A 135-year-old California bakery struggles to survive

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, it was hard to imagine I’d be craving a slice of freshly baked French bread.

But it was a special occasion.

My phone screen got hot, but it wasn’t hard to find the place I could get it: Pyrenees French Bakery in East Bakersfield.

The main bakery building is bleached in a white desert bone, embellished with ancient signage and a logo unchanged from the 1940s. It is almost empty on a weekday afternoon.

While I’m waiting to speak to the owners, a customer walks in. He examines the loose loaves on the counter behind the cash register, then points to his order. He makes lemon with a couple of sliced ​​white loaves, a couple of baguettes and a shepherd’s round.

The customer collects their purchases, delivers a $ 20 bill, and gets $ 12 back. Even adjusted for inflation, it’s hard to imagine a cheaper path to livelihood on this street, or any other in California.

But the lines that should be outside the door and around the block are not there. It’s hard to keep an institution afloat – ask the family that owns it.

Pyrenean bread, a staple of Basque immigrants

Started by a Basque immigrant named Marius M. Espitallier, the French Pyrenean Bakery first came to life in 1887, later called Kern City French Bakery. In those days it was both a bakery and a saloon, and a French tour cost six cents.

A stack of freshly baked, sliced ​​and packaged bread arrives at the retail counter of Pyrenees French Bakery, in the heart of Bakersfield's forgotten food district known as Old Town Kern.

A stack of freshly baked, sliced ​​and packaged bread arrives at the retail counter of Pyrenees French Bakery, in the heart of Bakersfield’s forgotten food district known as Old Town Kern.

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

Current owner Marianne Laxague was born in 1940. She says she doesn’t remember long before 1947, when her parents, Pierre and Juanita, bought the bakery from the second group of owners, French immigrants Joe and Lea Gueydan. The Gueydans were the ones who gave the bakery its current name, from the Pyrenees mountain range between France and Spain that they and many others in the neighborhood called home for the first time.

The name Pyrenees, Laxague explains, is a fitting tribute to the bakery’s most loyal and longtime customers, the Basque community that originally came to the Central Valley, namely Bakersfield, in the mid-1800s as shepherds and worked in that craft for longer. of a century.

The neighborhood was a hive of French, Italian, Mexican and, above all, Basque activity. On Sundays they lined up in the Pyrenees for the shepherd’s loaf, the bakery’s signature sandwich, where bread tears and feels 10 times lighter than normal sourdough. It’s good for soaking boiled or bolognese soups or beans, and on its own it dissolves on the tongue in a way that heavier loaves can’t.

Basque residents packed their bags at the Noriega Hotel bar for a punch at Picon, a mix of brandy, soda, a French aperitif called Amer Picon and grenadine. After a meal and a drink, they poured out of the now-emptied hub, which was built in 1893 and became the neighborhood’s first and most notable victim of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Without bread, what do you have?”

Bread is a tough business. But it is even more difficult to do this during a pandemic.

The bakery resides in the heart of a stripped down industrial district just east of downtown, known to those who have invested in its survival as Old Town Kern.

The original sign on the side of the French Pyrenean oven at 717 E. 21st St., Bakersfield.  The bakery, turning 135 this year, is struggling to keep up with corporate competitors.

The original sign on the side of the French Pyrenean oven at 717 E. 21st St., Bakersfield. The bakery, turning 135 this year, is struggling to keep up with corporate competitors.

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

Around the corner is Luigi’s, the fourth-generation family-run deli, and Wool Growers, the neighborhood’s family-style Basque venue serving bakery rounds starting with the main course. The Pyrenees are on the corner of Lazo’s, a sturdy, windowless old pool room with drunks and cheaters flocking in one or two to smoke.

Luigi’s, Wool Growers and Lazo’s, Arizona Cafe and Pyrenees Cafe (which has several owners but also serves bread) are all within a two block radius. It’s the closest thing to a covered market-style food center in this 379,000-foot Central Valley metro. A delightful and historic neighborhood, but ignored by the locals.

Today, the French Pyrenean bakery is the neighborhood’s main bread supplier, an integral part of what this area has to offer. “The Pyrenees are a backbone,” Gino Valpredo, owner and general manager of Luigi’s, told me during a recent visit. “Without bread, what do you have?”

“Now it’s a fight”

Laxague, now 82, is still at the helm of the Pyrenees. He sold the business in 1996 to a man named Mike George, a former Rainbow Bread executive, but bought it from him a decade later: “We just got it back,” he said in 2006. At that point, she brought in additional family, namely her nephew and niece (by marriage) Rick and Cheri Laxague, to help her manage it. She today she is still at the bakery six days a week.

“Essential Ingredients” reads a sign on the wall inside the retail space of the Pyrenees French Bakery, still operating today in Bakersfield after 135 years in business.

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

Marianne Laxague says her father, who immigrated from the old country as a sheep herder, learned the trade at a competing bakery in the neighborhood called the French American Bakery. Aside from the sale and a detour to do the accounting for a flooring company down the street in the mid-1970s, she’s been in the Pyrenees all her life, “from near the cradle, to after school, until to now “.

The Pyrenean matriarch makes no sense. Rick and Cheri assure me that she has earned the right not to mince words, and she has not. Any romantic idea of ​​owning a traditional bakery, which has fueled a city and region for nearly a century and a half, is conspicuously absent from her approach.

“Now it’s a struggle,” says Marianne. “We had a great time. Just like everyone else we are struggling. The thick bread took us out. We had seven routes, you count all up and down the valley, but now we are alone in the city ”.

“We still do it the old way”

Cheri Laxague says it’s hard to give a complete snapshot of the business as it exists today, or maybe it’s a contrasting lesson.

On the one hand, Pyrenees is an industrial bakery built over the years to supply a city and a region with bread, from fine dining to deli counters, school canteens and family holiday tables.

The original building of the French Pyrenean bakery is now housed in the Kern County Museum, which has recently restored it to its original splendor.

The original building of the French Pyrenean bakery is now housed in the Kern County Museum, which has recently restored it to its original splendor.

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

On the other hand, it is an endless effort, a labor of love. The bread is produced daily without preservatives, using the original recipes and an appetizer that dates back to the bakery’s origins and brought from the ancient countryside, says the family.

However, the quality of the bread is not sufficient to guarantee success. “The stores used to work with you, they don’t do it anymore,” Rick says, noting that the bakery still produces between 2,000 and 3,000 units a day. “We could do a lot more. We did a lot more. But big companies are buying shelf space. “

“In the past, it was the locals who had priority, it was the Pyrenees,” says Cheri. “Now it’s not about baking fresh every day, it’s about contracts that these great bakers make all the way through [grocery chain’s] locations. We can’t compete. “

If it were simply a quality race, the Pyrenees would win hands down, says the family.

“I have pitted any bakery in Los Angeles or San Francisco against it,” says Rick. “We have the project. We are doing it – artisanal thing – longer, better, on a larger scale than anyone else. It starts with time. To create an appetizer, you are talking about 10 to 14 days. That’s why we take a piece, recult it and keep the process going. We still do it the old way ”.

‘Everything is done right here’

On a tour of the facility, Marianne shows the ovens her father built, which have been cooking seven days a week for over six decades. She also introduces me to some of the bakers.

Baker Liborio Flores takes a spin out of the oven at the French Pyrenean bakery in Bakersfield, the 135-year-old California institution.

Baker Liborio Flores takes a spin out of the oven at the French Pyrenean bakery in Bakersfield, the 135-year-old California institution.

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

There was Francisco Ochoa, carrying a pan of fresh breads into the retail area, some of the last of the day. Then there is Benny Andrade, born in Bakersfield, who stops as a customer. Andrade, who has worked at the bakery for two decades, says his work there “sent my children to college: one is a doctor and the other is a teacher.” He calculates his visit to coincide with the last drop of bread. “I always want to have it fresh,” he says. “It’s good at any time, but when it’s fresh, it’s unbeatable.”

“Everything is done by hand, everything is done right here,” says Marianne. “We have molds and stuff, but as for putting it on the sheets, getting it in and out of the oven, packing all the ingredients, it’s all under this roof. And this is worth underlining ”.

Rick and Cheri share a laugh about what exactly in the neighborhood – or perhaps even the pipes that run under the building – gives Pyrenean bread its signature flavor. Perhaps, like bagels or pizza crust in NYC, Rick speculates, there’s something in the water that gives the bread some of what makes it extra.

A rack of fresh bread fresh from the industrial ovens of the Pyrenees French Bakery in Bakersfield.

A rack of fresh bread fresh from the industrial ovens of the Pyrenees French Bakery in Bakersfield.

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

Soon after Elder Laxagues bought the bakery, one of the first orders came from a passing mountaineer. He was so impressed that he sent more to his home. Family legend has it that Juanita never cashed her $ 1 check to ship the loaves.

Those who are able to try bread never forget it, says Marianne.

It’s true. When I finally got to taste my Pyrenean bread, I was at Luigi’s nearby deli for a late afternoon snack. The Pyrenean dessert cracked and mingled with dry and cooked salami, mortadella, provolone and Swiss cheeses, mustard, lettuce and onion, and Luigi’s secret sauce. All ingredients were absorbed but not mushy.

Another look at the original Pyrenean French bakery building restored and immortalized at the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield, California.

Another look at the original Pyrenean French bakery building restored and immortalized at the Kern County Museum in Bakersfield, California.

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

Front to back, from the first taste to the last, the bread remained stable and true, crunchy in the bite and soft in the center, chewy but not laborious.

It was, as Valpredo suggested, the backbone of the meal – and perhaps even the city itself.



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