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A Dream Slowly Rising

Immigrant sisters give up successful careers to open a French bakery in L.A. They have no training, but their family is behind them.

December 09, 2005|Mary MacVean | Times Staff Writer

The sisters call it La Maison du Pain, or House of Bread, a perfectly sensible name for the pretty storefront bakery they opened amid the car body shops on Pico Boulevard, a few miles west of downtown.

Had Carmen Salindong and Josephine Santos instead chosen the name La Maison des Reves, or House of Dreams, it would have been an equally clear and honest statement of what's inside: The dreams of two immigrant sisters, the oldest of eight children, tired of their successful careers working for other people. The dreams of a young apprentice baker from France. Even the dreams of a neighborhood.

But dreams can be outlandish things.

"Audacious" would not be overdoing it to describe a plan for a serious French bakery cooked up by two Filipino American women with no training.

As Salindong and Santos have said, using precisely the same words: "We are not even bread eaters. We are rice eaters."

But their dream had been growing, rising like bread, until it could not be ignored. It was, perhaps, their midlife crisis, a time when they asked, "Is that all there is?"

"I've been in my suit and nylons for a long time," said Salindong, a law firm administrator who turned 50 in May and now goes to work in jeans and Vans sneakers, though she still wears elegant hoop earrings.

"We loved our bosses, but it was time to go," adds Santos, 51, who for 20 years was the bookkeeper at L'Orangerie and who has dreamed of owning a bakery since she worked in a pizza shop as a teenager in the Philippines.

Three years ago, the sisters went to Paris with 17 other relatives; this is a family that likes to be together. Salindong and Santos were smitten by what they encountered all over Paris: people lining up as early as 6 a.m. at their neighborhood bakeries.

Back in L.A., they couldn't get the image out of their heads. So they began looking around for a building. Finally, they saw one in a Mid-City neighborhood where the homes may be roomy or run-down, where Pico Boulevard is often litter-strewn, where car repair shops ringed with barbed wire and liquor stores dominate but where cafes and galleries are popping up.

It seemed perfect, with room for the bakery and offices. Salindong's husband, Conrad, could move his 13-year-old dental lab business to the second floor. "The building was what really told me, 'Here I am, do this,' " Carmen Salindong said.

In April 2004, the sisters signed a five-year lease with two options to renew, pouring in their life savings and using the equity in both of their homes. Salindong quit her job six months later, and Santos quit hers the next June.

They found asbestos floor tiles, no plumbing, a falling ceiling, poor air conditioning. The sisters had to have a new utility pole installed. They needed a new gas valve. They stripped some walls, sandblasted a wall and added a glass storefront.

"I started complaining about all I had to do, and then I remembered this was my idea," Salindong said.

They sampled baguettes all over Los Angeles.

They imported top-notch ovens and other equipment from France, learning from the company representatives how to use them. They bought enormous stand mixers, a dough-cutting machine, deep rack ovens and a convection oven 7 feet tall.

They learned to make croissants and baguettes from books, giving samples to carpenters, contractors, friends and family.

They had plenty of doubters.

"Everyone was pessimistic," Salindong said. "Even the builder, even my own architect didn't imagine how it would be. When we were doing it, they were all shaking their heads."

Take the stainless steel-and-glass pastry display cases, which Salindong designed with perhaps more taste than expertise. So awkward to clean that she needs help to reach all the corners, they resemble jewelry store cases.

"What I put in them is my jewel," Salindong said.

Their family became their backbone. Salindong's older daughter Carly, a UCLA student, designed the logo and helped her mother design the frosted-glass window behind the bakery counter. Two tables were borrowed from the family matriarch.

"Everyone has put something into this," Carly said, explaining that she and her cousins -- and some of their friends -- worked without pay all summer. Her grandmother did the wash and cooked meals for her weary family. Brothers, cousins, children: All were called on for a school pickup or a bread delivery.

Santos and Salindong were the first of eight children and the first, at 26 and 25, to leave Quezon City in the Philippines for the United States. They sent for their siblings, two at a time, and their parents. All but one made the move permanently.

They did not have to send for the young man who loved Carmen. Conrad Salindong arrived on a student visa. "She emigrated and I had to follow. I gave up everything," he said, not unhappily.

Here he goes again.

At 8 a.m. last Aug. 6, La Maison du Pain opened to the public.

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