Long time San Juan Bautista resident Mary Anzar remembers a nice older gentleman who used to come into the historic San Juan Bakery regularly when she worked there for 20 years, prior to her current job at the Old Mission San Juan Bautista gift shop.
“He would come by and he loved the butter pecan rolls and the cinnamon rolls, and he would always buy some French bread,” said Anzar, 71. It took her awhile to find out it was the legendary photographer Ansel Adams, driving in from Carmel to stock up on treats from his favorite bakery.
With an 80-year history and a nationwide reputation, San Juan Bakery seems an unlikely candidate for closure. But with the onset of the shelter-in-place order, financial pressures and concerns about being able to safely reopen again, shuttering the store seemed inevitable.
Though bakeries are considered essential businesses, owner Dianne Hampton shut the bakery down on March 16.
“Out of concern for our customers and staff we have decided to close until it is determined safe to reopen,” she wrote in a post on the bakery’s Facebook page. “Please take care of yourselves and each other and come see us when we reopen.”
Hampton said she was scared for her health.
“I am at an at-risk age and a lot of my customers are too,” Hampton, 70, said. “I didn’t want to endanger anyone by staying open because, in a place like ours, people have to browse to shop.”
The closing surprised residents, including Margot Tankersley, owner of Margot’s Ice Cream and board member of the San Juan Bautista Community Business Association.
“I was in shock,” Tankersley said. “The bakery brings people into town from around the world. People come in here, get their ice cream, then say ‘where is the bakery?’”
Hampton said she applied for a Payroll Protection Program loan and sought other assistance, but so far no help has been available. In a bid to reopen, she started a GoFundMe campaign, and the community is responding.
“I did not want to seem like I was begging,” she said, “but to keep the business going I had no choice. I still have to pay rent while I am closed, and the bill just for keeping the refrigerators and freezers running comes to over $1,500 a month. I lost all my perishables and have to restock them all again.”
The campaign went live on May 23, and as of May 30 it has raised over $4,565 toward the $25,000 goal.
Hampton plans on using donations to hire help to clean the customer area and kitchen while she works on restocking. She said the support from her customers has moved her deeply.
“I did not know what to expect. I did not want to get my hopes too high. But the first time I looked the night we started, people were already giving to help us. Honestly, I broke down and cried, thinking about our customers caring that much about us.”
Hampton began at the bakery working part-time to supplement her income as a bookkeeper.
“I started working at the bakery on weekends in 2003 and fell in love with it,” she said. “When it became available for sale in 2012, my son Jesse and I grabbed it before anyone else could.”
The building was constructed in 1860 by Filipe Gardella for use as a general store. It was the first brick building in San Juan, which kept it from being destroyed by a huge fire on Third Street in 1867. The location housed several general stores before being purchased in 1938 by Reno and Silvio Cornaggia. The brothers moved their existing San Juan Bakery from the building across the street, the current location of the 18th Barrel Tasting Room. It has changed hands several times over the years, but always remained a bakery.
One of the bakery’s distinguishing features is its massive brick oven dating back to the founding.
“I was told our oven can cook 150 loaves of French bread at a time, but you would burn a lot of them if you tried,” Hampton said. “Some things are just not possible. There are so many factors involved in the baking, like consistent heat and humidity.”
When the Hamptons took over the bakery, they went back to recipes used by the original owners, adapted them to modern tastes and made them healthier by removing saturated fats where they could.
“It was easier to run the business when Reno had it,” Hampton said. “I have heard stories that they would take a cart and would go to Spreckels Sugar where they could buy broken sacks of sugar for pennies on the dollar. That’s what he did for all his supplies. Of course, now there are better safety rules and we go through certified distributors.”
When in operation, baking begins at 3 a.m., with doughnuts going into production at 4 a.m. Sourdough, French bread, turnovers and pastries are made every day, along with one or two other kinds of bread.
“We usually do a cinnamon bread, one of the grain breads, like the black or the squaw or honey wheat,” Hampton said. “But while they are baking they are still working, rolling out the pastry dough and the dough for the pies and the turnovers.”
The French bread is legendary in town—the fresh-baked aroma carries for blocks. Hampton said cookies, pastries, and doughnuts are also in high demand, particularly the blueberry doughnuts that are prepared on weekends only.
“The turnovers have to be number one,” Hampton said. “A lot of people come in and that is all they want. We do apricot, glazed and cinnamon apple, guava, blackberry, lemon, cherry, sometimes mango, and in autumn we do pumpkin.”
They alternate between flavors and make at least 128 turnovers a day, baking them in the afternoon so they are ready for customers the next morning. The bakery also makes pies they sell on weekends and by phone order.
San Juan Bakery is often a stop for legions of fourth graders in town visiting the Mission and state park, and is a magnet for tourists who come to visit the town’s information center located inside the building. It has a devoted following among local residents as well, including those who stop by before and after church services.
One group of women, styling themselves as “the Comadres de San Juan,” met there every Saturday morning before the bakery closed.
“It is our heartfelt meeting place,” said member Lupe Valdez, “nurtured by the warmth and hospitality of its owner and staff. It’s the heart of San Juan.”
Her friend Margaret Galvin concurred. “I was thinking about how the bakery serves as a welcoming center and is the place where the spirit of our town is caught, then shared and spread. All the senses come to life there and you can see it reflected in people’s faces.”