John Simmet arrived in California in 1983 with his blue Fuji America touring bike in search of a new life. The former Michigan resident went on to become a mainstay of the East Bay business community, co-founding Berkeley’s now-shuttered Bread Workshop, then taking over Albany’s Plaza Tennis.
The tennis shop is currently on hiatus as Simmet, 57, undergoes chemotherapy for diffuse large B-cell lymphoma. Interviewed just before starting the second of six rounds of chemo, Simmet vowed to re-open Plaza Tennis this fall.
“I fully intend to keep the legacy going for Bill,” Simmet said, referring to Bill Strei, who founded Plaza Tennis in 1968. Strei has launched a GoFundMe page to help pay medical expenses for Simmet, who took over the shop in 2008.
A culinary enthusiast as well as a cycling aficionado, Simmet enrolled in the prestigious, now-shuttered California Culinary Academy in San Francisco after moving to the Bay Area. There he met Bill Briscoe, who was to become his partner in the Bread Workshop, a Berkeley wholesale bakery that opened in 1989 and had a 25-year run.
“At the Academy, Bill and I took a class with Giovanni Leoni, owner of Buca Giovanni,” Simmet said. (Buca Giovanni, a popular San Francisco restaurant, is now shuttered.) “He told us he had a hard time getting good bread for his restaurant in the Bay Area – bread like you can get in Italy.”
At that moment, Simmet and Briscoe looked at each other and the light bulb went on – a moment that eventually resulted in a Berkeley institution.
Before launching their own business, the two Culinary Institute graduates went on to a stint at now-shuttered Amelio’s restaurant in San Francisco, where they worked under celebrity chef Jacky Robert, who now runs Ma Maison in Boston. Simmet also worked for awhile at Berkeley’s Acme Bread Company.
In the late 1980s, Simmet and Briscoe decided it was time to launch their breadmaking endeavor.
“I put a bicycle on an airplane to Europe and pedaled around trying different breads at different bakeries from Germany to Austria to Italy to France. A lot of bicycle riding and bread eating,” Simmet said.
He brought back such things as German pretzels (“People went wild for that”), leavened cornbread and various styles of rye bread based on German baking techniques.
The Bread Workshop opened in 1989. In the grand entrepreneurial tradition, the co-founders worked 24-hour days, seven days a week, Briscoe recalled.
“John sometimes ended up sleeping on flour sacks at the shop and I would sleep in my chair in the office,” Briscoe said. “Although most of the time when I did, it wasn’t intentional.” Simmet co-owned the business for 12 years.
During its heyday, the Bread Workshop employed 45 people and had 145 customers, mostly restaurants, around the Bay Area. Its bread was featured in the Robin Williams movie “Mrs. Doubtfire.”
“John always had an inquiring mind. At one point he became obsessed with pitching. Then he did tennis. We would play tennis together – he was a much better tennis player than I was,” Briscoe said.
The two became regular customers at Plaza Tennis, which Bill Strei had opened in 1968. Simmet became an avid tennis player, eventually taking a job at Plaza Tennis stringing rackets for Strei. When Strei retired in 2008, he sold the shop to Simmet.
According to Strei, Simmet never lost his love of cycling; every year, he would take two weeks off for long bike trips – once to Arizona, once across the Sierras. “He’s a low-key kind of person, very hard worker, gets along with people of all varieties,” Strei said.
“He’s a great guy and hopefully he’ll work through this.”
Simmet met his wife Juliet Tessicini ten years ago at the shop when she was trying on shoes.
Speaking by telephone from the couple’s Canyon home, Tessicini said she gained not only a husband but a tennis coach.
“When I met him, I was still hitting moon balls,” Tessicini said. “They would go up in the air. I was just all over the place.” She said her game has vastly improved since then.
Frequent customer Siggy Zerweckh said Simmet has been an invaluable resource for his tennis questions.
“I would describe him as an extremely kind and caring bear of a man,” the Berkeley resident said. “I think of the shop as a clubhouse for tennis players. You can ask anything and get pointers, meet fellow tennis players and exchange notes.”
Jacky Robert, who was featured in the Great Chefs of San Francisco television show, said he remembers Sinnet well. Robert taught Sinnet at the Culinary Institute and also employed him at Amelio’s.
“Anyone who has a restaurant doesn’t make a restaurant by himself. It’s because of the employees you become successful, and John was really a part of the success of my restaurant,” Robert said. “He was reliable and enthusiastic. He worked every station.”
Looking back over his career, “I liked being a part of the food community and then I inherited the tennis community,” Simmet said.
“It kinda shocked me how wide open the tennis community was. Since Bill had been running the business since 1968, I was afraid people would go, ‘Who is this guy?’ But instead, they told me, ‘You are bringing fresh energy to it.’”
“My roots are in these communities now, the restaurant and the tennis communities,” Simmet said. “To me, this is home.”