Main menu

Pages

A 135-year-old California bakery struggles to survive

On one of the longest days of the year in one of the hottest places in the state, I couldn’t imagine being craving French bread straight out of the oven.

But it was a special occasion.

My phone screen was overheating, but it wasn’t hard to find my way to where I could get it. Pyrenees French Bakery in East Bakersfield.

The bakery’s main building is bleached to a desert-bone white with ancient signs and logos unchanged since the 1940s. It’s almost empty during the daytime on weekdays.

While I was waiting for a conversation with the owner, a customer came in. She examined the loose loaves of bread on the counter behind the cash register and pointed to her own order. She makes up with two slices of white bread, two baguettes, and a shepherd’s round.

The customer bundles up their purchases, hands over an invoice for $20, and receives $12. Even adjusting for inflation, it’s hard to imagine a more economical dining route on this or any other street in California.

But there is no line outside the door and around the block as it should be. Maintaining an institution is hard. Just ask the family that owns it.

Pyrenean bread, a staple of Basque immigration

Started by a Basque immigrant named Marius M. Espitalier, the Pyrenees French Bakery was first born in 1887 and later called Caen City French Bakery. At the time, it was both a bakery and a saloon, and a French round was 6 cents.

In the heart of Bakersfield’s forgotten foodie district known as Old Town Caen, the retail counter at Pyrenees French Bakery is lined with piles of freshly baked, sliced ​​and wrapped bread.

Photo by Andrew Prigen

The current owner, Marianne Laxag, was born in 1940. She says she doesn’t remember much when her parents, Pierre and Juanita, bought the bakery in 1947 from French immigrants Joe and Lea Gaydan. The Gueydans were the people who gave the bakery its present name after the Pyrenees Mountains between France and Spain, where they and many others in the neighborhood first called home.

According to Laxague, the name Pyrenees is an appropriate nod to the bakery’s most loyal customers over the years, the Basque community who originally came to the Central Valley, or Bakersfield, as shepherds in the mid-1800s and worked in the trade. Compliments. over a century.

The neighborhood was a center of French, Italian and Mexican activity, but mostly Basque. On Sundays, I lined up in the Pyrenees for the shepherd’s bread, the bakery’s signature roll that rips clean and feels one-tenth lighter than his average sourdough. Suitable for sipping soups, simmered beans and bolognese.

Basque residents packed the Noriega hotel bar for brandy, soda water, a French aperitif called amer picon, and grenadine-laced picon punch. After a meal and drink, they spilled outside the now-hollow hub he built in 1893 and became the neighborhood’s first and most notable victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. rice field.

“If you don’t have bread, what do you have?”

Bread is a tough business. But it’s even harder to do during a pandemic.

The bakery is located in the center of a simplified industrial district just east of downtown known to those who have invested in its survival as Old Town Khan.

Original sign next to Pyrenees French Bakery at 717 E. 21st St. in Bakersfield. The bakery, which is celebrating his 135th anniversary this year, is struggling to keep up with its corporate competitors.

Original sign next to Pyrenees French Bakery at 717 E. 21st St. in Bakersfield. The bakery, which is celebrating his 135th anniversary this year, is struggling to keep up with its corporate competitors.

Photo by Andrew Prigen

Around the corner is Luigi’s, a fourth-generation, family-run deli, and Wool Growers, a neighborhood family-style Basque holdout that offers a round of bakery starting with first courses. The Pyrenees sits in Lazos Catty Corner, a rugged, windowless old pool hall, where daytime drunks and hustlers spill out for a smoke.

Luigi’s, Wool Growers, Lazo’s, Arizona Cafe, Pyrenees Cafe (different owners, but they also serve bread) are all within a 2 block radius. It’s the closest place on the subway in this Central Valley of 379,000 people to a market hall-style gourmet hub. A district that is delicious and historic yet neglected by the locals.

Today, the Pyrenees French Bakery is the neighborhood’s main supplier of bread, an integral part of what the region has to offer. “The Pyrenees are the backbone,” Luigi’s owner and general manager Gino Valpredo told me during his recent visit. “If you don’t have bread, what do you have?”

“I’m fighting now”

Now 82, Laxague is still at the helm of the Pyrenees. She sold her business to a man named Mike Herr George, a former Rainbow Herbread executive, in 1996, but she bought her business from him a decade later. Her family — her nephew and niece (by marriage) Rick and Sheri Laksug — helped make it happen. Today she is still at the bakery six days a week.

“Essential Ingredients” reads out a placard on the wall inside the retail space of Pyrenees French Bakery. The bakery is still in business in Bakersfield after 135 years of business.

Photo by Andrew Prigen

Marianne Laksag says her father, who emigrated from the Old Country as a shepherd, learned a job at a competing bakery in the neighborhood called French American Bakery. Aside from a sale and detour to do bookkeeping for a street flooring company in the mid-1970s, she has lived in the Pyrenees all her life, “from near the crib to after school, to this day.”

Patriarch of the Pyrenees is nonsense. Rick and Sheri assure me that she earned the right not to truncate her words. Her approach clearly lacks the romantic notion of owning a traditional bakery that has energized the town and region for nearly a century and a half.

“I’m having a hard time right now,” says Marianne. “We had a good time. Like everyone else, we struggle. Big bread took us out. Previously he had seven routes, all of which were It used to be up and down the valley, but now it’s just in town.”

“We still do it the old-fashioned way.”

Cheri Laxague says it’s difficult to provide a complete snapshot of the businesses that exist today.

On the one hand, Pyrenees is an industrial bakery built over the years to supply towns and regions with bread, from fine dining restaurants to deli counters, school lunches and family holiday tables.

The original Pyrenees French Bakery building, now housed in the Kern County Museum, has recently been restored to its former glory.

The original Pyrenees French Bakery building, now housed in the Kern County Museum, has recently been restored to its former glory.

Photo by Andrew Prigen

On the one hand, it is a never-ending effort, a labor of love. The bread is made daily, preservative-free, using original recipes and starters that date back to the bakery’s origins and are brought in from old countries, the family says.

Still, bread quality is not enough to guarantee success. Point out that you are producing units. “You can do a lot more than that. We used to do a lot more. But big companies buy shelf space.”

“In the olden days, locals were the priority. It was the Pyrenees,” says Cheri. “Now it’s not about baking fresh every day, these big bakeries are all [grocery chain’s] place. we can’t compete ”

If it were just a high-quality contest, the Pyrenees would be overwhelmed, the family argues.

“We went up against every bakery in Los Angeles and San Francisco,” says Rick. “We have a blueprint. It takes 10 to 14 days.That’s why we take a piece, replant it and continue the process.We still do it the old fashioned way.”

“It’s all over here”

During our tour of the facility, Marianne showed us the oven her father built. The oven she’s been baking seven days a week for over 60 years. She also introduces us to some bakeries.

Baker Liborio Flores takes the rounds out of the oven at Pyrenees French Bakery in Bakersfield, a 135-year-old California facility.

Baker Liborio Flores takes the rounds out of the oven at Pyrenees French Bakery in Bakersfield, a 135-year-old California facility.

Photo by Andrew Prigen

There was Francisco Ochoa delivering fresh bread to the retail area. Then Bakersfield native Benny Andrade drops in as a guest. Andrade, who worked at the bakery for 20 years, says his work there “sent my kids to college. One is a doctor and he’s a teacher.” . He times his visits to the last drop of bread. “I want it fresh all the time,” he says. “It’s always delicious, but it’s unbeatable when it’s fresh.”

“Everything is done by hand, everything is done here,” says Marianne. “We have molding machines and such, but as far as putting it on sheets, putting it in and out of the oven, packing all the ingredients, it’s all under this roof. And it’s worth pointing out.” ”

Rick and Cheri share a laugh about what in the neighborhood gives Pyrenean bread its unique flavor, or even the pipes that run underneath the building. Perhaps there’s something in the water that gives the bread a little extra extra, Rick speculates, like a New York bagel or pizza crust.

A rack of fresh bread out of an industrial oven at Pyrenees French Bakery in Bakersfield.

A rack of fresh bread out of an industrial oven at Pyrenees French Bakery in Bakersfield.

Photo by Andrew Prigen

Shortly after the Laxagues Elder bought the bakery, one of the first orders came from a passing Montana. He was so impressed that he sent more to his home. According to her family lore, Juanita never cashed her $1 check to ship the bread.

Marianne says those who can try bread never forget it.

That’s true. When I finally got to sample some Pyrenean bread, it was at nearby Luigi’s Deli for a late afternoon snack. Pyrenean sweet rolls are cracked and mixed with dried salami and cotte salami, mortadella, provolone, swiss cheese, mustard, lettuce, onions, and Luigi’s secret sauce. It was soaked with all ingredients but not soggy.

Take another look at the restored and immortalized original Pyrenees French Bakery building at the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield, California.

Take another look at the restored and immortalized original Pyrenees French Bakery building at the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield, California.

Photo by Andrew Prigen

From front to back, from first taste to last, the bread remains consistent and authentic, crunchy to the bite and soft inside, crunchy but not messy.

As Valpred suggested, it was the backbone of the diet, and perhaps even the town itself.