Northeast L.A.'s Bakery Business Rising : Low Overhead, High Demand Helping Survivors Thrive and Expand
If bread is the staff of life, a five-mile swath of Northeast Los Angeles is lively indeed.
Five bustling bakeries within a few miles of each other are riding a boom that includes low production costs, high demand and even a white-bread boomlet.
When the city was young, about 15 bakeries settled in Cypress Park, Glassell Park and Elysian Valley. They were drawn by cheap labor, open land, the central location and easy access to main roads.
Using fancy French names like Foix or solid Dutch ones like Van de Kamp, the bakers set up shop on both sides of the Los Angeles River and the Southern Pacific Railroad. They fused Old World recipes with New World visions and created the city’s breadbasket.
“That’s where the bakers were,” said Tom LaBonge, an aide to Los Angeles City Councilman John Ferraro and a lifelong Silver Lake resident. As a child, LaBonge accompanied his father to bakeries to purchase still-warm loaves. He recalls inhaling the comforting aromas and watching bread roll off the assembly line.
The Northeast bakeries have dwindled in number, as have bakeries citywide. Los Angeles used to be home to 120 commercial bakeries and now has about 40, said Bob Borden, president-elect of the Bakery Production Club of Southern California, a trade group.
But the survivors are thriving, and several are planning expansions.
Most bakeries are privately owned and do not release annual sales figures. But together Van de Kamp’s Holland Dutch Bakers, Frisco Baking Co., Dolly Madison Cake Division of Interstate Bakeries Corp., Foix French Baking Co. and Four S Bakery employ more than 2,000 people and utilize almost one million pounds of flour a week, making them one of the Northeast’s biggest industries.
Weber’s, located since 1926 on San Fernando Road in Glendale and now owned by Interstate, is another large bakery in the area.
Most bakery employees are Northeast Los Angeles residents. Many are long-term workers. Van de Kamp’s estimates that one-third of its 550 employees are 25-year veterans. At Dolly Madison, general foreman Al Perez has been there 41 years.
“It’s a good profession. You can go a long way,” said Perez, who started at age 14 washing windows.
Bakeries are popular with neighbors because of their thrift stores, which offer day-old or irregularly shaped bread at reduced prices.
Today’s bakeries enjoy cheap production costs and high demand for their products. The price of flour is at a seven-year low, experts said. Per capita bread consumption grew 12.4% from 1982 to 1986, according to U.S. Department of Commerce figures. And the demand for baked goods is expected to grow an additional 1.3% annually through 1991, the federal department estimates.
That keeps most of the Northeast’s bakeries open around the clock.
By 11 o’clock one recent morning, David Schat, a wholesome-looking 24-year-old who heads Van de Kamp’s product development, was showing signs of weariness.
Schat, a graduate of Kansas’ American Institute of Baking and a sixth-generation Dutch baker, had been at Van de Kamp’s Glassell Park plant since about midnight testing a new line of bear claws.
Now he threaded his way through a kitchen laboratory crammed with scales, ovens and equipment that measures moisture and pH content, preparing to head for home. Once off the bakery floor he could pull off his hair net, which all employees are required to wear by law.
Across the hardwood floors of the 250,000-square-foot bakery, two employees squirted pecan pie filling into pastry shells from a rubber hose.
Nearby, gloved workers put finishing touches on lemon meringue pies. One scooped a handful of meringue from a 500-pound metal container and plopped it on the filling. Another smoothed the meringue over the pie with the palm of her hand. A third sculpted it into little peaks with his fingertips.
The bakery, founded by Theodore Van de Kamp and Lawrence L. Frank in 1915 with a $200 investment and one product--pretzels--now bakes 160 products and has multimillion dollar sales, company officials said. The bakery’s blue windmill logo is well-known, as is its facility on Fletcher Drive.
Built in 1931 after the company outgrew a downtown plant, it is in traditional Dutch town-house style and has a step-design facade and etched glass windows.
By contrast, the Four S Bakery in Elysian Valley, founded in 1922 by four men whose names began with the letter S, has embraced automation and anonymity. A wholesale bakery that supplies restaurants, hospitals and grocery stores, Four S is not widely known to the public. But its 430 workers make it one of Elysian Valley’s largest employers, said President John Mieding. Four S was sold in the 1930s to Interstate Bakeries Corp. and acquired late last year by Good Stuff Corp.
Despite their differences, the bakeries share a concern over proposed pollution controls that would require afterburners on their ovens to burn off smog-producing ethanol emissions.
The regulations would reduce emissions by at least a third, according to air quality management officials. But Ira H. Dorfman of the American Bakers’ Assn. said that the measures--which could cost up to $500,000 per oven--have not been proven effective and could drive some bakeries out of business. He said large bakeries typically have between two and eight ovens.
“The industry is pretty upset about the whole thing,” added Ray Lahvic, a baking industry consultant in Chicago.
White Bread Gains
The proposed emissions controls appear to be one of the few clouds on the baking horizon. The market for snack cakes and variety breads is growing, and consumption of white bread has jumped 3.8% since 1982, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce. Randy Pohlman, dean of the college of business administration at Kansas State University, attributes this to a rise in the number of elderly people and young children, age groups that like white bread.
White bread accounts for between 45% to 55% of bread sales nationwide. That drops to 25% in Southern California, where health-conscious residents have created a booming market for variety bread like wheat, rye, pumpernickel, french and sourdough.
Two medium-size bakeries churn out french and sourdough bread within a baguette’s throw of each other in Cypress Park. They are Foix French Baking Co. and Frisco Baking Co.
140,000 Pounds of Flour
Foix, a 101-year-old company which started downtown and moved to Northeast Los Angeles in the early 1900s, is owned by Peter J. Dreyer, whose father helped found Oroweat. Foix employs about 100 people and uses about 140,000 pounds of flour a week, Dreyer said.
Frisco Baking is in its second generation of family ownership. Jim Pricco and Ronald Perata, whose baker fathers came from San Francisco in 1954 and bought a bakery on West Avenue 26, now own and manage the company.
“As kids, instead of giving us pacifiers, my mom would give us ends of the bread to teethe on,” Pricco recalled. He started work at age 10, sweeping bakery floors on weekends. Frisco has bought the lot next door and plans to expand by 30%, Pricco said. There are currently 65 employees.
Inside the bakery, all is moist and warm. In a closed-off room, 60-pound sourdough “sponges” sit in plastic containers and ferment for eight to ten hours. When they have reached the right degree of sourness, they will be mixed with flour, water and salt and set aside to rise.
French bread sponges--called sweet to distinguish them from the sourdough--rise in 10-foot, coffin-like containers known as troughs (pronounced trows).
Both types of dough then travel through machines that knead, pound, pummel and shape it into loaves and rolls.
Throughout this process, the dough is sprinkled with cornmeal so it doesn’t stick to the machinery. That accounts for the fine sprinkling of cornmeal that often sticks to the crust of french and sourdough loaves.
What makes those breads crusty while white bread stays soft? The answer is hearth ovens, made of brick and heated to 450 degrees. The searing heat from the hearth creates heavy crusts, Pricco said.
Snack-cake sales are burgeoning too. Bakery buffs at Dolly Madison said that despite the much ballyhooed health and fitness craze, Americans are consuming as many sugared, doughy things as ever.
Dolly Madison is expanding its 55-year-old facility by almost one-third and plans to hire about 100 new employees. It currently has about 900, said plant manager Robert J. Phillips.
Sweet, Sticky Products
Although it makes about 80 products, the bakery’s biggest seller is the Zinger, a cylindrical cake filled with cream and covered with different toppings. Most Dolly Madison products are sweet and sticky: Each week the bakery goes through 258,000 pounds of flour, 250,000 pounds of sugar and 35,000 pounds of chocolate coating, Phillips said.
“Sure I eat Zingers. They’re better than Twinkies,” said Vice President of Engineering Travis Bryant, refering to the snack cake made by competitor Hostess.
When not making their daily bread, bakeries must carry out a daily cleaning regimen that satisfies a host of federal, state and local sanitation guidelines. Machines must be swabbed and assembly lines cleaned. Floors are mopped several times a day and can be especially treacherous: smeared with shortening, sticky with sugar or flour or pitted with unexpected puddles. Most bakeries sell their scraps of discarded dough as animal feed for about one cent a pound, said Mieding of Four S.
Trucks Deliver Flour Now
In the old days, some bakeries got flour deliveries via rail. Van de Kamp’s had a spur on the Southern Pacific. Today most bakeries get their flour in big trucks that look like gasoline tankers. The flour is pumped into the bakery silos using pneumatic pressure.
About 12 years ago, Frisco Baking blew the top off one of its silos when it pumped in too much flour, Pricco recalled. The explosion covered several blocks with a fine dusting of flour.
Pricco also remembers a 10-hour power failure some years ago that darkened his plant and threatened to prevent the day’s baking. The solution: Frisco trucked the dough to another nearby bakery, which baked the bread in its own ovens.
“Even though we’re in competition, there’s a camaraderie,” Pricco said.
Indeed, the profession is close-knit. Sons follow fathers into the family business. Bakery professionals fraternize at monthly meetings of the Bakery Production Club. Old-timers can rattle off the names of dozens of bakeries now merged or gone out of business. Some formerly located in Northeast Los Angeles include Log Cabin Bakery, Barbara Ann, Oroweat and Taix.
In-Store Bakeries Hurt Industry
Perhaps the most severe blow to the baking industry occurred when supermarkets began baking their own bread. Ralphs Grocery Co., for instance, opened a bakery in West Los Angeles in 1926 in response to a bread trust that threatened to double the cost of bread, said Ralphs Vice President Gene Brown. The bakery moved to expanded facilities on San Fernando Road near Glendale in 1957.
Today, Ralphs, Safeway, Vons and Albertson’s all have their own bakeries in the Los Angeles area. Industry watchers say the trend is growing.
In-store bakery sales jumped almost 19% in 1986, said Pohlman, of Kansas State. For established bakeries, this means the loss of large customers and increased competition for limited supermarket shelf space.
As a result, the bakeries that remain devote more time to testing new products and keeping up the quality of existing ones.
Phillips of Dolly Madison said his managers meet each morning to taste the bakery’s chocolate doughnuts, glazed fruit pies and other products. Because he is watching his weight, Phillips said, he tries to limit his morning consumption of sweets.
Clearly, gaining weight can be an occupational hazard. Schat said he gained 20 pounds soon after going to work for Van de Kamp’s.
He has since lost the weight.
“I went on a diet,” Schat recalled grimly. “Now I absolutely don’t take more than one bite.”
LOS ANGELES’ OLDEST BAKERIES
VAN DE KAMP’S HOLLAND DUTCH BAKERS
2930 Fletcher Drive
Van de Kamp’s was founded in downtown Los Angeles in 1915 and moved to Glassell Park in 1931. It has 500 employees and is best known for its cakes, cookies and pies.
DOLLY MADISON CAKE DIVISION
Interstate Bakeries Corp.
230 Ripple St.
Dolly Madison has been located in Elysian Valley since 1932. A division of the Kansas City, Missouri-based Interstate Bakeries Corp., Dolly Madison produces snack cakes, donuts and other sweet baked goods. There are about 900 employees.
FOIX FRENCH BAKING CO.
1324 Cypress Ave.
The oldest existing bakery in Northeast Los Angeles, Foix was founded in 1886 by a Frenchman named Domenique Foix. Although it is no longer owned by the Foix family, the bakery is still famous for its french and sourdough bread. Foix has about 100 employees.
FRISCO BAKING CO. INC.
621 W. Ave. 26
Founded in 1941, Frisco Baking makes sourdough bread, french bread and rolls. The bakery is in its second generation of family ownership and employs about 65 people.
FOUR S BAKERY
Good Stuff Food Corp.
1839 Blake Ave.
Four S is the area’s largest institutional bakery, selling to hospitals, restaurants and supermarkets. Founded in 1922 near downtown Los Angeles, the bakery soon outgrew its facility and in 1926 moved to its current location in Elysian Valley. It has 430 employees.