Jeffrey Lamont Brown loves living and working in San Diego’s East Village neighborhood, but one of his biggest frustrations over the years was that it had no bakery where he could buy a loaf of bread, fresh out of the oven.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic, which dried up all the commercial advertising business at Brown’s company, Tallgrass Pictures. So with an empty 3,200-square-foot studio and not much in the way of income, he decided to turn his bread-baking hobby into a business.
In June, he launched Izola Bakery, a small-batch artisan bakery that has been drawing crowds this month — not just for its sourdough loaves and croissants, but for how they’re delivered.
Rather than have customers intermingle unsafely on the elevator to the third-floor bakery, Brown is sending all their pre-purchased goods out the window and down to the street below in a rope-pulled basket. Customers order their goods online, choose a delivery time and show up in front of the building at 710 13th St. to await their basket drop. All orders are delivered still warm from the oven.
“There’s a unique experience to eating something fresh from the oven,” he said. “You don’t want a hamburger that’s 24 or 36 hours old. Why wouldn’t you want bread that’s still hot from the oven?”
Brown said he’s been surprised by the lines forming out front since he started the basket drops in early December. He believes East Village residents are looking for ways to support small businesses and this is a coronavirus-safe way to shop.
“I wasn’t quite prepared for how much fun people would have. Kids get excited when they see the basket coming down, and parents are making videos,” he said.
The bakery is named after Brown’s maternal grandmother, Izola, whom he called “a big influence on my life and one hell of a baker.” He grew up on a farm in Dodge City, Kan., and trained to be an engineer before he fell in love with photojournalism. While working for a Chicago newspaper in 1997, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in feature photography for a documentary series about immigrants who lacked legal residency.
That’s about when he moved to San Diego, lived on a sailboat and gradually transitioned his career from freelance newspaper photography to commercial photography to film work for national advertising agencies. Before the pandemic, Brown’s Tallgrass Pictures had 10 employees working in the loft studio space in the Ratner Building on 13th Street, a renovated 1925-era building that was home to the Ratner Clothing Co. for much of the 20th century.
The Tallgrass space has a large film and photography studio; a living space Brown shares with his life partner, Jennifer Chen; and a second floor loft with a kitchen, which until March was used to prepare employees’ lunches. Brown got a cottage food operating permit to use the kitchen as a bakery, purchased an additional convection oven and baking supplies, and spent a few months perfecting his recipes before launching Izola Bakery.
The shop’s product line and its hours are limited because of the small kitchen size and staff, which is primarily Brown, with a bit of help from Chen and their friend Spencer Plante. The shop sells five varieties of sourdough bread and both regular and chocolate croissants, as well as Brown’s jarred tomato jam.
Prices are $9 to $15 per loaf of bread and $4 to $5 for croissants. That’s on the high end because Brown said he is using mostly all-natural, organic products, including grass-fed milk, organic eggs, Utah hard red winter wheat, Normandy butter and Valrhona Grand Cru chocolate.
As chief baker, Brown said, it takes him six days of work to make enough for just three afternoons of sales a week. Unlike most bakeries that bake all night to fill their shelves by morning, Brown’s baking is timed to customer pickups. To ensure the bakery items are delivered warm, Brown starts baking in the afternoons on Thursdays through Saturdays for pickups between 3 and 6 p.m.
Business is growing so fast, Brown said he is looking to hire a couple of workers to help him prepare the bread and croissants. While he’s looking forward to restarting Tallgrass Pictures when the pandemic ends, he hopes to make Izola Bakery a permanent part of East Village. He would like to open a ground-floor bakery that would have more traditional hours, but always with the promise that warm bread will be coming out of the ovens all day.
“It’s been pretty great so far,” he said. “We opened the doors with no previous food experience and just found our way. It’s really amazing to see the community come out for this bakery and support it. We sell out every day.”
Kragen writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.
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