How one mom’s search to help her daughter grew into a sweet new gluten-free bakery in Pacifica

Coffee on the Coast: Saltwater Bakery owner Tawnya Marsh. (Photo by Charles Russo)

What do sweat, tears, the ocean and a gluten-free bakery have in common? Salt and water.

Tawnya Marsh, founder of Pacifica’s Saltwater Bakery, says the name is no coincidence— she’s poured a lot of sweat and tears into opening the bakery, which, on clear days, offers vistas of the ocean from its Palmetto Avenue storefront.

Specializing in gluten-free and vegan fare, Saltwater held its soft launch in December and has tended to sell out of its baked goods on a nearly daily basis ever since. For Marsh, the bakery is the culmination of a journey that started roughly eight years ago.

Back then, she was simply a mom looking for a way to help her finicky toddler, Sunny, overcome her digestive problems. Looking to a range of doctors for answers, she said, she tried everything to help her baby. She claims it wasn’t until she eliminated gluten, dairy, soy, artificial foods and non-organic fruits and vegetables from Sunny’s diet that her daughter’s health improved.

An assortment of the daily baked goods at Saltwater: (clockwise from top left) blueberry muffins; the (vegan) Girlfriend Cookie—sugar, gluten free oats and vanilla; fresh baked bread from Rosalind Bakery in Pacifica; and pumpkin bread. (Photos by Charles Russo, Pumpkin Bread via Saltwater Bakery’s Instagram)

Committing to eliminating those foods in the long-term, of course, meant a lot more work for her when it came to preparing food for her family. Cooking meals became a daily game of Iron Chef, concocting dishes with a limited set of ingredients, and seeking out others that boasted anti-viral or anti-inflammatory characteristics. For about three years, she said, her daughter only ate what she cooked. They didn’t eat anything out of a box or from restaurants.

Baking in particular was something Marsh enjoyed. She says she learned from her mom to see baking as a way of showing love. Growing up in Southern California, she recalled that her mom would often have cookies or coffee cake waiting for her and her brother when they came home.

But when it came to fusing the two — using wholesome, gluten-free ingredients for her baking—Marsh had to do some experimenting.

Pacifica’s raccoons must be dumb: a pair of Marsh’s gluten-free donuts. (Via Saltwater Bakery’s Instagram)

“It took me, like, a year to get the donuts right,” she says. Marsh tossed out so many failed batches that she likes to joke that the neighborhood raccoons were sick of them.

Comfortable with her gluten-free recipes, she’s also working on expanding her vegan recipe repertoire. But if something tastes worse without eggs, for instance, she says, “I’m not going to just put it out there to be vegan.” (The bakery currently offers several vegan options.)

Later, when she started sending her daughter to school with her wholesome treats, other moms took note. The mother of another kid in her daughter’s class, started buying her banana bread for her son because it was only “one of three things that he would eat in the whole world,” Marsh says.

One of Saltwater’s Campfire lattes, made with cacao, maca, honey, almond milk and smoked sea salt (and in this case, one shot of espresso). (Photo by Charles Russo)

Next, she decided to launch a commercial enterprise for her baked goods, as a wholesale baker for local cafes — operating costs are minimal, which is why many nascent bakeries start this way, she says. She started baking for CoffeeShop, a cafe in San Francisco’s Mission District. Since then, she has expanded to Pinhole Coffee in Bernal Heights and occasionally Ritual Coffee Roasters on Valencia Street, among others. Up until several months ago, she also worked in San Francisco as a bartender on weekends. The gig gave her flexibility during the week to build her baking enterprise, but little free time.

As a Pacifica resident, she says she initially sought out the shop space mainly for the kitchen, but then decided to turn it into a storefront too.

“If I’m going to be here baking, I might as well open up and serve coffee,” she says.

The building was in bad shape, but over the course of about four months, she was able to refurbish the site. Marsh figured out how to navigate the health department with help from Sunny’s dad, and used YouTube to learn how to do the plumbing work.

Tawnya Marsh’s nine-year-old daughter Sunny. (Via Saltwater Bakery’s Instagram)

She also started her business in Pacifica because she noticed the dearth of gluten-free options in town, she says. For gluten-free families, she notes, visiting traditional bakeries isn’t much fun, since kids can usually only pick from one or two of the offerings.

“I think when you’re gluten-free, you seek stuff out,” she says, noting that she used to drive 45 minutes to a bakery to give her daughter the chance to pick from a full shelf of gluten-free pastry options.

At her bakery, she says, “I get to see parents do that with their kids now.”

If you go….

A Harvest Moon latte at Saltwater Bakery. (Photo by Charles Russo)

Saltwater Bakery,1905 Palmetto Ave., Pacifica, CA 94044, (415) 637–8946.

Open Wednesdays through Fridays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturdays and Sundays from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. and closed Mondays and Tuesdays. Inventory may sell out before closing time.

Marsh recommends her coffee-free wellness lattes, which come in two flavors, Campfire and Harvest Moon. The Campfire latte contains cacao, maca, honey, almond milk and smoked sea salt, among other ingredients. The Harvest Moon latte contains turmeric, ginger, almond milk, honey and coconut oil. The donuts are also quite popular, she says.

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw

Kate Bradshaw reports food news and feature stories all over the Peninsula, from south of San Francisco to north of San José. Since she began working with Embarcadero Media in 2015, she's reported on everything from Menlo Park's City Hall politics to Mountain View's education system. She has won awards from the California News Publishers Association for her coverage of local government, elections and land use reporting.

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