A 135-year-old California bakery is struggling to survive

A 135-year-old California bakery is struggling 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 that I would be craving a piece of French bread fresh out of the oven.

But it was a special occasion.

My phone screen overheated, but it wasn’t hard to find my way to the place where I could get it: Pyrenean French Bakery in east Bakersfield.

The bakery’s main building has been whitewashed a desert bone white, with vintage signage and a logo unchanged since the 1940s. 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 and points to his order. He makes a difference with a couple of slices of white bread, some baguettes and a shepherd’s pie.

A customer collects their purchases, hands over a $20 bill, and gets $12 back. Even adjusted for inflation, it’s hard to imagine a more economical way to power this street or any other in California.

But the lines that should be out the door and around the block are not. It’s hard to keep an institution going, just ask the family that owns it.

Pyrenean bread, a staple of Basque immigrants

Marius M. Founded by a Basque immigrant named Espitalier, Pyrenean French Bakery first opened in 1887 and was then called Kern City French Bakery. In those days it was both a bakery and a saloon, and a French tour cost six cents.

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

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

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

The current owner Marian Laxag was born in 1940. He says he doesn’t remember much until 1947, when his parents, Pierre and Juanita, bought the bakery from a second set of owners, French immigrants Joe and Lea Gaydan. It was the Gaydans who gave the bakery its current name, after the Pyrenees mountain range between France and Spain that they and many others in the area first called home.

The name Pyrenees, Laxague explains, is a fitting tribute to the bakery’s longtime and most loyal customers, the Basque community that originally came to the Central Valley, particularly Bakersfield, in the mid-1800s as shepherds and to work more at that trade. than a century.

The neighborhood was a hive of activity for the French, Italians, Mexicans, but mostly Basques. On Sundays, they would line up in the Pyrenees for the shepherd’s bread bakery, where the bread is torn apart and feels 10 times lighter than your average dough. It’s good for cooking soup or baked beans or bolognese, and it dissolves on its own on the tongue in a way that heavier breads can’t.

Basques flocked to the bar of Hotel Noriega for Picon, a mixture of cognac, soda water, a French aperitif called Amer Picon, and grenadine. After lunch and a few drinks, they’d spill out of the now-defunct joint, built in 1893 and the neighborhood’s first and most notable casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Without bread, what do you have?”

Bread is a cruel business. But it’s even harder to do so during a pandemic.

The bakery is in the heart of a stripped-down industrial district east of downtown known to those invested in its survival as Old Town Kern.

The original sign next to Pyrenean French Bakery at 717 E. 21st St. in Bakersfield.  The bakery, which turns 135 this year, is struggling to keep up with corporate rivals.

The original sign next to Pyrenean French Bakery at 717 E. 21st St. in Bakersfield. The bakery, which turns 135 this year, is struggling to keep up with corporate rivals.

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

Around the corner are Luigi’s, a fourth-generation family deli, and Wool Growers, a family-style basque shop next door that serves bakery tours starting with the first dish. The Pyrenees are located near Lazo, in a corner of a tight, windowless pool where daytime drunks and bums spill out one or two for a smoke.

Luigi’s, Wool Growers and Lazo’s, Arizona Cafe, and Pyrenees Cafe (which has different owners but also serves the bread) are within a two-block radius. It’s the closest thing to a market hall-style food court in this metro area of ​​379,000 people in the Central Valley. A neighborhood that is delicious and historic, yet neglected by locals.

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

“Now it’s a fight”

Now 82, Laxage is still at the helm of the Pyrenees. He sold the business in 1996 to a man named Mike George, the former CEO of Rainbow Bread, but bought it from him a decade later; “We just took it back,” he said in 2006. At that point he brought in an extra. family, particularly his nephew and niece (by marriage) Rick and Cheri Laxagoon, to help run it. Today, he still spreads bread six days a week.

“Essential Ingredients” is written on a sign on the wall of the retail space of Pyrenean French Bakery, still in business in Bakersfield after 135 years in business.

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

Marian Laxage says her father, who migrated from the old country as a sheep farmer, learned his trade at a rival bakery in the neighborhood called the French-American Bakery. Except for sales and accounting for a flooring company down the street in the mid-’70s, he’s been in the Pyrenees all his life, “pretty much from the cradle to after school until now.”

The Pyrenean matriarch is no nonsense. Rick and Cheri assure me that he’s earned the right not to mince words, and he hasn’t. Any romantic notion of having a legacy baker that has fueled the city and region for nearly a century and a half is conspicuously absent from his approach.

“It’s a struggle now,” Marianne says. “We had our good times. Like everyone else, we struggle. The big bread took us out. We used to have seven routes, all accounts up and down the valley, but now we’re new in town.”

“We still do it the old way”

Cheri Laxague says it’s hard to paint the full picture of business as it is today, or maybe it’s a lesson in contrast.

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

The original Pyrenean French Bakery building is currently enshrined in the Kern County Museum, which recently restored it to its original glory.

The original Pyrenean French Bakery building is currently enshrined in the Kern County Museum, which recently restored it to its original glory.

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

On the other hand, it is a never-ending labor, a labor of love. The bread is made daily with no preservatives, using original recipes and ingredients that trace back to the bakery’s origins and were brought over from the old country, the family says.

However, the quality of the bread is not enough to ensure success. “The stores used to work with you, they don’t anymore,” says Rick, noting that the bakery still does 2,000 to 3,000 units a day. “We could have done a lot more than that. We were doing much more. But the big companies are buying shelf space.”

“It used to be the locals, the Pyrenees,” says Cherry. “Now it’s not about baking fresh every day, but about the contracts that these great bakers sign every [grocery chain’s] places. We can’t compete.”

If it were just a contest of quality, the Pyrenees would win, the family claims.

“I put us up against any bakery in Los Angeles or San Francisco,” says Rick. “We have the project. We’ve been doing it – artisanally, longer, better, on a larger scale than anyone else. It starts with time. You’re talking 10 to 14 days to build a startup. So we take a piece, rework it, and move on. We still do it the old fashioned way.”

“Everything is done right here”

On a tour of the facility, Marianne points out the kilns her father built, which have been firing seven days a week for more than six decades. He also introduces me to some of the bakers.

Baker Liborio Flores takes a roll out of the oven at Bakersfield's Pyrenean French Bakery, a 135-year-old California institution.

Baker Liborio Flores takes a roll out of the oven at Bakersfield’s Pyrenean French Bakery, a 135-year-old California institution.

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

There was Francisco Ochoa, who carries a fresh pan of bread into the retail area at the end of the day. Then there’s Bakersfield native Benny Andrade standing in as a customer. Andrade, who has worked at the bakery for two decades, says his work there “taught my kids in college. one is a doctor, the other is a teacher.” He coincides his visit with the last drop of bread. “I always want to update it,” he says. “It’s good anytime, but when it’s fresh, it’s unbeatable.”

“Everything is handmade, everything is made right here,” says Marianna. “We have the molds and stuff, but as far as putting it on the sheets, getting it in and out of the oven, packing all the ingredients, it’s all under this roof. And that’s worth pointing out.”

Rick and Cheri laugh about how exactly it is the neighborhood, or maybe even the pipes that run under the building, that gives Pyrenean bread its unique flavor. Perhaps like New York bagels or pizza crust, Rick suggests, there’s something in the water that gives the bread a little extra kick.

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

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

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

Soon after the elder Laxages bought the bakery, one of the first orders came from Montana that passed through. He was so impressed, he sent more to his home. Family legend has it that Juanita never cashed her $1 check to deliver the loaves.

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

That’s right. When I finally got around to trying my Pyrenean bread, it was at the nearby Luigi’s deli for a late night snack. A sweet Pyrenean roll is cracked and mixed with dry and cotton salami, mortadella, provolone and Swiss cheeses, mustard, lettuce and onion and Luigi’s secret sauce. All ingredients were soaked but not wet.

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

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

Photo by Andrew Pridgen

Front to back, first taste to linger, the bread stayed steady and true, crunchy on the bite and soft in the middle, chewy but not overpowering.

It was, Valpredo suggested, the basis of the meal, and perhaps even the city itself.



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