By Jennifer Crain
Phoebe Martinson’s food philosophy is simple. She wants to make you swoon.
Her best moment, she says, is when a bride-to-be tastes a sample of one of her wedding cakes, puts a hand to her heart, and sighs. Or when she hears that the couple that requested a Parthenon cake for their reception seven years ago is still raving about it.
To say Martinson’s cakes are memorable is an understatement. When I visit Phoebe and Dan Martinson at their restaurant, Phoebe’s Pastry Café, she pulls out her phone to show me her work.
There’s a wedding cake with polka-dot frosting and fresh flowers and a retirement cake with a fire truck made of fondant. Another is topped with two miniature grooms that were handmade for the couple by a friend.
Phoebe loves the challenge of a new project and creating one-of-a-kind centerpiece desserts. You can tell it gets her blood pumping. She scrolls through, then holds the phone out to me.
“What does this one look like?” She has an infectious grin.
It’s a head-on shot of a white-frosted beauty with symmetrical green, yellow, and red designs that span all three layers of the cake.
“A Mexican market,” I say, thinking of my summers in San Antonio. I was close.
“It’s a peasant shirt!” She’s beaming.
Martinson is radiant when she talks about food, even after more than two decades in the industry. She and her husband, Dan Martinson, started culinary school before it was hip, in 1982, a time when the term “celebrity chef” had yet to be coined and options for culinary school were limited to fewer than 50 programs in the United States. Dan says the program at their alma mater, South Seattle Community College, was rated in the top ten nationally at the time. It still earns among the highest rankings in the country.
The two moved to Olympia in 1993, with plans to open a restaurant. But shortly after they invested in equipment and earmarked a potential location, parenthood intervened. Knowing that 80-hour workweeks wouldn’t mesh with the needs of babies and growing kids, they put the dream on hold.
But they didn’t leave the food industry. Dan started teaching at South Puget Sound Community College’s Culinary Arts Program, a position he has held since 1994. He also holds a business degree from Saint Martin’s University. Phoebe jumped into education, too, teaching culinary skills to youth at the New Market Skills Center for 15 years. Prior to opening the café, the Martinsons created concessions for a local auction facility and ran their own catering company using the site’s commercial kitchen.
Dan says during all this time they developed the knowledge base they would need to run a brick-and-mortar restaurant.
“You know, I’m glad we didn’t open (in the 90s),” he says, “because since then, we’ve had 20 more years of experience – really good experience. Our catering business did very well. And we learned a lot in our teaching professions, not just about the food business but about people in general.”
Phoebe’s special occasion desserts have taken off since they opened last December (especially during wedding and graduation seasons) and the café has become a Westside darling.
Located in a business complex between the Olympia Auto Mall and the intersection of Cooper Point Road and Black Hills Boulevard, Phoebe and Dan say that though they’re a little off the beaten path, once customers discover them they tend to find their way back.
The café offers two display cases full of homemade pastries, salads, and sandwiches as well as daily specials. All of it is made fresh daily from whole foods purchased from local distributors and, as often as possible, using local produce. Lunches can be eaten in-house or packed for pick-up. They also provide full-service catering, weddings, open houses, and plated dinners.
Customers won’t find a menu, not even chalked above the register. Phoebe conceives of the lunch offerings in the early morning hours, giving guests a shifting set of choices every day. When I visited, they were stocked with Italian BLTs, meatball marinara paninis, pastrami reubens, and bacon, caramelized onion, and goat cheese croissant sandwiches. There was also an array of fresh salads.
“Having the business,” Phoebe tells me, “it’s literally like having a party every day.”
For as long as they’ve nurtured the idea of their own restaurant, Phoebe and Dan have frequented estate sales, collecting items to incorporate into the space. The condiment table is a 40s-era stove. Each table has a unique vintage salt and pepper shaker set. The wall colors (deep green, goldenrod) are inspired by a percolator that’s reminiscent of a 1976 kitchen. Vintage muffin tins and bundt pans line a display shelf in the dining room. Dan’s collection of historic photos and event posters from Olympia hang on the walls throughout the café.
In the center of the dining room is a seating area with couches and low tables, like your favorite coffee shop or friend’s living room.
An inviting space is an extension of the Martinsons’ longstanding dedication to good food – in their full-service catering, special occasion desserts, and as part of the café itself. It’s also good business.
As I finish my croissant sandwich, it strikes me that the Martinsons make this look easy.
“You have to be creative, you have to be fast, and you have to manage the place and the people,” Phoebe said earlier in our conversation. “It’s complicated.”
It must be. But from my spot at one of the dining tables, all that is invisible. Their stocked deli cases, artful baked goods, and infectious optimism only make me think about coming back for more.
Phoebe’s Pastry Café
1800 Cooper Point Road SW
You can sample Phoebe’s cooking (for free!) and get a jump-start on your Thanksgiving preparations at their Thanksgiving Tasting Event on Saturday, November 2 from 1:00 – 5:00 p.m. Sample many of her baked goods, including pies, cheesecakes, cheese balls, and quiches, and place an order.
For a heads-up on daily offerings and more events, follow Phoebe’s Pastry Café on Facebook.