Shop Talk: After 39 years of cakes and pastries, Palo Alto institution Prolific Oven to close

Owners' reasons for shuttering are sadly familiar

Regina Chan with a slice of cake in the original Prolific Oven location. Photo by Veronica Weber.

It started with a scaling back of the eclairs. 

The owners of The Prolific Oven struggled to find an available baking decorator to hire, so they temporarily made the French pastry in a way that was "less labor intensive." Months later, the job remained unfilled. Without sufficient staff, they had to discontinue some items.

One of Palo Alto's longest-standing bakeries, The Prolific Oven will close on Aug. 31 due to a "severe" labor shortage and increasing cost of doing business in the Bay Area, the owners said Wednesday. 

"We just don't see it getting any better," said Regina Chan, whose parents Henry and Sophia Chan bought The Prolific Oven at 550 Waverley St. from Harriet Spier in 1996. "We wanted to pull the plug before things take a bad turn."

Over nearly four decades (the original bakery opened in 1980), The Prolific Oven baked cakes and other desserts for countless weddings, birthday parties, bar and bat mitzvahs and other special occasions. In the end, Regina said, they were unwilling to compromise on quality and reluctant to pass costs onto customers by increasing prices, Regina said. The last time prices rose was three years ago. 

"Maybe that was one of the things that contributed to our demise. We weren't willing to cut corners. We weren't willing to cut the quality of the ingredients. We wanted to keep everything the same," she said.

Memories of wedding cakes past, adoration for the chocolate on chocolate, chocolate-mocha and orange-almond cakes and "thank you's" poured in in response to a letter the owners posted on the bakery's Facebook page this week. 

The lifeblood of local, small businesses is loyal customers. Without that support, Regina said, she's unsure how establishments like The Prolific Oven can survive. (She also runs her own restaurant, Nom Burger, in Sunnyvale.)

"I really do fear for this area in particular," Regina said. "It's in the power of the people where they choose to spend their money. I hope that I'm wrong and that small businesses and family businesses can continue to thrive in the Bay Area, but it's going to be up to the consumers to really show that."

Compiled by the Weekly staff; this week written by Elena Kadvany. Got leads on interesting and news-worthy retail developments? The Weekly will check them out. Email shoptalk@paweekly.com.


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10 people like this
Posted by Mark Weiss
a resident of Downtown North
on Aug 16, 2019 at 11:53 am

Mark Weiss is a registered user.

Maybe we need subsidized housing for teachers, firefighters, artists and bakers.

1 person likes this
Posted by Common Sense
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 20, 2019 at 9:15 am

I remember lines out the door at Prolific Oven but....
Though delicious mocha cake, delicious everything, it is....
Extremely expensive! Last time I went to buy their tiny
4”? Or was it a huge 6” cake? It was $25 ! I didn’t preorder one and so what I bought tasted several days old. Silly me! When I called about it, it apparently was my fault for not preordering! I will not miss this business.

7 people like this
Posted by The Other PA Bakeries Of The Past
a resident of Crescent Park
on Aug 21, 2019 at 5:45 pm

The Prolific Oven will be missed but how many REAL Palo Altans (aka old-timers) remember the pre-Prolific Oven days?

Adolph's & Crescent bakeries on University Avenue, Harlan's on California Avenue & Blum's at Stanford Shopping Center?

2 people like this
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 21, 2019 at 8:02 pm

^ or Ellie's donuts on California Avenue? Okay, really dating myself.

2 people like this
Posted by Mayfield Man
a resident of Los Altos
on Aug 21, 2019 at 9:25 pm

> or Ellie's donuts on California Avenue? Okay, really dating myself.

Yes. Ellie's Donuts! Weren't they on that street right after California near the corner of ECR? There's a hairdresser's salon there now & then the parking garage.

As an Ellie's afficionado, you probably remember their classic jelly donut. It was a raised donut with part of the center still intact which was filled with currant jelly & the surrounding top of the donut had white icing.

It wasn't that atypical squishy kind of jelly donut which is filled on the inside with jelly with powder sugar on top. *ugh*

I've never seen the Ellie's jelly donut anywhere else.

I grew up in the area...went to the old Mayfield Schoolas well.

Remember the two burger places...Stanford Drive in near the Smith & Walton Texaco station & there was also Ernies/later Dick's just past Pepper Avenue on ECR as well.

Meanwhile on California Avneue...Ken Croy's Chevron station where Keeble & Schucat building is, United Meat Market ( areal butcher shop), Pool Brother's grocery store (now Antonio's Nut House) + there was a Purity & Farmer's Market grocery stores and a Coop. Four grocery stores on one street! Mackall's Appliances for stoves & refrigerators, Harriman's clothes store, Jakes Shoe Repair (& a barber shop right next door to it), Rexall pharmacy (Bishop's), the Patterson's five & dime, Monette's Pet Store and the BofA on the corner of ECR/California.

Not making this up...spent time at Peers Park in Southgate/Evergreen & the College Terrace Library (even went to nursery school there).

Those were the best of days. Do you remember when the Eisenhowers passed by on the Caltrains/SP tracks & the flood of 1956?

Rail crossings at Page Mill/Alma & California Avenue/Alma with a lumber yard nearby).

An Ellie's jelly donut would go good right now.

Pre-yuppie PA was a good place to be...at the time.

Lastly, do you remember the old wooden Carnegie Library where City Hall now stands?

This was the PA/Woodstock generation town I remember.

Like this comment
Posted by musical
a resident of Palo Verde
on Aug 21, 2019 at 11:49 pm

Sic transit gloria. Will today's kids have any fond memories 60 years from now?

Like this comment
Posted by Mayfield Man
a resident of Los Altos
on Aug 22, 2019 at 7:02 am

One older PA trademark eludes me because I never had one...

What was & what went into the 'Madrono Sandwich' served at the old University Creamery (on University Avenue of course).

It looked like a thick roast beef sandwich...almost Dagwood-like.

I think it was named after the Palo Alto Tree.

Madroño definition: an evergreen tree ( Arbutus menziesii ) of the heath family, with smooth , red bark ,...

2 people like this
Posted by No Good Grocery Stores In PA
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Aug 22, 2019 at 2:17 pm

>> Four grocery stores on one street!

How come we have to drive all over Timbuktu just to buy a bag of groceries in Palo Alto?

California Avenue once had four grocery stores + JJs in College Terrace (5), downtown PA had about three & Midtown also had three.

The midtown Safeway is one of the worst Safeways around, Whole Foods is overated/overpriced, and Mollie Stones is overpriced but with a good produce department.

Is this because everyone in PA seems to eat out nowadays?

Like this comment
Posted by Baker
a resident of Palo Alto High School
on Sep 1, 2019 at 2:47 am

Thanks for this article.
Now I understand what the problem was after all these years.
The original Prolific Oven had absolutely wonderful baked goods.
Then something happened after 1996, and their things did not taste as good.
They tasted worse over the years until my friends and I simply stopped wasting our money there.
The people in Palo Alto are just desperate. No one bakes anymore.
Carrot Cake is not that hard to make.
All Recipes dot come has a wonderful 5 star recipe.
It will stay moist all week.

Interestingly, the same thing happened to bakeries in London which were sold to Pakistani's decades ago - they used the cheapest ingredients and pay extremely low wages to employees. The result? Terrible baked goods - not British at all.

Good-Bye - was amazed you lasted as long as you did

Tcookies, then

Like this comment
Posted by Easy Explanation
a resident of Downtown North
on Sep 1, 2019 at 2:56 pm

> The original Prolific Oven had absolutely wonderful baked goods.
Then something happened after 1996, and their things did not taste as good.

^^^Change of ownership + cutting corners on ingredient costs...that & skill level.

You are correct...the original Prolific Oven was superb...the latter days, not so.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

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