Making It in the Bay

Sister-Run Vallejo Bakery Using a Little Sugar to Survive Hard Times

NBCUniversal, Inc.

Despite the sign on the door restricting patrons to two inside at a time, the interior of Hummingbird Bakery in Vallejo was buzzing like an army heading into battle. In the kitchen at the calm center of a baking storm - the owners, sisters Anastasia Domingue and Zipporah Johnson, were turning out cake batter, slicing white chocolate, gently guiding the decorating of some thirteen different kinds of cupcakes.

If it seemed they they were fighting for their professional lives -- they were.

"Yes, it’s very difficult," said Johnson, taking a rare break from her baking.

The sisters relocated the bakery to its current, larger location just about six months before the pandemic hit. They were just getting the business back flowing again when the virus began exacting its toll. Weddings began to cancel. Birthdays. Graduations. They had to refund more than was coming in.

"We were on the go," Johnson recalled of the recent months before the pandemic. "We were starting to get there and then this virus knocked us right back down."

When the COVID-19 storm hit, the sisters shut down the business for a couple weeks -- then opened -- then had to shut down again.

"We had to close again because we couldn’t get the product we needed," Johnson said. "We couldn’t get flour, we couldn’t get sugar, eggs were terrible -- impossible to get."

They couldn't pay the rent. They furloughed employees and hunkered down. They found themselves on the far end of federal statistics showing it far more difficult for Black-owned businesses to secure loans intended to prop them up during the pandemic than white businesses.

"Oh my God, I applied and applied and applied," said Domingue. "We never received a loan. Didn’t even get a bite."

Amid the chaos of the times, the sisters turned their faith to the thing that first turned their bakery into a Vallejo staple when it opened in 2011 -- they put their hearts into the baking.

"You have to put love in the product you make," Domingue said. "It definitely shows when you do that."

The bakery's display cases added a visual testimony to the hard work; decadently frosted cupcakes sit next to their signature "hummingbird" cake -- filled with pineapple, coconut and pecans -- jars of fresh cookies line the counter -- just above the rows of peach cobbler.

The in-demand sweet offerings summoned faithful customers like Lorna Higgs from well beyond the boundaries of Vallejo.

"I drive from Fairfield to come down here and get my bakeries," laughed Higgs picking out a key lime pie. "Yes I do!"

From the rough early days of the pandemic, the bakery is finding its footing again. The sisters are bringing back staff. The customers are returning too, lining up outside for their turn in front of the display case. They order baked treasures from behind a protective plexiglass shield that runs the entire counter.

Johnson said she and her sister are focused not only reviving the business, but a personal mission to teach the baking trade to younger people, and then eventually, maybe even eventually step aside.

"We’re getting older. Maybe they can even take over this business," Johnson said. "That’s what I wanted to do from the very beginning, to pass it on."

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