What to Know
- Claire Mack, born in San Mateo, now runs a bakery out of the house she's lived in since she was 17 years old
- Mack comes from a family of activists, and got involved in local politics when a public housing plan threatened to raze her neighborhood
- Crunch cake was invented in San Francisco and first served at the Blum's bakery chain before its demise in the 1970s
On a quiet, residential street in San Mateo, a house with a perfectly-manicured lawn boasts a bright yellow sign in the front yard that reads, "Claire's Crunch Cake."
"I didn't realize that it was from her home, so that was a surprise," remarked first-time customer Anh Nguyen, who simply drove to the address listed on Yelp. "Everyone seems to love it, and it has a five-star rating."
But to those who know its history, the bakery's stellar ratings aren't its biggest mark of success. In fact, its owner might tell you her greatest achievement is the fact that the house is still standing at all.
"What they wanted to do was tear down all of the housing for about a mile going south, and put up low-income housing similar to that of Hunters Point," Claire Mack said, referring to the San Francisco neighborhood where dense public housing projects built in the mid-20th century still stand, many of them in disrepair.
"We already know how to build slums," Mack said. "Let's not do that in San Mateo. And I think that's where my activism really got started."
Mack succeeded in protecting the neighborhood where she grew up, got married and became a homeowner, but the experience seemed to put her on an unstoppable path. To hear her tell it, she was on that path all along.
"My dad was an activist," she said. "I also learned before my grandmother died that she picketed the movie, 'Birth of a Nation.' It's in my blood!"
It was that first taste of activism, fighting for a neighborhood populated mostly by families of color, that Mack said inspired her to begin hosting public affairs programs on radio and television, and ultimately to run for office. She was elected to the San Mateo City Council in 1991, and served three terms as the city's first Black mayor during her 12 years in office.
But alongside her passion for policy reform, Mack has long been enthusiastic about something else: a once-famous and now-elusive Bay Area dessert known as crunch cake.
"The original cake was made by a German chef from Blum's in San Francisco," she said.
Folklore told of a pastry cook who inadvertently boiled a batch of soft candy until it was hard as a rock, prompting the chef to smash it with a hammer and repurpose the crumbled candy as a cake topping.
"It's called honeycomb, and a lot of people love it," Mack said. "It's similar to a molasses chip."
Crunch cake became a staple of special occasions in the Mack household. But even in the 1970s, actually obtaining that cake brought Claire Mack face to face with an unpleasant reality.
"Blum's (had a store) here in San Mateo," she said. "We never went in to eat. We would only go to buy. I'm not sure we were welcome. And I'm pretty sure we were not welcome. ... Black people weren't welcome in restaurants in San Mateo."
Long after Blum's bakeries had faded from existence by the end of the 1970s, Mack said, her youngest daughter happened upon some honeycomb candy at a store in the mall and brought it home.
"I said, 'Gee, that's the candy that used to be on the crunch cake!'" Mack recalled.
Inspired by sweet memories of the dessert, Mack said she went to work figuring out the recipes for the candy and the cake, and before long, she was baking crunch cakes and taking them to work with her.
"I was taking it quite often, and I could not afford that," she said. "So I said, in order to pay for the ingredients, I've gotta have some money. So I started selling it."
Mack became so successful that she began selling the cakes in a friend's bakery.
"A bakery called Kathy's Kreative Kakes — K-K-K," she said, pausing for the acronym that also stands for "Ku Klux Klan" to sink in. With a chuckle, she added, "She's from Boston. She didn't know."
The two sold cakes together until Mack left the bakery business to run for office. Now, at age 83, she's back to baking again — though this time, it's in her home kitchen and with much more reasonable hours.
"I like to be busy," Mack said. "There are things to do, and people should do them."
Mack said she still gets calls about politics — including a slew of complaints after police on motorcycles turned on their sirens and briefly surrounded a youth-organized June 3 protest over the death of George Floyd. Police said they'd received a call that warranted an emergency response.
"They scared the hell out of a lot of people," Mack said. "A lot of people called me and said how they were frightened, and how disgusted they were."
But as San Mateo joins the nationwide unrest over racial injustice, something else is happening that Mack said she never would've expected: People like Anh Nguyen are going out of their way to find her business and buy her cakes.
"I was actually looking up businesses in the Bay Area that are Black-owned," Nguyen said. "My fiancée and I are big supporters of that."
Within the same hour, Andrea Boone dropped by to pick up a cake for her son's birthday. Also a first-time customer, she had a strikingly similar story.
"I did a search of Black-owned businesses in the area, and it came up, and so I wanted to support her," Boone said. "I believe deeply in racial equity."
Sweeping up fragments of honeycomb candy from the counter and floor of her kitchen, Mack mused, "For people to come and support my business whom I've never seen before — they go out of their way to find it — that's cool."
But she added that there may be a reason so many wind up on her doorstep. She said as far as she knows, "I'm the only Black food business in San Mateo. That's not good."
Mack knows there's work to be done — and whether it's politics, baking, or the inevitable mixture of the two, she said she intends to keep busy for decades to come.
"I hope to be here until at least 103 in good health," she said. "I like history, and we're living in such wonderful, historical times. I just have to be alive to see what's going to happen to Mr. Trump. I have to be alive to see the end of that. And there has to be an end. And I hope it comes soon."