Bakers & Baristas In Survival Mode Is Tastier Than Most Places When They're Fully Operational
In March 2020, Eric and Joe Quan faced a difficult choice. After struggling for three weeks, they made the painful decision to close their Cerritos cafe, Bakers & Baristas. COVID-19 was spreading fast. They weren't sure how to operate safely during the pandemic. An L.A. County order had forced restaurants to stop dine-in service and only offer takeout. The brothers felt shutting down was the responsible thing to do for the community.
"We tried to sustain as long as possible and we noticed a lot of places were closing for a little bit, and that's pretty much what we did," Joe says.
Since opening in 2015, Bakers & Baristas has become known for its excellent pastries and desserts, its brunch menu and its specialty coffee. As with the best cafes, its success has never been solely about what it offers to eat and drink.
"I think what people enjoyed most about Bakers was the environment," Eric says.
On a typical, pre-coronavirus day, you might've found parents with children ordering brunch, patrons picking up cakes for birthday celebrations, students buried in research while eating Fruity Pebbles macarons and sipping honey lavender lattes.
Bumping an eclectic mix of R&B and hip-hop, Bakers & Baristas has a minimalist design that prioritizes its communal spaces and aims to create a vibe that is conducive to conversation. The walls are lined with wood booths and small tables while mirrors reflect the large space. The Quans chose to anchor the cafe with a large, wooden communal table. Initially, patrons were not receptive to the idea. As Bakers established itself and the cafe became a known commodity, regulars would make a beeline for the table. It has been months since anyone sat there or even stepped inside the place.
The brothers grew up working in their parents' business, Candle Light Bakery, a small, Southeast L.A. chain known for its fruit cakes. Candle Light catered to the largely Latinx population of Lynwood, South Gate and Norwalk. Like most family businesses, everyone had to work. Joe says he started at age seven by placing fruit on cakes then graduated to icing them and, by the time he finished his undergraduate degree, he was handling payroll. It proved to be a strong foundation for the long hours he would work during Bakers' early days.
In mid-May, the Quans decided to reopen their doors with a new, contactless ordering system, employing half of their previous staff. They started offering outdoor seating so customers can enjoy their food and drinks on the patio.
The two-month break allowed them to regroup and refocus their energy, which included revamping the menu. "When we reopened, I think everyone was more focused,"Joe says. "When we started cooking again, it was fun and it was a smaller menu. Prep-wise, it was easier and less strenuous."
Kevin Lorico, the chef at Bakers, often draws from his Filipino roots for dishes like adobo fried rice, palabok carbonara and tapsilog (marinated steak with garlic rice and a fried egg). After helping the Quans open Bakers & Baristas, Lorico took a break to cook at Momofuku in Las Vegas and, for a short stint, at Majordomo in Chinatown. Before that, he hadn't worked at such a fast-paced restaurant. His time away, especially at Momofuku, exposed him to the word of high-end dining and gave him a new perspective on professional kitchens.
"I think having opened a smaller restaurant, having that mentality of an executive chef, I was able to dissect it all and [learned] how to streamline things more, how to cut costs," Lorico says.
His time at Bakers had already helped him develop his palate and cultivate his leadership skills. Once the cafe reopened, he decided to create a more straightforward menu.
"I had time to just be able to think and restructure all the food. We came up with a menu that was just good, everyday food. People don't want crazy, fancy food. They kinda just want something that's familiar. It's not about my ego and some intricate food dish," Lorico says.
The new menu at Bakers & Baristas features toast topped with soft scrambled eggs and gruyere, fried chicken and waffles, veggie-heavy grain bowls, a roasted pork belly bowl and a killer breakfast burrito filled with housemade chicken sausage, bacon, tater tots and moistened with various sauces, salsas, and creams. Yes, the tapsilog, a best-seller, is still on the roster.
Bakers is known for creative baked goods like its Milk and Cereal cake, essentially a tres leches cake studded with crushed Fruity Pebbles (one of their best sellers). Each massive slice has three layers of moist cake separated by luscious, cereal pastry cream. With colorful flecks of cereal peppering every inch, it looks like a rainbow sneezed on it. Drizzle some cereal milk over the entire thing and you'll wish they served this at every quinceañera.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Bakers & Baristas is its coffee. Back in 2015, when it first opened, finding a good cup of cafecito in Southeast L.A. was a struggle but that wasn't foremost in the Quans' minds. The brothers were considering a space in Irvine but they decided on Cerritos for practical reasons -- the building was for sale and they lived nearby.
Before COVID, the Quans had been using beans from a rotating selection of coffee roasters. These days, they serve coffee roasted by one of their former employees.
Seven Syllables Coffee was co-founded by Roscoe Aquilo, who started as a barista at Bakers the day it opened, and Tim Hasta. Aquilo cut his teeth at Rose Park Roasters in Long Beach then started roasting beans on his own. Bakers & Baristas is now one of his biggest accounts and the Quans are proud to support him.
"We also got to see him grow and he's gotten to a point where it's really good," Eric says.
The pandemic has been brutal for restaurants and Bakers & Baristas is no different. Since March, the Quans have been in survival mode. They have plans to launch a full dinner service everyday so patrons can take full advantage of their recently built patio area. "I think we built something pretty cool, not just a standard tent and orange barriers," Eric says.
They've also recently started hosting pop-ups, which they announce on Instagram. The first was a kitchen takeover by Nilly's Burgers, a pop-up launched by current Bakers employee Ranil Zalameda. At the event in October, customers could order food (like a smashburger with grilled onions) from Nilly's and drinks from Bakers, all of which they could enjoy on the cafe's patio.
The Quans are survivors and they're grateful they've found a niche in their Southeast L.A. community. Now, they need to make sure Bakers & Baristas holds on through the pandemic. They have no Plan B. "We can't really see ourselves doing anything else," Eric explains, "it's second nature to us."
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