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Northeast L.A.'s Bakery Business Rising : Low Overhead, High Demand Helping Survivors Thrive and Expand

April 30, 1987|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

If bread is the staff of life, a five-mile swath of Northeast Los Angeles is lively indeed.

Five bustling bakeries within a few miles of each other are riding a boom that includes low production costs, high demand and even a white-bread boomlet.

When the city was young, about 15 bakeries settled in Cypress Park, Glassell Park and Elysian Valley. They were drawn by cheap labor, open land, the central location and easy access to main roads.

Using fancy French names like Foix or solid Dutch ones like Van de Kamp, the bakers set up shop on both sides of the Los Angeles River and the Southern Pacific Railroad. They fused Old World recipes with New World visions and created the city's breadbasket.

"That's where the bakers were," said Tom LaBonge, an aide to Los Angeles City Councilman John Ferraro and a lifelong Silver Lake resident. As a child, LaBonge accompanied his father to bakeries to purchase still-warm loaves. He recalls inhaling the comforting aromas and watching bread roll off the assembly line.

The Northeast bakeries have dwindled in number, as have bakeries citywide. Los Angeles used to be home to 120 commercial bakeries and now has about 40, said Bob Borden, president-elect of the Bakery Production Club of Southern California, a trade group.

But the survivors are thriving, and several are planning expansions.

Most bakeries are privately owned and do not release annual sales figures. But together Van de Kamp's Holland Dutch Bakers, Frisco Baking Co., Dolly Madison Cake Division of Interstate Bakeries Corp., Foix French Baking Co. and Four S Bakery employ more than 2,000 people and utilize almost one million pounds of flour a week, making them one of the Northeast's biggest industries.

Weber's, located since 1926 on San Fernando Road in Glendale and now owned by Interstate, is another large bakery in the area.

Most bakery employees are Northeast Los Angeles residents. Many are long-term workers. Van de Kamp's estimates that one-third of its 550 employees are 25-year veterans. At Dolly Madison, general foreman Al Perez has been there 41 years.

"It's a good profession. You can go a long way," said Perez, who started at age 14 washing windows.

Bakeries are popular with neighbors because of their thrift stores, which offer day-old or irregularly shaped bread at reduced prices.

Today's bakeries enjoy cheap production costs and high demand for their products. The price of flour is at a seven-year low, experts said. Per capita bread consumption grew 12.4% from 1982 to 1986, according to U.S. Department of Commerce figures. And the demand for baked goods is expected to grow an additional 1.3% annually through 1991, the federal department estimates.

That keeps most of the Northeast's bakeries open around the clock.

By 11 o'clock one recent morning, David Schat, a wholesome-looking 24-year-old who heads Van de Kamp's product development, was showing signs of weariness.

Schat, a graduate of Kansas' American Institute of Baking and a sixth-generation Dutch baker, had been at Van de Kamp's Glassell Park plant since about midnight testing a new line of bear claws.

Now he threaded his way through a kitchen laboratory crammed with scales, ovens and equipment that measures moisture and pH content, preparing to head for home. Once off the bakery floor he could pull off his hair net, which all employees are required to wear by law.

Across the hardwood floors of the 250,000-square-foot bakery, two employees squirted pecan pie filling into pastry shells from a rubber hose.

Nearby, gloved workers put finishing touches on lemon meringue pies. One scooped a handful of meringue from a 500-pound metal container and plopped it on the filling. Another smoothed the meringue over the pie with the palm of her hand. A third sculpted it into little peaks with his fingertips.

The bakery, founded by Theodore Van de Kamp and Lawrence L. Frank in 1915 with a $200 investment and one product--pretzels--now bakes 160 products and has multimillion dollar sales, company officials said. The bakery's blue windmill logo is well-known, as is its facility on Fletcher Drive.

Built in 1931 after the company outgrew a downtown plant, it is in traditional Dutch town-house style and has a step-design facade and etched glass windows.

Wholesale Supplier

By contrast, the Four S Bakery in Elysian Valley, founded in 1922 by four men whose names began with the letter S, has embraced automation and anonymity. A wholesale bakery that supplies restaurants, hospitals and grocery stores, Four S is not widely known to the public. But its 430 workers make it one of Elysian Valley's largest employers, said President John Mieding. Four S was sold in the 1930s to Interstate Bakeries Corp. and acquired late last year by Good Stuff Corp.

Despite their differences, the bakeries share a concern over proposed pollution controls that would require afterburners on their ovens to burn off smog-producing ethanol emissions.

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