by Sara Brenes Akerman
It was at WashU that Ray and Leah Yeh first considered becoming entrepreneurs. Years before opening The Foundry Bakery in 2018—named by Eater as one of 26 essential St. Louis restaurants—they were WashU students signing up for the Skandalaris Venture Competition, which provides mentorship and resources to early-stage WashU ventures and startups.
“The entrepreneurial bug caught us back then,” says Leah, who at the time was working on her MBA from Olin Business School. The project they entered into the competition wasn’t selected, but participating still proved instrumental. “It gave us a lot of experience and also a lot of courage to start another business.”
Today, The Foundry Bakery is the kind of place where you want to become a regular. Establishing meaningful relationships with customers is at the core of their business model. Chancellor Emeritus Wrighton stops by almost every week to pick up his usual order of Berry Trio Walnut Bread and Taiwan Toast, a soft loaf perfect for making French toast.
The appeal is obvious: the pastries are heavenly. Not just tasty, or buttery, or flaky, but good in the way things were good when you were a kid. When your grandparents brought a box of pastries home and that first bite made you feel cared for and safe.
When I first had their Crispy Orange Bun I was, for a split second, eight years old again. Made wholly happy by the alchemy of citrus, butter, and sugar and momentarily oblivious to everything in the world except the sweet, sticky bun in front of me.
What they offer is true comfort food: not simply indulgent or instantly gratifying, but also nourishing. Thoughtfully made by someone who has learned to express their own longing and affection through food.
“I think food is one of those things that really brings people together,” Ray explains. “It evokes a lot of nostalgia. I always remember that scene in Ratatouille where the critic takes a bite that brings back old memories from childhood.”
Ray didn’t plan on becoming a baker. “I was studying genetics at WashU when I realized that while I loved science and research, something was missing in my life. I didn’t know what it was then. It turned out to be this desire to just—it sounds really trite and kind of silly—but to just bring joy to people.”
A bakery seemed like a good fit: a chance to use his scientific knowledge to enhance recipes and experiment with new approaches to baking. Today, the bakery functions as a kind of lab where husband and wife team Ray and Leah are unafraid to test everything from a new recipe to a new process.
It’s a hypothesis-driven bakery and if one thing doesn’t work, we formulate a new hypothesis.
– Ray Yeh
They offer a mix of traditional Taiwanese baked goods and Taiwanese-inspired products with a unique twist. Like their Portuguese-style egg tart, a treat popular in Taiwan. Their innovation: a super crispy shell made using over one hundred thin layers that come together to deliver maximum crispiness. “You won’t find a crispier egg tart anywhere else. We’ve taken something we’ve had in Taiwan and made it in our own way.”
Their customers’ loyalty is proof their experiments are paying off. Taylor Harvey, MSW ’21, comes in every week. “It’s the best bread I’ve ever had. Not to exaggerate, but the Umami Burst™ bread, specifically, is just mind-blowing. And I think the owners are really sweet and really care.”
Ray and Leah definitely care. Their purpose isn’t just to offer exceptional ingredients and textures but to get to know the people savoring their creations. “Part of what we’re trying to achieve with the bakery is to foster connections. We personally greet every single customer that comes through our door.”
Support from regular customers proved crucial during the COVID-19 lockdown. “It was tough many times when the store was completely empty. It was really scary. We didn’t know if we were going to make it.”
James Wertsch, Director Emeritus of the McDonnell International Scholars Academy, and his wife Mary Wertsch offered steadfast support during that frightening and trying period. “They helped us gather a whole bunch of professors at WashU that wanted deliveries. We would deliver to their house then they would deliver to everyone else. We’re really humbled that they would do that.”
Despite the setback of the pandemic, the Yehs are thinking about the future. “The next level would be to open a few more stores in St. Louis or somewhere close to WashU to serve the WashU community better. And then far, far away in the future, maybe another city,” Leah explains.
Customer Anna Fu, who favors the Chocolate Cherry Loaf, describes Ray and Leah as her friends and neighbors. “I watched them prepare for this bakery for nearly four years. Occasionally I had the pleasure of being a taste tester.”
Anna gave them the painting of Taichung Park, a famous park in Taiwan, that hangs by the drinks section. When she married, Ray and Leah made 100 heart-shaped Pineapple Gems—shortbread cookies filled with caramelized pineapple—as a wedding gift.
The morning I visited The Foundry, Anna had come to say her farewell. She was moving away to be closer to her grandchildren and, tellingly, stopped by the bakery one last time before leaving town. “It’s very sad, but I’ll be back.”
There’s no question she’ll come back to The Foundry someday. It’s that kind of place.