock of chickens taking a dust bath.
The bakery's massive ovens display the morning's loaves as if they're jewels in a case. Bright light bulbs create dramatic shadows across the crust's terrain, making each slash look as deep as a canyon. An employee of the neighboring Caribou Coffee bypasses the pastries at her own shop and treats herself to one of Tofte's famous scones. Around 7, a customer requests a loaf of Lunch Box bread, which Tofte pulls straight from the oven. "It's very warm," the woman at the register warns the man, as she slides the loaf into a paper sack. "One-hundred ninety degrees Celsius, to be exact," Tofte adds.
A quick look at Minneapolis's riverfront ruins and you'd think we'd let our city's proud heritage slip away: A relic that was once the world's largest flour mill is now a museum devoted to its history. But a few patient, nocturnal souls like Tofte are building on our city's grain-processing legacy and turning Minneapolis into a veritable baking mecca.
Tofte spent a decade as the head baker for Turtle Bread, which helped establish the city's reputation for the craft, along with places like Rustica, Salty Tart, and, most recently, Patisserie 46. After a test run with a farmers' market stand last summer, Tofte launched a permanent Sun Street with her husband, Martin Ouimet, and named the bakery after a literal translation of her first name in Norwegian (the multitalented Tofte once studied weaving at a Norwegian folk school). True to its title, Sun Street, which sits on a corner of 46th and Nicollet, is a cheery, gleaming space with windows on three sides. The bakery possesses a few artsy touches—pretty handmade tiles on one wall and a colorful, child-pleasing mural on another—but its most salient feature is a spare, open floor plan that offers a direct sightline to the baking operations.
The new business partnership has helped the Tofte/Ouimet family synch up its unconventional schedules. "I go to bed before our six-year-old," Tofte notes. "That's not the case in most households." Ouimet, a onetime web designer who now runs Sun Street's front of the house, is a patient man who will go above and beyond his duties to, say, pick up a tantrum-throwing child's tossed books and crayons. (Customers, in turn, return the hospitality. One day, a small boy arrived at the shop with a fistful of dandelions he'd picked for Ouimet and the Sun Street staff.) When the bakery opens on the weekends, Ouimet will likely arrive with his and Tofte's daughter, who can sometimes be spotted perched on a pile of 50-pound flour sacks, poring over a comic book.
As the morning sun rises higher, Tofte pulls out a tray of rising baguettes and prepares them for the oven. She has a special relationship with France's most iconic loaf, as she was one of three bakers chosen to represent the United States at the 2008 Coupe du Monde de la Boulangerie in Paris, a.k.a. the World Cup of bread and pastry. At the competition, Tofte made 50 identical baguettes, along with five other types of bread, to be assessed by a panel of judges. Her loaves helped Team USA secure an impressive fourth-place showing.
After the international competition, Tofte says, she's been thinking a lot about what it means to be an American baker and how she can take European traditions and mark them with her own vernacular stamp. Following the lead of other regional bakers working with local ingredients, such as mesquite flour and even Coca-Cola, Tofte has been incorporating everything from her house-made granola to beer from Minneapolis-based Harriet Brewing into her loaves. Sun Street's breads are also preservative-free and a good vehicle for whole-grain consumption, proving that wheat bread doesn't have to taste like sawdust and rye loaves need not be dense as bricks.
Part of the secret to Sun Street loaves' nuanced flavors and textures are Tofte's pre-ferments, concoctions of flour, water, and commercial or wild yeast that typically sit and bubble for 12 to 16 hours before being incorporated into a dough. "Any bread baker's goal is to squeeze as much flavor out of the grain as possible," Tofte explains. Sure, her Lunch Box loaf is twice the price of its supermarket kin, but it's a muscular specimen, with substantial heft and nutty flavor, and a sponginess that won't tear under the pressure of a butter-loaded knife.
These exquisite breads, naturally, are the foundation of Sun Street's café offerings. "Desperation dinners around our house typically come between two slices of bread," Tofte jokes. Meals served before 11 a.m. are based on biscuits with a crackling crust, tender crumb, and rich, buttery flavor—they're better than most of the ones served north of the Mason-Dixon Line. The optimal way to eat these biscuits is drowned in the café's feisty sausage gravy, a comforting creaminess spiked with throat-tingling peppercorn bits. For excessively decadent diners, the Southern Fried Biscuit sandwich takes the concept one notch further by adding a chunk of fried chicken and a strip of bacon.
The build-your-own biscuit sandwiches offer various combinations of proteins (sausage, ham, bacon, a surprisingly good vegetarian pinto patty), eggs (scrambled, fried, basted), and cheeses (cheddar, Swiss, jack). But don't feel overwhelmed by all the permutations, as you really can't go wrong. The only combination to skip is a breakfast sandwich dubbed the Royale—a crepe filled with mushrooms, Swiss, and greens tucked into a biscuit—that comes out too heavy on the carbs.
Tofte also bakes an assortment of pastries for those who like to start the day sweet. Stare at the wares long enough and the regulars in line behind you will probably start offering their opinions. They'll point you toward the Downtowners, which are delicate rolls made with cinnamon-dusted croissant dough. While the Downtowners' spiral shape suggests they should be coated in icing, you'll really never miss it. The scones, which also come neighbor-recommended, are equally delicious, especially the ones filled with fresh raspberries and pastry cream that makes for a thick, gooey complement to the pastry's crumbliness. Sun Street's kolache come shaped like inner tubes and are equally buoyant—their soft, chewy frames are almost like glazed doughnuts. From the cookie selection, purists should try the assertive ginger confections that are capable of staying moist for days. Those with kitchen-sink tastes can go with the Crusher, a chocolate chip cookie studded with salty pretzels and bits of sugar cone.
Come lunchtime, the Range sandwich is a satisfying pileup of pulled pork, coleslaw, and arugula on a pillowy hoagie roll, though it could perhaps use an additional condiment that's spicy or sweet. But Tofte's greatest meal achievement is her elevation of America's iconic dull, dry meatloaf into something delightful. Slices of Red River Valley potato flax bread make a robust base for a thick slice of Swedish potato sausage—it's made with pork, beef, potato, onion, and allspice, and baked into a loaf. The meat is slathered with apple butter and fried shallot cream cheese that lend a fabulous sweet, creamy tang. This sandwich makes a whole summer's worth of grilled hamburgers seem obsolete.
Tofte and Ouimet were wise to envision their bakery as a multipurpose business. Customers can experience Sun Street as a breakfast joint, a sandwich counter, or a coffee shop (they brew bright, smooth cups with beans from Dogwood roasters), in combination with a place to conduct grocery shopping. In response to the rise of local eating, there has been a subtle shift in consumer perception of food procurement, and Sun Street is part of that. It's a place where getting your daily bread doesn't feel like a chore but a nourishing social opportunity.