There's a friendly new bakery — and a new career for its owner — near Seattle University.
A warm welcome, literally, is the first greeting you’ll get at Sémillon Bakery & Café on First Hill. Before you even fully walk inside, the sweet, intoxicating scent of freshly baked breads and pastries tickle your nose, beckoning you in through the propped-open door, before enveloping you in a warm hug.
The second is a smile and hello from owner Debbie Nam. She’s there working 12, 13, sometimes 16 hours a day, five days a week, baking each morning, attending to customers and running the ins and outs of a young business.
With kind eyes and an easy laugh, she seems completely at ease in this space. But get to chatting, and you’ll find that she’s almost as new to the food industry as Sémillon is to the neighborhood. After 17 years working as an IT project manager, she realized her heart wasn’t in it, and decided to pursue a longtime passion: baking.
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It’s something she’s done all her life, she said, mostly for her family and friends. She’d taken baking classes here and there, but none with any formal certification. Since moving to Seattle five years ago, she also worked at a couple bakeries in the area. And then, having found this space (formerly Inès Pâtisserie) for sale, she went all-in to run one of her own. In November, Sémillon, named after a wine she and her husband love, opened for business.
She loves the baking part, she said. It’s the business part that’s challenging.
“The flavor of owning a business versus managing a project is quite different because it’s my own financials,” she said with a laugh. “A little more emotional, I think.”
Currently, she is the bakery’s only full-time employee. A couple part-time employees help out, and she’s hoping to hire one more — our interview went on pause when she had to go make a mocha for a customer — to help ease the workload and free her up to go home to her two kids and husband earlier in the day.
“That’s one of the challenges I think when you own a business,” she said. “You just can’t leave, because you’re the owner, they depend on you, and I just want to make sure everything is done.
“I need to trust my employees a little bit more I think.”
While the long hours can be tough, particularly when it means time away from family, interacting with customers and seeing their reactions to her food, she says, is really gratifying.
“I like to see the customer faces when they smile and really are enjoying what they’re eating,” she said.
The pretty bakery space, she said, also helps. And it’s true — tall, nearly floor-to-ceiling windows take up two sides of the bakery, letting in ample daylight. French cafe music plays in the background. Small, blue Glassybaby-esque glasses hold dainty little purple flowers on each table, adding to the charm.
Customers seem at ease here, too. On two recent mornings, many made their pastry and beverage orders for-here, reminiscent of French cafe culture, where one might lounge watching the city pass one by, or enjoy a coffee and croissant in good company. And one friend, who first told me about the bakery, stressed how welcoming and comfortable the space feels to her, as a woman of color, as compared to some other cafes around the city.
Nam, when asked if that’s something she thinks about, said she simply strives to make this a welcoming place for everyone.
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“I like to treat everybody the same, whether you’re a construction worker working on that building, or you’re a professor from Seattle U,” she said. “I think everybody has the same heart, and they’re spending the same amount of money here.”
The menu: French classics are the main features here — croissants, brioches, fruit tarts and macarons are some of the pastries offered. Savory dishes include quiches, croque monsieurs and madames, crepes and baguette sandwiches, as well as salads and a soup of the day.
But Nam doesn’t feel limited to French pastries. “I decided to just go with the theme because most of it is French — it’s French-influenced, but I don’t want to say it’s a French bakery, because I do scones, I’m going to do pizza, like a flatbread.”
She also hopes to introduce pastries with East Asian influences eventually (Nam herself is Korean). Be on the lookout for shaved ice this summer, too.
Besides food, the bakery also serves caffeinated drinks and a selection of wines from France and Chile.
Don’t miss: A classic croissant, whose recipe comes from the previous owner of Inès Pâtisserie (though Nam plans to introduce her own recipe soon) was a beautiful, deep-gold crisp on the outside and soft on the inside. Our resident croissant expert gave his stamp of approval, saying that in addition to the flavor and texture, it also had about the right “honeycomb” design inside. The brioche with fruit was also very tasty — the pillow of a brioche topped with sweet pastry cream was balanced with a surprise tang from the raspberries on top.
Skip: The ham, egg and gruyere crepe, while good, was $14 before tax and tip, and not terribly filling. Other savory dishes are similarly priced. Personally, I’d save those dollars for the sweet treats.
Prices: A ham, egg and gruyere crepe ($14), croissant ($4), chocolate croissant ($4.50), apple turnover ($5.50) and brioche with fruit ($4) amounted to $32 before tax and tip.
Sémillon Bakery & Café
French-influenced; 1150 11th Ave., (First Hill) Seattle; 206-432-9064; semillonbakerycafe.com; open Tuesdays 9 a.m.-3 p.m., Wednesdays-Thursdays 8 a.m.-5 p.m., Fridays-Saturdays 8 a.m.-7 p.m., Sundays 9 a.m.-5 p.m.