Last Call Baking Co. has seen rapid success since Chanah Willis first acted on a “living room discussion” in 2020. What started as selling pastry boxes from home and street market sell-outs has turned into a physical bakery in the heart of downtown Birmingham at 213 25th Street North near Magic City favorites like Yo Mama’s and Carrigan’s. Their space, which will be located next to their friends at June Roasters, is still being constructed. Supporters of delicious, hand-crafted baked goods at an affordable price can visit Last Call Baking’s gofundme to help them prepare for this transition. Another way is to get your taste buds a tasty treat at their current location at General, where they serve delicious treats seven days a week.
The building is the culmination of years of Chanah learning to bake and eventually going all in on her love of French and Japanese pastries. The excitement for the craft began as a child. “It was really hard for my parents to get me out of the kitchen as a kid,” Chanah recollects, laughing over memories like staying up until 2 a.m. at the age of 14 trying to make a choux pastry. And it was another passion of hers that led to the Japanese influence.
“I grew up kind of a weeb. Just a big anime nerd in middle school and high school, and then just started to grow from that a serious love and appreciation for Japanese food and cuisine. It definitely became an obsession to cook as good as I saw in animes.”
Chanah was able to live in Japan during the spring of 2019, and spent the majority of her time “trying to figure out how they did what they do.” Many Japanese pastries are similar to French creations, with both putting an incredible amount of attention to detail. “You get these really beautiful pastries that are so based in tradition and their own cultural influences. The bread and the pastries really speak for themselves.”
She returned from Japan with a renewed focus of perfecting the art of baking. She was able to do so while working at the gone-to-soon favorite Mile End Deli, and eventually started working for Urban Standard, which sadly closed a short time later during the pandemic. Chanah had experience in bartending and considered returning, but was nervous about getting back in the profession in times of COVID. So she decided to start venturing out with her true joy of baking instead.
“It started kind of as a joke,” Chanah shares of Last Call’s introduction to this earth – but the joke soon became a successful reality. A supportive friend sent Chanah a link to the recently formed Unity Market, and soon Chanah’s pastries were selling out at the Highland Park neighborhood location. The success also allowed Last Call Baking to begin preparing pastry boxes for supporters to order throughout the week. Bigger batches and longer hours were required to meet the demand, and it was time to find a bigger kitchen.
The kitchen dilemma was solved when Chanah messaged Mark Thompson, owner of General and Shoppe, and his partner Jay Draper. She couldn’t have been more appreciative. “They should get a bouquet of flowers every day. Or like a free pastry until I die. They are the lords and saviors of this city.” Chanah was soon able to add three helpers to her cooperative, with Morgan Spier, Jess Jenkins, and Carrie Marrie Sawyer giving her time to focus on cakes and sculpture work.
The team now makes 40 to 60 pastries a day, which includes customer favorites like their Japanese Milk Bread and Almond Toast. Chanah has also been able to combine her Jewish heritage with her Japanese and French influences through creations like her Passover Pastry Box and Beetroot Halwa. But all of these orders, along with five wholesale orders across the city have meant that Last Call Baking has once again outgrown their kitchen.
At first, Chanah considered doing weekend popups as her next step, but deep down she knew she needed something more permanent to be able to continue pursuing her dreams. She’s only 25 years old, and briefly felt overwhelmed at the undertaking ahead of her–but knew it had to be done. “I have to make this step or I’m just going to be stuck in this limbo for a really long time.”
This step follows a series of courageous moves towards entrepreneurship that Chanah made during a global pandemic, and she sees many of her friends also realizing that they can turn their side hustles into life-fulfilling careers.
“I think that has saved me and a lot of my peers,” she shares of these newfound purposes, “and we’re such a tight-knit community that a lot of these people are getting lifted up and supported. And they’re going forward. I think the food scene is going to look very different in a couple years, and we’re going to be watching our best friends own restaurants. And that is the coolest concept I have ever heard.”
Almost as cool of a concept as Chanah’s vision for her downtown bakery. “There’s this great intersectionality between food and art. I think really beautiful food should be accessible to everybody, and that’s something that I hope with this storefront that I’m able to bring. That you can have delicious well-made, hand-made pastries in the heart of Birmingham that isn’t totally overpriced and that everybody can enjoy and appreciate in their own way. That’s what Last Call is trying to do.”
The vision started as a light-hearted dream, and Chanah can’t help but feel blessed with the support she’s seen. “Because of everybody in Birmingham I’m literally doing what I’ve wanted to do since I was six. This community really does the damned thing.”
And we can’t wait to see what’s next for this community-focused entrepreneur! Keep supporting local, Birmingham.
Cover Photo: Chanah Willis with Last Call Baking