Owner Diane Hampton with blueberry doughnuts. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Owner Diane Hampton with blueberry doughnuts. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Snickerdoodles. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Snickerdoodles. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Macarons. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Macarons. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Blueberry doughnuts. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Blueberry doughnuts. Photo by Robert Eliason.

After being closed for over three months, the San Juan Bakery reopened Sept. 20 to the great relief of tourists and regular customers who have been missing specialties like French bread, cookies, turnovers and doughnuts from one of the city’s original anchor businesses. 

“We need that bakery to be open,” said Barbara Gonzales, owner of Visions on Third Street. “It doesn’t seem like San Juan without it, and it keeps a certain spirit in our town alive.”

Owner Dianne Hampton closed the bakery on June 7 when her son Jesse Hampton, one of two bakers who work there, contracted COVID.

“He just couldn’t shake it,” Hampton said. “It went into a sinus infection, and then he got vertigo. It has gotten better but has not completely gone away. He’s trying to learn to live with it so he’s able to come in and take care of business.”

A second team member also came down with the virus around the same time as Jesse but has since recovered and is “healthy and doing good.”

The bakery’s closure allowed Hampton to do some much-needed maintenance on the building, including some electrical work.

“We had a couple of issues,” she said, “but we always have issues here because everything’s old. We’re good now, though, we’re good to go, and we’re getting ready for the holidays.”

The closure was a callback to March 16, 2020, the first time the pandemic forced the 83-year-old bakery to shut down. 

“Everyone was encouraged to stay home,” she said. “No one wanted to come here and stand in line, and I didn’t know how to handle the logistics of being open for special orders. So we closed.”

The low price point of the bakery’s goods was part of the problem. It costs the same to fire up the historic brick over for one cookie as it does to bake a thousand. And with the lockdowns, customer demand was not sufficient to cover the cost and effort of baking.

“Someone ordering two dozen donuts sounds good,” she said, “but to come in and activate everything for that is a lot of work. Because we have to make the donuts and then we have to proof them, fry them and then glaze them. I couldn’t figure out simply how to do that and keep everybody safe.”

The hardest part of getting restarted, Hampton said, is replacing the perishables that were lost during the closure. After having to throw out her inventory, she then had to spend over $2,500 to repurchase the flour, yeast, fruits, nuts and eggs the bakery needed to reopen.

“We had to pretty much clear out our freezers,” she said. “If we are shut down for only a week or so, it’s OK. Longer than that, everything has to go. Even the frozen things, like the donuts we make, because even in the freezer, the yeast goes inactive, so we can’t use it.”

The reopening was not without glitches because of her son’s lingering health issues. A few scheduled reopening dates had to be postponed.

“I kept thinking, ‘We’re gonna open, we’re good,’” she said. “If I were a good businesswoman, I would have hired another baker, but I just felt like I owed it to my son because he’s worked really hard here.”

Now that things are going well again, Hampton has been deluged by well-wishers happy to see her back. Longtime customer Maryanne Puente made a trip to San Juan from her home in Gilroy to pick up some of her favorite items and was one of the many people who sought Hampton out to say “hello.”

“I have been coming to this bakery all my life,” Puente said, “and this is the best bakery around. I love the apple cinnamon turnovers and the banana nut bread, and the cookies are really good, too. Really, they have the best food and the best people working here.”

Though still short-handed and looking for more staff, the response from customers returning to the bakery seems to have given Hampton additional strength and resolve to tackle the work again.

“Being back has been amazing,” she said.” Everyone’s so supportive and nice to us. I think there were rumors floating around that we were closing forever and I want people to know that we are here to stay.” 

Baked Goods at the San Juan Bakery

Blueberry Doughnuts  I wrote about these a year ago in this series, and I love them so much that if I could mention them in every article I write, I probably would. They are available in glazed and unglazed versions and can only be purchased on weekends. I usually get the glazed ones, with the sugar coating enhancing the rich taste of the blueberries, making them melt-in-your-mouth delicious. But I have also bought unglazed ones to warm up and serve topped with a scoop of vanilla ice cream as a dessert for guests. These are absolutely a must-try.

Macarons  Crisp on the outside, chewy and gooey on the inside with a jam-like center filling, these come in several flavors and are irresistible. Hampton gets these from a supplier but they taste fresh and delicious. The one I tried had an apple cinnamon filling, and the balance between the sweet almond flower, the rich apple taste and the earthy spiciness was absolutely perfect. They are quite rich, and I find one or two are usually sufficient to get me through a cup of hot tea.

Fruit and Cream Cheese Croissants  Pastry dough shaped into a bar and filled with fruit preserves and cream cheese, these come in a variety of flavors. I tried pineapple, one of the most popular versions, and found the half-and-half balance of cheese and fruit worked nicely with the sweet glazed dough. I like to eat these slightly warmed because I like the way the softening of the cheese fuses with the fruit filling, nicely complementing each other. But they also make a great on-the-go breakfast snack as is. 

Snickerdoodles  Chewy, soft, and tender, these classic old-time cookies, like everything else in the shop, come from recipes handed down from the bakery’s founders. The only change Hampton made was to switch out any ingredients with transfats. It’s a simple but delightful cookie with an appealing texture and a great blend of cinnamon and sugar flavors.

Turnovers  Probably the most popular item at the bakery, Hampton rotates the flavors when the fancy strikes her, as the fruits go out of season, or with holiday demand, such as Thanksgiving, when she brings back pumpkin. Hampton just introduced a new flavor, blueberry, to replace the out-of-season blackberry, but I tried her most popular turnover, apricot. Hampton uses Blenheims, of course, and the familiar citrusy-sour flavor of the fruit works perfectly with the butter pastry shell. I have been eating these for 14 years and pick some up on every visit.

Recommendations for future Eat, Drink, Savor articles can be emailed to roberteliason@benitolink.com.

BenitoLink thanks our underwriters, Hollister Super and Windmill Market, for helping to expand the Eat, Drink, Savor series and give our readers the stories that interest them. Hollister Super (two stores in Hollister) and Windmill Market (in San Juan Bautista) support reporting on the inspired and creative people behind the many delicious food and drink products made in San Benito County. All editorial decisions are made by BenitoLink.