by Jesse Hirsch
Let’s get this out of the way: Mani Niall was Michael Jackson’s personal chef for a few years in the ‘80s. It wasn’t a career-defining moment, and his other accomplishments have been a lot more substantive — starting an iconic artisan bakery, blazing trails for restricted-diet eaters, writing three cookbooks, etc. But if the King of Pop gets his name out there, he’s not complaining.
For the last six years Niall kept a modest public profile as executive chef at Just Desserts, the San Francisco-based wholesale bakery with a huge facility near the Oakland Airport. But now that he’s opening Sweet Bar Bakery in Uptown, Niall wants you to remember his name. “At this point the Michael Jackson thing is kind of like ‘Who cares?,’” he said. “But I like how it gets people talking.”
In Southern California, Niall would need no introduction. In 1990 he started Mani’s Bakery, an organic LA patisserie that gained wide notice for catering to emergent dietary trends. Celebs (Danny DeVito, Ringo Starr, Jamie Lee Curtis) flocked to Mani’s for his vegan and wheat-free baking, back before everyone was doing it.
Niall eventually burnt out, moving to the Bay and becoming a product developer. He was drawn to Just Desserts by the allure of a consistent paycheck and benefits, but two years ago he got itchy to run his own business again. For months, Niall closely watched the struggling Mimosa Champagne Lounge on Broadway and 24th. When he got the text message “It closed,” he pounced on the space.
Running 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., Niall has a layered plan for Sweet Bar: coffee and baked goods in the morning; sandwiches for the lunchtime worker bees; and beer and wine served late. His baked goods will focus on the sweet (“more pasteleria than panaderia”), with extra love for vegans and gluten-free dieters.
The next step is for Niall to close out his Kickstarter campaign. With only a week left, he’s looking to raise $13,000 with a bunch of sweet donor perks: a muffin bearing your name, private cooking lessons, etc. Sweet Bar won’t open until this summer, but Niall may host some pre-opening pop-ups to build the hype.
Comments? Tips? Get in touch at Jesse.Hirsch@EastBayExpress.com.