Scone Age: The Story of Sugarbird, Teatime, and a Remake of a Humble Pastry

by Emily Bell
Antoinette Bruno
April 2014

Biography

Restaurant

Behind the gilded trappings of high tea service, you imagine a woman, patiently attentive, demurely clad in a ruffled apron, smiling with a kind of bright emptiness: the eternal matron of teatime. As with most culinary fantasies, that image is a lie, or at least it is in Los Angeles. The real thing—Kei Okumura—is far more intriguing.

Scone Platter: Apricot Ginger, Mixed Berry, Lemon-Cranberry, Green Tea, White Chocolate, Coconut Almond, and Strawberry Buttermilk.

Scone Platter: Apricot Ginger, Mixed Berry, Lemon-Cranberry, Green Tea, White Chocolate, Coconut Almond, and Strawberry Buttermilk.

Scone Platter: Apricot Ginger, Mixed Berry, Lemon-Cranberry, Green Tea, White Chocolate, Coconut Almond, and Strawberry Buttermilk.

Scone Platter: Apricot Ginger, Mixed Berry, Lemon-Cranberry, Green Tea, White Chocolate, Coconut Almond, and Strawberry Buttermilk.

Scone Slider: Sundried Tomato and Rosemary Scone, Feta, Balsamic Vinegar and White Truffle.

Scone Slider: Sundried Tomato and Rosemary Scone, Feta, Balsamic Vinegar and White Truffle.

Pastry Chef Kei Okumura of Sugarbird Sweets and Tea- Los Angeles, CA

Pastry Chef Kei Okumura of Sugarbird Sweets and Tea- Los Angeles, CA

Okumura's origins are decidedly less prim. She was making a good living in Hollywood, working in post-production with top directors. But the stress of that job (and a few tectonic life shifts, including 9/11 and the departure from L.A. of some of her best friends) drove Okumura to bake. "I found myself coming home and baking two or three desserts a night just to decompress from the day," she says.

Okumura's solution? Move to Paris—à la Sabrina. "I figured what better place to learn all about food culture, bread, and pastries than Paris, the hub of all things cheese, bread and pastries?" After graduating from École Supérieure de Cuisine Française at the top of her class, Okumura plied her trade in bakeries around Paris, realizing a deeper talent for baking. "I would always dream of opening my own bakery," Okumura says of her film industry days, when she found herself making time to visit local bakeries as much as possible "to indulge my cravings, and to learn." That dream eventually came to fruition when she moved back to the States. Sugarbird Sweets & Teas—sold at farmers markets and retail outlets throughout Los Angeles, as well as online and available for catering—is now a 5-year-old company built on a classic partnership—tea and scones. 

A nod to her Japanese heritage and its tea traditions, and a savvy business move on her part (tea has nice wide profit margins), Okumura put a lot of thought into her concept. "I think tea culture is definitely booming," she says. "When I'm at our farmers market stand, many customers tell me they're trying to stop drinking coffee," likely for the same health-couture reasons that have Okumura expanding her gluten-free scone line.

Okumura blends her own teas. She's created many over the past several years, complete expressions that attract a clientele accustomed to the flavor profiles of single origin coffees and those familiar with terroir. Her best-selling tea, Fiona, balances earthy Rooibos with raspberry, hibiscus, rosehips, and vanilla. "It tastes like a raspberry soufflé!" 

The teas were originally meant to stand on their own. Okumura was selling them out of farmers markets when she realized "selling teas alone was not going to allow the business to continue, or grow." Scones proved a natural pairing. "I began with two dozen, total, every week," says Okumura. "Soon customers were begging me not to sell out, and asking me to reserve their scones for them." Today Okumura is baking, catering, and shipping nationally (and overnight to California and Arizona), and internationally.

Okumura has nailed down a specific handling method in which her individual scoops of scone dough rest in the freezer at least one hour, until frozen. From there, without being thawed, they're slid directly into a 400ºF-oven and baked until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Flavors span the gamut from lemon-cranberry to matcha-white chocolate. Okumura is also the originator of the "scone slider" which, along with that gluten-free line, marks the next phase in her business's development. 

At the helm of an expanding enterprise, and baking out of a shared bakery kitchen near DTLA, Okumura is overseeing a brand across a variety of platforms, including the farmers market where she got her start. "Most of our retail business is farmers markets, three times a week. From there, word spreads quickly for catering gigs and events." When she says word, she means it—the Sugarbird team, and its success, has relied more on word of mouth than social media, an attempt to create "a buzz-worthy experience for everybody that comes in contact with us." (An "if you build it, they will post it" kind of PR strategy.)

"Customers seem to be excited they have an alternative to bagels or biscuits," says Okumura of the slider. She also says she's seen an uptick in savory scone orders overall, For Okumura, scone sliders are amenable to most anything, "fruits, cheeses, cold cuts, eggs, or even a mini hamburger patty," she says  

Okumura found her own way to pastry and created a business model and niche that worked for her. Sugarbird's success is all about seeing beyond the bounds of tradition even as you draw from it. And realizing you need not be a first-hand slave to social media or even necessarily have a brick and mortar. So, the ultimate trend-worthy item, a savory gluten free scone slider, should be available soon.

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