A beloved L.A. bakery’s fight to survive the coronavirus reminds us to help out places we’d miss
Think of the one-of-a-kind, old-time stores and restaurants you would mourn if they suddenly disappeared — the waiters and waitresses who have served up your treasured taste memories for years, the shopkeepers you drive across town to see because they stock wonders you can find nowhere else.
How are they doing now? Are they managing to make ends meet in the pandemic? Have you dropped by? Have you called and asked? Is there something you could do to help?
Consider the story I’m about to tell you a plea to check in — before it’s too late, before you learn that what is irreplaceable is gone.
It’s a story about how one such Los Angeles favorite has been struggling mightily to get through this tough time — and may just do so if this crisis we’re in does not go on forever, now that it has spread the word of its troubles. It’s also a reminder that so many other gems scattered all over our city surely could use more of our attention and the dollars we’re spending online.
The other day, I stood inside Diamond Bakery on Fairfax Avenue and eavesdropped on this plaintive exchange, conducted through face masks, between Marlene Friedman, 72, a lifelong customer, who was picking up four round loaves of corn rye, and Maggie Ballesteros, who has worked behind the long, glass counter for 14 years.
“You better stay open.”
“I don’t know what I would do if you weren’t here.”
You would understand if you’ve ever tasted the corn rye or the challah or the raisin pumpernickel (sold in moist hunks by the pound) baked daily at Diamond. It’s possible that you have even if you’ve never set foot in the utterly unassuming shop, which is exceedingly easy to miss if you don’t know to look for it.
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Slices of Diamond bread long have bookended stacks of corned beef and pastrami at some of the city’s finest delis. They’ve played uncredited roles at restaurants and stalls in the Original Farmers Market down the street. The shop’s unattributed loaves, pastries, cookies and cakes have appeared in many dining establishments and in supermarket bakery aisles. People who know their baking know that Diamond is the real deal. Its creations traverse Los Angeles — and are shipped nationwide to their fans.
In the cavernous kitchen behind the store, a starter that is believed to have been active for more than 100 years turns in an enormous mixer after it is fed its daily fresh flour.
Diamond’s many recipes — for ryes, challah, babka, rugelach, bourekas, hamantaschen, strudel, Russian coffee cake, cheesecake, racetrack cake swirled and topped with rich chocolate — are well over three-quarters of a century old. They were brought to the West Coast from New York by the Eastern European immigrants who opened the shop in 1946, though details of that history have faded even as the traditions live on.
Late last year, the last member of the Jewish family that had run the bakery since the 1970s retired, tossing out memorabilia as he prepared to close his doors. But while he was more than ready to be done with the bakery, the bakery wasn’t ready to be done. A group of longtime employees — Latino bakers; Raida Shieban (born in Israel), who rules the bakery counter — had over the years formed their own sort of family and pooled their resources to purchase it.
Ramon Luna, 49, who came to Los Angeles from Mexico when he was a teenager, found his way to Diamond soon after. He started out sweeping and washing up, then became a baker’s assistant, then gradually won the trust of the owners and learned the recipes by heart for baked goods he’d never before encountered but grew to take great pride in and love.
Now an owner, he runs the bakery’s operations. His 25-year-old son Raymond is the company’s president. His son Alexis, 23, recently started working behind the counter. For years, survivors of World War II concentration camps, their camp numbers tattooed on their arms, worked the business alongside their children. No longer. But today’s Diamond remains a family affair.
Raymond, who also works an office job elsewhere, had a lot of plans to freshen up the plain space — and achieved some of them before the coronavirus hit. The bakery got its first credit card reader, its first coffee bar (with a professional espresso machine he purchased with his own money). He brought in freshly roasted beans from LAMill. He installed chalkboards from the ceiling listing the baked goods and their shockingly low prices — $1 bagels, $4 for a rye or a challah, $5 for the extra-rich challah sold only on Fridays for the sabbath — whereas before you just had to know or point.
But then came the March shutdown. The shop shuttered for two months, followed by weeks in which the front door remained locked and customers had to find their way around back for pickups. When it could open again, it came back to a leaner world, with a number of the big wholesale accounts that are its real bread and butter canceled.
To get by without layoffs, the bakery cut its daily hours: before, 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.; now, 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Bakers’ hours were cut too, because there was less baking to be done. The bakery had come out fairly unscathed in the May 30 protests just outside its doors, with graffiti sprayed on a front window and a back window broken.
But many of the streetwear and sneaker shops near Diamond on Fairfax remain closed — taking away daily foot traffic. And here’s the thing about wonderful old shops like the bakery: Their most loyal customers also tend to have a few years under their belt, and many of them of late have been staying home because of their heightened virus risks.
I don’t know about you, but I like my Los Angeles served with a big scoop of Wild West on top.
Raymond Luna got the bakery onto all the big delivery apps. He got it a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program and has been applying for other aid. A few weeks ago, he launched a GoFundMe campaign, asking for public assistance. The news quickly spread on blogs and social media. At last check, more than 300 people had donated close to $17,000 — some leaving messages: “I’m transported to my childhood each time I have one of Diamond’s sprinkled cookies,” “Diamond has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I don’t want to know what life could be like without it around.”
Those were the same sentiments I heard live in the sweet hours I spent at the bakery this week, as the staff kept urging me to have a bite of this and a bite of that, and people who told me they rarely go out took the risk to get their bites too. One couple stopped by from San Diego. Helene Baker came in from Camarillo, shopping for her 95-year-old father and her 89-year-old mother, and said her grandparents used to sell Diamond baked goods from their mom and pop shop nearby.
Newcomers showed up too, lured by the passion of the bakery’s fans who have been rallying support.
So many people now are rallying for Diamond. Other places that keep our city rich in character and history need cheerleaders too. They need our visits. They need our financial support. Some that don’t have the youthful tech savvy that Diamond has in-house probably could use a little donated help to start their own campaigns or share their stories online.
Check up on those places it would break your heart to lose, please. Do it today. Do it now.
Don’t wait to weep — in a scenario I’ve written too many times — when you learn too late of their demise.
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