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An Institution Crumbles : The Pioneer Boulangerie Succumbs to Social, Economic Forces

December 26, 1993|KATHLEEN KELLEHER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SANTA MONICA — Once dubbed "Gastroland" by a food critic, the Pioneer Boulangerie restaurant in Santa Monica occupied an entire city block and offered a head-turning array of gourmet eateries under one roof.

It became a city institution, albeit one that sometimes seemed to be suffering an identify crisis.

But on Friday, after 17 years on Main Street, Pioneer Boulangerie closed its doors for good, the victim of a variety of economic and social forces.

"It just got to the point where we couldn't afford to turn the lights on and open the doors," said John Garacochea, son of one of the restaurant's founders.

"There were a lot of factors. The recession . . . a labor-intensive business, the homeless problem. And we used to be unique, until the last few years when all these gourmet food and coffee places opened along Main (Street) . . . and Third Street Promenade."

Additionally, Garacochea said the state's new seismic codes required building improvements that would have cost at least $100,000, a figure hard to swallow with a money-losing business.

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He said no decisions have been made about future of the property, bordered by Bicknell and Bay streets and owned by John W. Garacochea and his brother, Jay Garacochea, who co-founded the business.

For its faithful patrons, news of the closing came hard.

"I started crying when I heard," said Leslie Lobel, a regular at Pioneer Boulangerie since it opened. "I was shocked. I came

to try and get our last pies. It was a total Santa Monica institution. It was where families would go for dinner, kids would get their birthday cakes, people would meet for lunch. Where else can you go and spend $2 for a cup of coffee and a roll?"

The massive operation included a full-service bakery, a patio-style cafeteria, a bistro dining room, a deli, an espresso bar, a wine and cheese shop and, at one point, a frozen yogurt machine.

John Garacochea conceded that the numerous eateries were probably "a little too much" for some customers. In retrospect, he said that business may have suffered because "people would just get used to the place and we would change it."

About 60 employees have lost their jobs with the closing. Some are being offered jobs at the original Pioneer Bakery, where only bread is baked, in Venice, Garacochea said. Another, smaller bakery, replete with all the pastries available at the Pioneer Boulangerie, opened on Montana Avenue and Lincoln Boulevard a few months ago, where it shares space with a Panda Inn.

One of biggest problems Pioneer Boulangerie faced in recent years, Garacochea said, was an influx of "indigents" who would hang around the restaurant, sometimes locking themselves in bathrooms or making off with beer or other products.

"For a while, we had customers calling up daily and saying 'We're not eating here anymore because of the homeless,' " Garacochea said.

Eventually, a security guard was hired. But Garacochea complained that as a result, what was supposed to be a European, villagelike ambience was replaced with a "prisonlike" atmosphere.

The hard times plaguing Pioneer Boulangerie have been shared by other frustrated merchants on Main Street. The Oar House, another old-time Santa Monica venue, closed about 10 days ago. The owner could not be reached for comment, but neighboring businesses said the business had been struggling to pay for seismic upgrades to the building.

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"Businesses all along Main have been struggling," said Brandon MacNeal, co-chair of the Main Street Merchants' Assn. "It's just gotten progressively worse. The city's interests in developing (Third Street Promenade) really robbed Main of essential resources like diminished police presence; the trees get trimmed a third of the time that they do on the Promenade, and there isn't enough street lighting. It'll be tough without Boulangerie because they brought a lot of people who would come just to see the place, then shop."

A Main Street revitalization plan goes before the Santa Monica City Council in January for approval of its funding.

The Garacochea family came to Venice from the French Pyrenees in 1908 to open Pioneer Bakery in the two-story building on Rose Avenue and Fifth Street where it still stands.

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The family, which left the village of Les Aldudes with sourdough starter to bake the bread that remains the bakery's calling card, lived on the building's second floor, running the bakery on the lower level. Four generations later, the wholesale bakery operation--which includes a new bakery in Oxnard and another planned for the East Coast--distributes bread in 42 states.

The restaurant was John W. Garacochea's dream, according to his son, who said that his father traveled through Europe for years before deciding to open a European eatery decorated with folkloric Basque art housed in chateau-type architecture.

The restaurant's heyday, John Garacochea said, was from the late '70s through 1989, when it drew a large clientele from North Santa Monica and Pacific Palisades. After that, he said, the restaurant began struggling, sometimes losing money, sometimes breaking even.

"I am depressed," said Jan Sloane, who made a habit of driving from West Los Angeles for the coffee and bread at the restaurant. "Years and years I've come here. I just thought they were remodeling again. They make the best cappuccino here. I've been to Starbucks. They're not as good."

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