Making It in the Bay

Sugar, Spice and Civil Rights: The Beloved Bakery Run by San Mateo's First Black Mayor

Claire's Crunch Cake has an impeccable five-star rating — and an owner who's spent a lifetime speaking out for San Mateo's communities of color

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What to Know

  • Claire Mack, born in San Mateo, now runs a bakery out of the house she's lived in since she was 17 years old
  • Mack comes from a family of activists, and got involved in local politics when a public housing plan threatened to raze her neighborhood
  • Crunch cake was invented in San Francisco and first served at the Blum's bakery chain before its demise in the 1970s

On a quiet, residential street in San Mateo, a house with a perfectly-manicured lawn boasts a bright yellow sign in the front yard that reads, "Claire's Crunch Cake."

"I didn't realize that it was from her home, so that was a surprise," remarked first-time customer Anh Nguyen, who simply drove to the address listed on Yelp. "Everyone seems to love it, and it has a five-star rating."

A man leaves a house holding a bakery box with a cake in it. A sign in front of the house reads "Claires Crunch Cake"
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
A customer leaves Claire's Crunch Cake, which operates out of the house where owner and baker Claire Mack has lived since she was 17 years old.

But to those who know its history, the bakery's stellar ratings aren't its biggest mark of success. In fact, its owner might tell you her greatest achievement is the fact that the house is still standing at all.

"What they wanted to do was tear down all of the housing for about a mile going south, and put up low-income housing similar to that of Hunters Point," Claire Mack said, referring to the San Francisco neighborhood where dense public housing projects built in the mid-20th century still stand, many of them in disrepair.

"We already know how to build slums," Mack said. "Let's not do that in San Mateo. And I think that's where my activism really got started."

An African-American woman with short hair and glasses intervews the Rev. Jesse Jackson in a television studio against a backdrop that depicts the Bay Bridge
Courtesy: Claire Mack
In this photo displayed in Claire Mack's house, Mack conducts a television interview with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Mack succeeded in protecting the neighborhood where she grew up, got married and became a homeowner, but the experience seemed to put her on an unstoppable path. To hear her tell it, she was on that path all along.

"My dad was an activist," she said. "I also learned before my grandmother died that she picketed the movie, 'Birth of a Nation.' It's in my blood!"

It was that first taste of activism, fighting for a neighborhood populated mostly by families of color, that Mack said inspired her to begin hosting public affairs programs on radio and television, and ultimately to run for office. She was elected to the San Mateo City Council in 1991, and served three terms as the city's first Black mayor during her 12 years in office.

Campaign poster with the words "Claire Mack, City Council, A Change for Better"
Courtesy: Claire Mack
Claire Mack ran for San Mateo City Council and was elected in 1991. She served until 2004, including three terms as the city's first Black mayor.

But alongside her passion for policy reform, Mack has long been enthusiastic about something else: a once-famous and now-elusive Bay Area dessert known as crunch cake.

"The original cake was made by a German chef from Blum's in San Francisco," she said.

Folklore told of a pastry cook who inadvertently boiled a batch of soft candy until it was hard as a rock, prompting the chef to smash it with a hammer and repurpose the crumbled candy as a cake topping.

A historical photo of Blum's bakery in the Macy's building in San Francisco's Union Square
Crunch cake is said to have been invented in this Blum's bakery, located in the Macy's building on San Francisco's Union Square until the chain faded away in the 1970s.

"It's called honeycomb, and a lot of people love it," Mack said. "It's similar to a molasses chip."

Crunch cake became a staple of special occasions in the Mack household. But even in the 1970s, actually obtaining that cake brought Claire Mack face to face with an unpleasant reality.

"Blum's (had a store) here in San Mateo," she said. "We never went in to eat. We would only go to buy. I'm not sure we were welcome. And I'm pretty sure we were not welcome. ... Black people weren't welcome in restaurants in San Mateo."

A Black woman's hands apply golden crumbly candy topping to a round cake.
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Named for the honeycomb pattern that forms on the inside as it cools, fragments of honeycomb candy form the topping of Claire's Crunch Cake.

Long after Blum's bakeries had faded from existence by the end of the 1970s, Mack said, her youngest daughter happened upon some honeycomb candy at a store in the mall and brought it home.

"I said, 'Gee, that's the candy that used to be on the crunch cake!'" Mack recalled.

Inspired by sweet memories of the dessert, Mack said she went to work figuring out the recipes for the candy and the cake, and before long, she was baking crunch cakes and taking them to work with her.

"I was taking it quite often, and I could not afford that," she said. "So I said, in order to pay for the ingredients, I've gotta have some money. So I started selling it."

Frothy off-white liquid boils in a heavy metal pot with a spoon and a thermometer sticking out
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Claire Mack makes honeycomb candy in her home kitchen, which she cautions can be a dangerous and messy process. The mixture is heated to 300 degrees Fahrenheit and then poured out over large sheets of foil to dry and harden.

Mack became so successful that she began selling the cakes in a friend's bakery.

"A bakery called Kathy's Kreative Kakes — K-K-K," she said, pausing for the acronym that also stands for "Ku Klux Klan" to sink in. With a chuckle, she added, "She's from Boston. She didn't know."

The two sold cakes together until Mack left the bakery business to run for office. Now, at age 83, she's back to baking again — though this time, it's in her home kitchen and with much more reasonable hours.

"I like to be busy," Mack said. "There are things to do, and people should do them."

CrunchCakes strawberry cake
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
While working with her friend Kathy, owner of Kathy's Kreative Kakes, Claire Mack perfected her unusual strawberry crunch cake, which has whole strawberries in the center.

Mack said she still gets calls about politics — including a slew of complaints after police on motorcycles turned on their sirens and briefly surrounded a youth-organized June 3 protest over the death of George Floyd. Police said they'd received a call that warranted an emergency response.

"They scared the hell out of a lot of people," Mack said. "A lot of people called me and said how they were frightened, and how disgusted they were."

But as San Mateo joins the nationwide unrest over racial injustice, something else is happening that Mack said she never would've expected: People like Anh Nguyen are going out of their way to find her business and buy her cakes.

A Black woman with white hair stands in a kitchen, decorating a cake while wearing a white apron and a green mask over the lower half of her face
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Claire Mack makes crunch cakes to order in her home kitchen, which she said was remodeled in recent years, but "not with this in mind!"

"I was actually looking up businesses in the Bay Area that are Black-owned," Nguyen said. "My fiancée and I are big supporters of that."

Within the same hour, Andrea Boone dropped by to pick up a cake for her son's birthday. Also a first-time customer, she had a strikingly similar story.

"I did a search of Black-owned businesses in the area, and it came up, and so I wanted to support her," Boone said. "I believe deeply in racial equity."

Sweeping up fragments of honeycomb candy from the counter and floor of her kitchen, Mack mused, "For people to come and support my business whom I've never seen before — they go out of their way to find it — that's cool."

A woman in a white kitchen apron with glasses on her head sits in a chair and peruses a photo album
Jonathan Bloom/NBC Bay Area
Claire Mack peruses a photo album that includes pictures of a trip she took to San Mateo's sister city of Toyonaka, Japan, when she was mayor of San Mateo.

But she added that there may be a reason so many wind up on her doorstep. She said as far as she knows, "I'm the only Black food business in San Mateo. That's not good."

Mack knows there's work to be done — and whether it's politics, baking, or the inevitable mixture of the two, she said she intends to keep busy for decades to come.

"I hope to be here until at least 103 in good health," she said. "I like history, and we're living in such wonderful, historical times. I just have to be alive to see what's going to happen to Mr. Trump. I have to be alive to see the end of that. And there has to be an end. And I hope it comes soon."

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