Food / Dining

San Juan Bakery overwhelmed by customers and love

Third Street staple reopens after nearly six-month hiatus.

Ginger Russo and Mary Regalo came all the way from Marina to San Juan Bautista on Sept. 5. to pick up freshly baked goods, including two boxes of fruit turnovers, at the San Juan Bakery on its first day back in business in nearly six months.

“I have been coming to this bakery my whole life,” said Russo. “We found out about the reopening on Facebook and we had to be here. You cannot recreate this place. It is something special to the heart.”  

Russo and Regalo took the precaution of placing their order online, a smart move considering the line that formed on Third Street 15 minutes before the door opened at 7 a.m. The steady stream of customers caused the bakery to play catchup all day long.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” said owner Dianne Hampton. “I held back a little bit in what we made. We did certain cookies, but not all the ones we usually do. And we didn’t make all the turnovers.”

Baking started at the usual time, 3 a.m., and even with preparing fewer items it meant making dozens of cookies, pastries, turnovers, and loaves of bread, along with 150 regular doughnuts and 200 blueberry doughnuts—almost all of which were gone by 11 a.m.

Glazing turnovers. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Glazing turnovers. Photo by Robert Eliason.

Customers eagerly waited for more desserts to be baked and glazed as the staff took orders and thanked people for their patience on a hectic first day back.

“It was an amazing day,” Hampton said. “People were so supportive and nice. Every time we brought out a new tray of something it would be gone in half an hour.”

The legendary bakery closed its doors on March 16, in part from concerns over how to conduct business under the rules of the COVID-19 pandemic and in part from a lack of money. While working on getting loans, $9,596 raised through a successful GoFundMe campaign went toward paying rent and covering initial startup expenses.

“It took us a while to get the financials straightened out,” Hampton said. “We were finally able to get our Economic Injury Disaster Loan and the PPP loan came in at the last minute. Once the paperwork got filed we had the money in two days.”

San Juan Bakery on reopening day. Photo by Robert Eliason.
San Juan Bakery on reopening day. Photo by Robert Eliason.

One other thing that needed straightening out: most of San Juan Bakery’s previous employees were not available to return, including Hampton’s bakers. She was lucky enough to find Kelli Huerta, who had actually worked for her years earlier as a cashier before being educated in baking.

“Working at the bakery was one of my first jobs,” said Huerta. “This place made me fall in love with baking. I have always been obsessed with bread and I come from a very bread-oriented family. My mother even sleeps with a bag of bread on her nightstand.”

Peach pastries. Photo by Robert Eliason.
Peach pastries. Photo by Robert Eliason.

The huge oven at San Juan Bakery, capable of baking 150 loaves of french bread at a time, was a little daunting to Huerta.

“I am just beginning to realize how difficult it is to manage,” Huerta said. “I am only five feet four and I have to handle a board five times the size of me to get the bread in and out of the oven. It’s challenging, but it is fun.”

A side benefit of Huerta’s education in baking is a new version of the sourdough bread, with the 12-year-old yeast starter being fermented in a way which gives it a flavor unique to the bakery.

Crowds were a bit thinner the second day, the cases a bit fuller, as Hampton adjusted to the demand she saw on the first day. What did not change was her customers’ enthusiasm.

“This bakery has a wonderful feel and it’s like being in your second home when you are here,” Huerta said. “I love the atmosphere. Nobody is ever sad coming into a bakery, it’s a place of positivity and happiness.”

Regalo agreed. “It is always wonderful dealing with the people here because they seem to love it too. We love coming here; it’s just the best place.”

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Robert Eliason

I’ve been a freelance photographer since my dad stuck a camera in my hand on the evening of my First Grade Open House. My dad taught me to observe, empathize, then finally compose the shot.   I have had gallery showings and done commercial work but photojournalism is a wonderful challenge in storytelling.   The editors at BenitoLink have encouraged me to write stories about things that interest me, turning me into a reporter as well.  It is a great creative family that cares deeply about the San Benito community.