This Labor Day, we are revisiting one of our most popular FACES of the past year: Ellen Einstein!
Ellen Einstein and her husband Dan opened the doors to Sweet 16th Bakery 15 years ago. Ellen, a self-taught baker, is originally from Savannah, GA, and moved to Nashville from Los Angeles in 1993. Her business started organically — and it has grown with each passing year, especially since opening the bakery. The corner bakery is a neighborhood favorite — filled on Saturday mornings with those who’ve walked down the street, as well as those who will drive across town for their famous breakfast sandwich. Ellen laughs that the bakery is like their child, requiring at least as much love and attention and time as a baby.
As we chatted, regulars came in to grab one more bite before the two take off to celebrate their 25th anniversary during their bi-yearly vacation. Both Ellen and Dan knew the neighbors by name and wished them well on their own summer vacations, letting them know they’d look forward to seeing them in a few weeks. The congenial atmosphere calls for coffee dates and lingering conversation – with Ellen and Dan or with a friend. It’s our pleasure to introduce you to the FACE behind this East Nashville gem, Ellen Einstein!
Tell us a little about your background. How did you end up opening Sweet 16th Bakery?
I’ve always loved to bake and cook. It’s always been passion. My background isn’t actually in baking, though … I am self-taught. I moved here from L.A. in 1993 and started working at Cafe Crossroads. I helped them open that place up, and it became Radio Cafe after that. Soon after I moved here, a friend of ours called us and needed a birthday cake, so I took them one. They gave it to a friend who gave it to another friend, and it took off from there. I started a place called Let’s Do Lunch years ago, and that’s how the business started. I also did some food styling.
When my dad came to live with us, he was the one who said I needed to get this out of the house. We were walking up near 16th that spring, and we saw this building. We fell in love with it. It was for rent, we called, and Dan asked if he was willing to sell it. He said yes, but you have to take the house next door. And we were so in love with it, we just bought it. No inspection. We had a structural engineer come out who told us we couldn’t use the building — that it wouldn’t hold up. So, we ended up tearing it down and building this building on the corner. It’s perfect for a bakery.
You’ve been open since 2004. How have you seen East Nashville’s food and restaurant scene change?
Once the tornado happened in 1998, East changed a lot. And for the better. It’s still an eclectic neighborhood, though, which has been nice. We’ve seen a lot of restaurants come and go, but we’ve seen a lot stay. Margot has been here longer than we have. And Lockeland Table and Italia have been here for a while, too.
We did really well at first because no one else around us was doing what we do. We started out with all sweets. For the first 11 months, it was just Dan and me with no help. We didn’t know yet what we needed, so we worked around the clock, especially around the holiday. We’d sleep in the back, taking a few hours off, and then start all over again.
Tell us about your savory menu.
We had a friend who kept saying it would be so great to have a breakfast sandwich at the bakery. My worried father asked my sister, “How is she going to make it just making sweets?” He told us we should do something for breakfast and lunch, so we added the savory menu. It is all vegetarian. It’s easier to serve vegetarian because people who eat meat will eat vegetarian but not the other way around, so that’s what we did.
That “One To Go” is what dreams are made of. How long have you been serving it?
We’ve been doing it for about 12 years. It started slow and caught on. We had a Food and Wine article come out that named our sandwich one of the breakfast sandwiches in the country. (SB TIP: The One To Go is a baked egg and cheese casserole with mild green chilis served hot on their house-made cheddar cheese scone and is, quite literally, one of the best things we’ve ever eaten.)
When it comes to sweets on the menu, do you have a favorite?
The thing that really started the bakery was the chocolate cake. That was the first thing that I ever made for the bakery. It’s still the same recipe and hasn’t changed a bit. The other thing that’s my favorite is my chocolate chip cookies. They’re thin and crispy which you don’t see anywhere else.
Which items are most popular on the menu?
Everything sells, honestly. Both our sweets and our savory items. If I had to pick two, I’d say the breakfast sandwich and the chocolate cake.
Do you cook at home? If so, what’s your go-to recipe?
Yes, I love to cook. My go-to recipe is probably a pot of chicken soup. It’s warm and comforting, and I learned to make it from my mom. And yes, I do have a secret ingredient …
What is an ideal day in East Nashville for you?
We don’t have a whole lot of time off, so I really love to spend time at home with my husband, even though we work together every day. It’s my favorite thing to do.
Do you have a favorite hidden gem in Nashville?
I work out at 360 Fitness Coaching with my trainer, Marty Vaughn. That way, I get to go to the other side of town and be able to work out in a peaceful environment with a great fitness coach. It’s my little oasis.
What are your favorite restaurants in Nashville?
City House, etch and Lockeland Table are some of our favorites. We just went to Folk and had an incredible dinner that included the kohlrabi and mushroom pizza. There’s a place called Silver Sands that is down-home soul food that we really love. I almost don’t want to tell anyone about it.
What book did you most recently read and loved?
I love love love cookbooks and read lots of them. My most recent favorite was Everyday Dorie: The Way I Cook. She’s a James Beard award-winning writer. She’s amazing!
What is the best advice you’ve ever received and from whom?
That would from my mom and dad. “Do what you can while you’re young because the golden ages are so golden.” Dad always said, “Just go and do. Go travel and do before you get to a point where you can’t anymore.” I live by those words.
We take off three weeks in the summer and three weeks in the winter. Everyone — the entire bakery — takes off and does what they want to do and comes back refreshed. We don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, so we go and we do.
What are three things you couldn’t live without aside from faith, family and friends?
Travel and experiencing other cultures, trying new foods, and the community of East Nashville. Thank God we have them coming in every day because I couldn’t have this business without them.
Thank you, Ellen (and Dan!), for supplying us all with delicious goodies! And thank you to Leila Grossman for these beautiful photos.
Sweet 16th Bakery is located at 311 N 16th Street TN 37206. Hours are Tuesday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 2 p.m.; Saturday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. They will be closed Sunday, July 21 through Tuesday, August 14 for their summer vacation, so catch them before they leave or when they reopen on Wednesday, August 15! For more information, visit their website here.
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