A sweet deal

Longtime neighborhood bakery lives on with new owners

It started as a weekend job in college.

Little did Holly Prairie know it would someday be something more. Much more.

“This was never my goal,” she said. “I wasn’t a business major in college or anything like that. I didn’t go to culinary school. It’s just the natural way it happened.”

“It,” happened in July, when she and her husband Chris purchased Nielsen’s Pastries (520 2nd Ave. W.), the same bakery where she spent her Saturdays as a Seattle Pacific University student.

“I love people a lot and a I love food a lot, so it’s a really beautiful intersection of those two things,” she said.

While Prairie’s first stint as an employee ended while she was still in school, she returned three years ago, the victim of budget cuts at a global health nonprofit. But only for a while, she thought.

“The point was to figure out what I wanted to do next,” she said, “but then there was just nothing that was more appealing to me.”

Over time her role expanded as she learned how to do, “more of everything,” she said, from making cakes and pastries to managing employees. After a while, customers would ask if she was the owner, and the answer — at least then — was no.

“Eventually, I was like, ‘But I think I want it to be my shop,’” she said. “I want to be able to say yes to that.”

That came to fruition earlier this summer. And Prairie has assured customers ever since that the menu and the recipes aren’t changing.

“That’s the first thing everyone has been asking us when they found out we bought it, is, ‘Oh, you’re not going to stop making fill-in-the-blank, are you?’” she said. “I’m like, ‘No, don’t worry.’ I’m not going to take away what’s already a great foundation.”

That’s also a matter of historic preservation for the Seattle native. At a time of rapid change in the city, the shop has been a constant in the neighborhood for more than five decades.

The bakery’s namesake, John Nielsen, opened the store in 1965, and was at the helm for more than 30 years before previous owner Darcy Person (who started as his apprentice) took over in the late 90s. Even now, on Friday mornings they’re both in the shop baking, a connecting thread between past and present.

“It’s important to remember where we came from,” Prairie said. “And have those bits of history, so it’s cool that people can walk in here and feel like they’re part of Seattle’s history.”

While the baked goods will stay the same, what Prairie hopes to build upon is the shop’s connection to the community. 

“I want it to be a community spot,” she said. “I want it to kind of be a hub, and a place people can come and feel like it’s their home away from home.”

Of course, she’s not doing it alone. Her husband and co-owner Chris is an equal partner, leaving his position at the Pacific Science Center last month.

The two met playing music in two different bands, and when Holly’s brother quit her group, Chris took over as their drummer. They started dating shortly thereafter and were married last spring.

And as the opportunity to take over the shop presented itself, the question was whether it would be primarily Holly’s endeavor, or if the two would take on the challenge together. 

“We just figured it’s going to be super tied into our lives, and how we’re going to raise our family and continue living in Seattle, so we said, ‘Yeah, we’ll do it together,’” she said. “It was definitely a leap of faith, because we hadn’t worked much together at all, and it’s working out.”

Like Holly, Chris — still a drummer for his own band, the Hoot Hoots — never imagined running a bakery.

“I didn’t see my life going in that direction, but I haven’t regretted it at all,” he said. “There’s been hard days … [but] it’s always been rewarding at the end of it.”

Part of that has been the response from customers, most of which Holly said are regulars.

“People have seen so many things go out of business that they love, and that’s a big reason we wanted to buy this, is we don’t want that to be the case for Nielsen’s,” she said. “It’s an important place, and people really do love it, so we’re going to do what we can to keep it alive.”

And together, the couple hasn’t looked back on the decision.

“We haven’t had any doubts in doing this,” she said. “It’s a lot of work and we’re totally exhausted most of the time, but we haven’t ever asked ourselves, ‘Why did we do this? What have we gotten ourselves into?’ It’s always been a clearly important thing.”

To learn more about Nielsen’s Pastries, visit www.nielsenspastries.com. The shop is open weekdays from 7:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturdays 8 a.m. to 3 p.m.