Brioche tarts by John Shelsta: Orange-pistachio with vanilla custard (in front) and berry brioche with vanilla streusel and vanilla custard. (Photo by Nicole Ruiz Hudson)

Shutdown opens unexpected (and delicious) doors for local collaboration

John Shelsta, whose flaky croissants, morning buns and ganache-filled kouign amann have drawn a loyal following for years, has finally found a semi-permanent home for his Love for Butter pop-up.

John Shelsta shows off his baked goods at a pop-up at Zola. (Photo by Nicole Ruiz Hudson)

In the next few weeks, Shelsta will start selling his pastries out of downtown Palo Alto French restaurant Zola on a more regular basis through the end of the year. Zola often hosted his pop-ups in the past; Shelsta knows owner Guillame Bienamé from their time together in the kitchen at the now-closed Marché in Menlo Park.

Shelsta, a self-taught chef who grew up in Menlo Park, has run Love for Butter sporadically for seven years. His resume includes time at Marché and Howie’s Artisan Pizza in Redwood City and an apprenticeship with San Francisco pastry chef Belinda Leong of B. Patisserie. He most recently oversaw pastry at the Michelin-starred Mourad and Aziza in San Francisco.

This spring, though, Shelsta was planning a major life change. He was about to move to his native Korea when the coronavirus hit and upended his plans. During the first week or two of the shutdown, he started getting messages from old customers urging him to bake again. He wasn’t sure that he would.

But the requests kept coming, so he decided to do one pop-up out of Howie’s in Palo Alto for Easter weekend. It quickly sold out. So he did another, and another, and kept building on the menu, adding more pastries, meal kits and a CSA farm box option. He noted that pastries and bread shift easily to takeout, though he’s had to adapt the pop-up to the times. He releases the menu through his newsletter, with online ordering, cashless transactions, scheduled pick-up times and social distancing reminders.

Shelsta in the kitchen [upper right] and a selection of baked goods he sells at his Love for Butter pop-up: A tray of Shelsta’s kouign amann (pronounced QUEEN-ah-mahn) — flaky, crusty cakes with assorted fillings [upper left]; Shelsta’s very photogenic banana cream pie [lower left]; and the bostock (at center of lower right), one of Shelsta’s favorite items–“It’s like glorified French toast.” (Photos by Nicole Ruiz Hudson & Michelle Le)

The grateful, sometimes emotional responses he’s received from customers pushed him to keep baking, Shelsta said.

“For that two, three, four minutes of interaction we had, it was a little bit of normalcy for everyone,” he said. “Even finding food has been a stressful point for people. Bread and pastry is something completely different. It’s a complete indulgence.

“It really has been a form of comfort and a little bit of happiness and way to disconnect from what’s going on,” he added.

The shutdown has opened unexpected doors for Shelsta, who said he’s working on collaborations with local restaurants and chefs (many of whom are out of work due to the shutdown). He sees community-driven partnerships as one key piece to the puzzle of restaurant recovery post-COVID-19.

“I do believe the only way right now that restaurants and small businesses are going to be able to survive is if we really come together and … figure out what the community needs,” he said. “By supporting each other, it will help us all weather this storm.”

Customers have asked Shelsta to open a brick-and-mortar bakery for years, but he’s been careful — even wary — of growing too fast. For him, subletting from Zola for six months is a safer investment than signing onto a costly, long-term lease for a full space. The restaurant space, which he’ll have in the mornings, will also allow him to expand his offerings. (An egg McMuffin-esque breakfast sandwich on a sourdough English muffin and Korean fried chicken sandwich are in his, and our, future.)

Shelsta’s chocolate chunk-toffee cookies. (Photo by Nicole Ruiz Hudson)

“It’s just a very unique time for the pop-up and the potential moving forward,” he said. “The world’s telling me that I’ve just got to give this a shot and go for it.”

While he waits for all of his baking equipment to arrive at Zola, Shelsta will be selling smaller quantities of pastries over the next month or so. On Monday, for example, he offered kouign amann, banana fosters bread, Valrhona chocolate toffee cookies and a brioche tart filled with goat fromage blanc, strawberry, spiced pistachios and nasturtium.

To stay in the loop about these sales and Shelsta’s schedule at Zola, email [email protected] for his newsletter or follow his Instagram.

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Elena Kadvany

A writer with a passion for investigative reporting, telling untold stories and public-service journalism, I have built my career covering education and restaurants in the Bay Area. My blog and biweekly newsletter, Peninsula Foodist, is the go-to source for restaurant news in Silicon Valley. My work has been published in The Guardian, Eater, Bon Appetit’s Healthyish, SF Weekly and The Six Fifty.

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