About 11 years ago, I gave up sugar and simple carbohydrates, especially bread, in a quest to lose 55 pounds. Well, thanks to Louise Ulrich, the co-owner of Oat Bakery at 5 West Haley Street, I’ve returned to indulging every morning on her incredibly delicious bread for the past year.
“Good bread is a healthy source of fiber,” says Louise, who just won one of this newspaper’s Foodie Awards, which will be presented on Wednesday, September 4, 5:30 p.m. at Modern Times. “It’s not a bad thing that people need to eliminate from their diet.”
The base for the Oat Bakery’s organic bread is seeds and oats, considered “superfood” ingredients, and many of the options are gluten-free. Try their Superseed Gluten Free bread made with oats, organic carrots, pumpkin seeds, flax, and chia seeds. It’s my daily staple, topped with avocado and heirloom tomatoes.
Louise is another one of Santa Barbara’s extraordinary immigrant success stories. She was born and raised in Copenhagen, Denmark. At 10 years old, she started doing large-scale abstract paintings and sold enough of them to pay for her college education. She came to the United States to study at the Miami Ad School from 2014 to 2016.
That’s when she met Lou Fontana, who would become her husband and business partner at the bakery. They met at a bar three hours before he was to leave on a four-month trip around the world to produce a promotional video for a cruise line. “We talked every day for the four months he was gone,” recalls Louise.
When Lou returned, he traveled with Louise to Copenhagen to meet her family. That’s when he tried her mom’s bread. “He’d never had a bread like that,” she states. Lou told her mom, Else, that she had to teach Louise how to bake the bread so she could make it for him in the United States.
Else had been a professional athlete, so she created her own recipes to gain energy but not get bloated. She wanted to put things in her body that would not weigh her down. “The quality of food in Denmark is very high,” Louise explains. “We bake 100 percent organic at the bakery.”
After moving to the United States with Lou in 2017, Louise learned how to bake from her mom via Facetime, which allowed them to bake together. Soon after, Scott Walker and Erin Gomez from the Juice Ranch tried her bread and asked her to sell at their location. They started baking at home under a cottage license, and sold out their first delivery in two hours.
“Our oven was on from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m.,” recalls Louise. “Two months after baking out of house, we understood what we had. Eventually our oven broke. That’s when we found our location.”
The base bread recipes are her mom’s, but Louise encourages her staff to create new recipes as well. That’s how one of their top sellers was born: the Hygge Bun, a scrumptious creation that gets its sweetness from dates and coconut oil. “Whatever we make is a healthy choice,” she states. When I ask her about the name “Hygge,” she responds, “It’s Danish word to describe the feeling of being cozy and comfortable. Coziness, love — it’s like a hug.”
Both Louise and Lou were surprised by their quick success. “It’s amazing,” she confesses. “We were both artists. It snowballed, and two years later, it’s crazy to see how successful we’ve become and how this community supports us.” They’ve already outgrown their 500-square-foot facility and are currently looking for a new location and looking to grow. A lot of our customers are from Los Angeles.
Louise continues to paint; her art is featured at the Blue Door in the Funk Zone. Before leaving, I asked her if it was difficult to get used to living in the U.S. “Europeans are very independent from a very early age,” she quickly responds, but then she starts to reflect. “Before we started the bakery, I felt I was living in Lou’s world. Starting this bakery has made me feel part of something, and made me feel this is my home.”
Louise Ulrich answers the Proust Questionnaire.
Who do you most admire?
My mom! She is everything I hope to be and she’s also what inspired us to start Oat Bakery. The bread we bake is bread I grew up eating everyday in Denmark. She has always been incredibly strong, warm, kind, and loving and those are some of the qualities I value most in people.
Which historical figure do you most identify with?
That’s a good question haha. Maybe Julia Child? Ever since I was little, my favorite thing has been to cook with my dad. I love being in a kitchen. And I love to eat.
What do you like most about your job?
Creating new recipes! It’s when we get to be creative and work together as a team to try to make the best new breads. We just experimented with new recipes today! It keeps things fun and exciting.
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
Summertime! Waking up with the sun in your face and being around people you love and that makes you laugh. Being in nature, eating good food and drinking a good bottle of wine. That’s what we call “hygge” in Danish.
What is your greatest fear?
Spiders? Also, I’m terrified to look in the mirror in the middle of the night. Too many scary movies.
What is your greatest extravagance?
Eating good food and traveling!
What is your current state of mind?
A little stressed, haha. Tuesday’s are busy at the bakery!
What is the quality you most like in people?
Kindness, honesty, openness, and being able to laugh at yourself and not take life too serious.
What is the quality you most dislike in people?
Arrogance and laziness.
What do you most value in friends?
Loyalty, humor, and effort.
What is your most marked characteristic?
Warmth and kindness. I love making people feel welcome and comfortable.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
“Amazing!” I say that word all the time.
Which talent would you most like to have?
I’ve always wanted to become a writer.
If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?
Because I’m so busy, I’m not always good at texting people back. I definitely wanna get better at that. And to stop worrying so much!! Life is good.
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
Opening up Oat Bakery with my husband, Lou. I’m very proud of that!
Where would you most like to live?
If I didn’t live in Santa Barbara, I would live in Copenhagen. Or Spain. I’ve always loved Spain!
What is your most treasured possession?
Family. And handwritten cards. I save every single one.
Who makes you laugh the most?
My husband is really funny! He always makes me laugh till my cheeks hurt. And my dad and sister are hilarious, especially when they’re in a room together. Makes me miss them.
What is your motto?
Do what you love and what makes you happy. Otherwise, why keep doing it?
On what occasion do you lie?
I don’t really think I lie a lot. Maybe sometimes to save someone’s feelings from getting hurt.