EXCLUSIVE: Familiar Austin faces buy Sweetish Hill, announce plans for bakery’s future

A new school titan of the Austin restaurant world is taking over an old-school classic. The McGuire Moorman Hospitality group has purchased beloved Clarksville-area Sweetish Hill Bakery (1120 W. Sixth St.) from Jim Murphy, with the sale slated to close in early September.

Sweetish Hill Bakery was founded in 1975. (Mark Matson FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN)

The owners of Jeffrey’s, Clark’s, Perla’s (and more) will close the doors for remodeling on September 8 and plan to fully reopen by Christmas under the moniker Swedish Hill Bakery Cafe & Deli. The new spelling is a slight rebrand and nod to the Swede’s Hill neighborhood where Patricia Bauer-Slate and Tom Neuhaus originally opened the business at 14th and Waller streets in 1975.

The new Swedish Hill will serve as the bakery for all seven of MMH’s Austin-area restaurants and also operate a retail bakery offering savory and sweet items, a wine bar, and deli serving prepared foods and made-to-order sandwiches. There are also plans to serve bagels and smoked fish spreads (initially probably only on weekends). And, yes, there will still be three dozen parking spaces on site. 

MMH co-founder and native Austinite Larry McGuire points to the business models and offerings of Gjelina in Los Angeles and Russ & Daughters in New York City as inspirations for the concept that will expand on the bakery that Jim Murphy has owned,initially with Bauer-Slate, since 1990.

McGuire, who grew up in the Travis Heights neighborhood and has fond memories of his family buying Italian cream cakes from Sweetish Hill for birthdays, said his business needed a centralized bakery for its wide assortment of baked goods and that purchasing Sweetish Hill and the land on which it sits would allow them to help preserve a bit of Austin and what makes the city cool.

“If we didn’t buy it, somebody was gonna build an apartment complex,” McGuire said.

The bakery, which will bake the San Francisco-style sourdough for Clark’s, the laminated doughs and baguettes for Elizabeth Street Cafe and much more, will be under the direction of chefs and MMH partners Alex Manley and Jennifer Tucker.

Sweetish Hill co-founder Patricia Bauer-Slate and Jim Murphy at Sweetish Hill Bakery in 2005. Mark Matson FOR AMERICAN-STATESMAN

After baking in Houston and New York City, Murphy returned to Austin and became the bakery manager at Sweetish Hill in 1988 and a partner in 1990. The bakery, which relocated to the current Clark’s space on West Sixth street in the late 70s, moved across the street to its current location in 1991. Murphy, who helped found the Bread Bakers Guild of America in the 90s, bought out Bauer-Slate’s interest about 10 years ago.

After more than 40 years of keeping baker’s hours, trying to stay afloat in an increasingly expensive city while catering to an aging customer base, and paying fair wages and keeping prices affordable, Murphy said he is ready for a change.

“It’s something we’ve worked hard it. It’s a tough business. It’s a people business. You have to really like it,” Murphy said. “Ultimately, I’m a baker first. And I think the bakery business all over the world is evolving more and more to restaurants and cafes. I don’t want to be in the restaurant business.”

Friendly neighborhood service and cakes like their legendary Dutch chocolate and the fruit-filled holiday cakes have made Murphy and Sweetish Hill a Clarksville-area institutions for decades. And as word has leaked out in recent weeks, many longtime customers have come by the bakery to say thank you to Murphy and pay their respects.  

“It’s just been great to have such loyal customers,” Murphy said.

While he is ready for the change of pace, and to get out from under the soaring property taxes, Murphy, who took about a month to come around to the idea of selling, admits he still has brief moments of doubt.

“Some days I almost wake up with a panic attack, thinking, ‘Gah, what am i doing?’” Murphy said.

What he’ll be doing in the future is consulting, working on projects and maybe teaching classes as Barton Springs Mill. He’ll also help the MMH team get the bakery up and running once construction, which includes expanding into the adjacent Pause & Imagine dress shop, is completed.

Murphy, who along with his partners has always been steadfast about sourcing locally, avoiding trans fats and using unbleached flour, felt it was important that the brand he and Bauer-Slate worked so hard to cultivate remain in good hands. And he believes that McGuire Moorman will honor their legacy.

This is not MMH’s first time to take over a historic brand and space. The company known for its keen attention to detail and stunning aesthetics and branding revamped 80s and 90s icon Jeffrey’s in 2013. McGuire sees his role in taking over the popular neighborhood bakery in the same light, and appreciates the responsibility of polishing a classic brand and carrying it into the future.

“I’ve been through this a bunch before; it’s a valid concern,” McGuire said of people worried about losing their favorite bakery. “We’re trying to open the best thing we can open. My job is to set them up for the next 30 or 40 years. That’s our goal.”