SAN FRANCISCO -- A casual visit to a Seattle bakery seven years ago led Bill Uhlman to acquire a secret recipe and then build a business selling fresh, hand-baked crumpets from coast to coast.
'It sounded crazy at the time,' said Uhlman, 32, recalling how he and his brother, Jim, 27, came to own and operate The English Tea Shop and Crumpet Bakery in San Francisco's Inner Sunset district. 'But it worked out.'
Today, the store makes and sells every week about 10,000 crumpets, which he describes as 'a sort of cross between an English muffin and a pancake.'
His customers use the traditional British tea-time staple with a variety of toppings ranging from the customary butter and jam to tomatoes and cheese, lemon custard, bacon and eggs, peanut butter and smoked salmon.
Seven years ago, Ulhman, a native of Bowling Green, Ohio, had graduated from the University of San Francisco Law School and passed the state bar exams, but he had decided he did not want to practice law.
He and his wife, Rachel, were vacationing in Seattle, where she had once lived, and one day she suggested they go to a crumpet bakery she liked.
The visit left an impression after they got back to San Francisco and while he was casting about for a way to make a living, Uhlamn said, 'she jokingly suggested crumpets. I started thinking. I was always interested in food. I liked baking. It would be nice to have crumpets available in San Francisco.'
The Seattle bakery had acquired the crumpet recipe from a bakery in Victoria, B.C., founded at the turn of the century by a couple from England. Uhlman negotiated an agreement that gave him exclusive rights to the recipe in San Francisco. The Canadians also taught him how to make the crumpets and set up his operation.
The shop opened in May 1980. 'We started out as a neighborhood business, which we still are,' he said. But the number of satisfied customers grew.
The shop uses the United Parcel Service's two-day delivery to ship crumpets as far away as Massachusetts and New York.
'We sell in just about every state but Alaska,' Uhlman said. 'That was something we never expected. We thought we'd just be sending them to our parents in Ohio.'
Uhlman said his sales skyrocketed during the hubbub over the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Crumpet fever soared again when Queen Elizabeth II visited California three years ago.
Another spur to sales is seeing the crumpets made. A large window in the front of the store allows passersby to watch the baker ladle the crumpet batter into small metal rings on two large griddles and then scoop the finished product onto cooling grills 10 to 15 minutes later.
The cakes, three and half inches in diameter and three-quarters of an inch high, are perforated with dozens of small holes on top, for butter and other toppings to seep through, and they are sealed flat on the bottom.
Uhlman uses no sweeteners, preservatives or dairy products in the batter, although butter is used on the griddle. He charges $1.50 for a package of six crumpets at the store, and $1.75 for a six-pack to be shipped.
The British customarily eat crumpets at tea-time, and sometimes at breakfast, usually with butter and preserves. But Americans eat crumpets at any time of day.
'The English would be aghast to see the things our customers do with crumpets,' said Uhlman, who sells a variety of jams, marmalades and other toppings as well as teas, candies and tea cups at his store. He also has a few tables for customers to stop for a cup of tea or coffee and a toasted crumpet.
'Some customers make small pizzas with crumpets,' he said. Others like ricotta cheese and nuts, some make open face sandwiches with cheese and tomatoes and Canadian bacon.
Uhlman said the machine-made, frozen crumpets sold in some markets 'are not even close to real crumpets.
'If we did it by machine, it would cost about 25 percent of what it does now,' he said, but pointed out that a machine cannot adjust the way a human baker can to such variables as kitchen temperature and humidity and flour absorbency.
'I'm content with 10,000 a week and putting out what I feel to be the best product possible.' he said.