It has been 25 years since Nancy Silverton started La Brea Bakery. In some ways, she says, it seems like yesterday. In others … “I sometimes think a bakery measures years like dogs,” Silverton says. “What is it with dogs? Seven years for every human year? With bakeries, it sometimes seems like it’s more like 10.”
Indeed, the story of La Brea Bakery, one of the truly iconic food businesses in Southern California history, has all the makings of a television mini-series. Improbable successes, bitter fights, financial crashes -- there’s a little bit of everything in the La Brea saga.
So it will probably be with a mixture of pleasure and relief that Silverton cuts the ribbon Thursday on the bakery’s newest expansion -- a large café on La Brea Avenue, just up the street from the original bakery location. The party will run from noon until 3 p.m. with free samples and plenty of swag.
It’s hard to imagine just how bad the bread scene in Los Angeles was before the La Brea Bakery opened. There was already a bread revolution going on in the Bay Area, where Steve Sullivan’s Acme Bakery had been baking breads with natural sourdoughs since 1983. But in the Southland, the fluffy, overly sour stuff from Pioneer Boulangerie was the best that was available.
La Brea Bakery changed all that. Suddenly, Southern California had a bread that was the equal of any anywhere. Indeed, in 1997, a par-baked loaf of La Brea Bakery bread won the San Francisco Chronicle’s tasting of sourdoughs -- a victory so disconcerting that the Chronicle ran a retest to be sure, and the La Brea loaf scored even higher the second time around.
But in fact, Silverton wasn’t even planning on opening a bakery when she and her then-husband Mark Peel were scouting spaces for the restaurant they were hoping to open. She was definitely interested in baking -- at the time she was running the pastries at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago while Peel ran the line. Puck had wanted to start a bread program, so she’d looked into it.
“What I found was that unless you were really set up for it, it wasn’t very profitable to make your own bread,” she says. “You need to have a dedicated space and you need to do wholesale to make money at it.”
And restaurants with enough space to run a separate bakery were scarce. But when she and Peel found the Campanile spot -- at the time a chopped-up mess of various businesses on a somewhat dingy stretch of La Brea Avenue -- she realized that there might be enough room for her “side project”.
Actually, thanks to the vagaries of restaurant construction and permitting, La Brea Bakery opened before Campanile -- in January of 1989 while the restaurant opened in June. It was not an auspicious start.
“When we initially opened, we didn’t even have anybody working the counter,” Silverton says. “We had a bell on the door and when you opened the door it would ring and I was mixing dough in the back and would come out and take the order.”
There were a few rough spots at the beginning.
“The first thing, we were a bakery, and so people were very surprised to see no cakes there and that made some people mad,” Silverton says. “There was another lady who kept coming in and telling us the bread was dirty, because it had flour on it. There were complaints about too many holes -- the peanut butter kept falling through.”
But it quickly became clear that Los Angeles had been waiting for a place like La Brea Bakery.
“It took a little while to win people over, but when we were selling out at 11 a.m. or 1 p.m. every day, we realized we were on to something.”
Silverton says the first time she really realized the magnitude of how big a hit they had on their hands was the Thanksgiving of 1990, when the line to buy bread stretched around the block and partway down Sixth Street.
But all that business created other problems. Scarcity does build demand to a certain extent, but when they were constantly selling out by lunchtime, it was clear the business needed to expand.
“We were just bursting at the seams,” Silverton says. “It was impossible.”
Besides, Silverton was working herself to a frazzle, not only supervising the baking at La Brea, something that involved a baker’s highly erratic sleep schedule, but running the desserts for Campanile, and helping raise her and Peel’s two kids.
So two years after opening, Silverton and bakery General Manager Manfred Krankl, now a noted Central Coast winemaker, went back to the same group of investors who had funded Campanile and got the money to build a much larger, fully staffed, commercial bakery on Washington Boulevard.
At the time, they also split the bakery off as a business separate from Campanile. “It became clear that the bakery was going to be a home run,” Silverton says. “It was then that Manfred had the foresight to legally separate the two. We knew that if we wanted to grow it, which we did, whoever was going to buy it would not be interested in buying a restaurant at the same time.”