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Any Way You Slice It, L.A.'s Breadbasket Business Is Rising

December 10, 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 resurgence.

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.

With fancy French names such as Foix or solid Dutch ones such as 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.

Number Dwindled

The northeast bakeries have dwindled in number as have bakeries citywide. Los Angeles used to be home to 120 commercial bakeries; there are now about 40.

But the survivors are thriving.

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 use almost a million pounds of flour a week, making them one of the area'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.

Veteran Employees

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. The demand for baked goods is expected to grow an additional 1.3% annually through 1991, the department estimates.

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

By 11 one recent morning, David Schat, the 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 acidity and alkalinity content, preparing to head for home.

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.

The bakery, founded by Theodore Van de Kamp and Lawrence L. Frank in 1915 with a $200 investment and one product--pretzels--today 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, the bakery is in traditional Dutch town-house style and has a step-design facade and etched glass windows.

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, President John Mieding said. 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.

The regulations would reduce emissions by at least a third, according to air quality management officials but could cost up to $500,000 per oven. Large bakeries usually have two to eight ovens.

The proposed emissions controls appear to be one of the few clouds on the baking horizon. The market for snack cakes and variety breads is growing, and consumption of white bread has jumped 3.8% since 1982, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.

White bread accounts for between 45% and 55% of bread sales nationwide. That drops to 25% in Southern California, where health-conscious residents have created a booming market for variety breads such as wheat, rye, pumpernickel, French and sourdough.

Two medium-size bakeries churn out French and sourdough bread within a baguette's throw of each other in Cypress Park. They are Foix French Baking Co. and Frisco Baking Co.

Foix, a 101-year-old company that started downtown and moved to Northeast Los Angeles in the early 1900s, is owned by Peter J. Dreyer, whose father helped found Orowheat.

Foix employs about 100 people and uses about 140,000 pounds of flour a week, Dreyer said.

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