Long Beach Is The Soft, Doughy Center Of LA's Bread Renaissance
If you had told Kristin Colazas-Rodriguez five years ago that she would one day become a major player in the Long Beach bread scene, she probably would've rolled her eyes and shrugged it off.
After earning a bachelor's degree in history and economics from Cal State Long Beach, she spent three years working as a pastry cook, sous chef and bread baker, first in Los Angeles then in the San Francisco fine-dining world. The experiences were a crash course in the highs and lows of the restaurant business.
At one restaurant, Colazas-Rodriguez says she and others experienced routine sexual harassment from people in positions of power. "It was this whole snowball of illicit, disgusting thing," she says. In 2018, at age 27, she moved back to her hometown of Long Beach to decompress and plan her next move.
Colazas-Rodriguez loved the accessibility of breakfast pastries so she began making danishes and croissants in borrowed kitchen spaces and selling them at local farmers' markets. She developed such a strong following for her France-meets-California creations that in the summer of 2019, she opened up a tiny cafe in San Pedro.
Her bakery, Colossus Bread, has done so well, she's preparing to open a second outpost, this time in Long Beach. Despite the pandemic, she isn't doing it in isolation.
We are in the middle of a bread renaissance, a golden age of carbs that began approximately five years ago. Maybe it's a natural correction to the paleo, pressed juice trendiness. Maybe the move toward all things "organic" and "artisanal" (however corrupted those terms have become) has inspired people to rekindle their romance with dough. Maybe starchy comfort foods are a perennial fallback, no matter which way the gastronomic winds blow. Whatever the reasons, bread isn't just a functional, forgettable starch that serves as the base for more interesting flavors. Made with distinct grains and high-quality flour by people who are paid a living wage, bread is finally getting the respect it deserves.
During the last half-decade, Los Angeles has seen a wealth of independent bakeries spring up, churning out heritage challahs and retro ryes. Long Beach, the second-largest city in L.A. County, is the tip of that soft, doughy spear. Along with Colossus, the bakers behind Long Beach Bread Lab, Gusto Bread, and Hey Brother Baker have made it easy to fall in love with their loaves.
"I think that's the kind of the nature of Long Beach with a lot of small business. It's kind of like an Oakland," Colazas-Rodriguez says.
Both are port cities with strong working-class roots and both exist in symbiotic, sometimes competitive, proximity to larger metropolises. Colazas-Rodriguez likes her hometown's where-the-sidewalk-ends vibe. "It's the quirky, independent, affordable artist part. Long Beach is like that, even though it's changing," she says.
That spirit of autonomy also infuses Long Beach Bread Lab.
"It's so amazing that people have staked their livelihood to be a part of the bread community. Not only are we fortunate to have those options but [the community] is awesome for supporting those options," co-founder Harmony Fried says as she releases baby chicks from her backyard coop.
She'll use their eggs in the cinnamon rolls, challah, and other baked goods she makes for Long Beach Bread Lab. Fried's husband, Levi, grew up in an Orthodox Jewish household in Long Beach and their bakery is certified kosher.
The bakery is an extension of micro-brewery Long Beach Beer Lab, which the couple founded in 2015. It's a mutually beneficial relationship. Both use the same heritage wheats — usually Rouge de Bourdeux, red fife and white Sonora — from the Tehachapi Grain project, although they're milled more coarsely for beer than for bread.
For her sourdough and many other items, Fried uses a starter she grew from the skins of grapes and apricots she harvested from her mother-in-law's Bixby Knolls yard. The brewery uses the same culture in its Wit Bier, Wild Wit, Kvass and Saison de Madre. In turn, it reserves some of its witbier and pilsner for the bakery's signature Wit Beer Bread to keep the dough soft and airy.
For Arturo Enciso and Ana Belén, culture and tradition are ingrained in every nook and cranny of their operation. The couple opened their panadería orgánica, Gusto Bread, in August 2020 with a small storefront on Long Beach's Retro Row. The line of people queuing up for their game-changing, ultra-soft pan dulce and California loaf (complete with a bear stenciled in flour on top), often stretches out the door and down the block — and that's not just due to pandemic protocols.
"The ingredients we use have integrity and their quality shines through in our products. In their taste, textures, and healthfulness," Enciso says. It's also the combination of Mexican and European techniques, which shines in items like the Nixtamal Queen, Enciso's take on the kouign amann, a buttery Breton pastry. He makes it with heirloom blue corn masa and sugar that's been caramelized until the whole thing achieves a crisp and chewy perfection.
Then there's the game-changing pan dulce, also made with sourdough. This is not your sad, dry, desk concha. It's soft and fresh and topped with a cacao and vanilla "thicc sugar cookie frosting" that'll make you realize everything you thought you knew about pan dulce was a lie.
Enciso and Belén didn't aim to create a phenomenon with their bakery. He was working in local cafes and playing in a band. She was working as a graphic and web designer. Baking was a hobby. In 2014, they transformed their two-story blue and white craftsman home on Chestnut Avenue, extending their kitchen into the living room and moving into the apartment upstairs. They began selling their bread at local farmers' markets and from the house.
"I wasn't trained in baking or business. I had to learn everything. I was all led by passion," Enciso says.
He went looking for inspiration in locales as disparate as Galicia, Spain where he met up with a co-op of 16 bakers, at Tinder Hearth in Brooksville, Maine, and at Vergennes Laundry in Vergennes, Vermont. He studied with Richard Miscovich, who teaches artisan bread baking at King Arthur Flour and wrote From the Wood-Fired Oven. After three years, Enciso and Belén decided to strike out on their own. They wanted to bridge the gap between the Mexican bread he grew up eating and their passion for sourdough.
They opened Gusto in the summer of 2017 and were met with immediate success. "I didn't know it was going to be received this well. It naturally became a community effort," Enciso says.
Prior to coronavirus, the business was doing so well that when Enciso and Belén heard about an open storefront on 4th Street, they jumped at it. They signed a lease, secured funding for the build-out and launched a crowdfunding campaign that raised $36,000 to purchase a new oven.
In August 2020, Gusto debuted its new location. Bright windows frame a wood statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe who oversees the assorted breads. Customers must wait outside the front door to pick up their orders but Enciso and Belén look forward to the day when they can, once again, welcome people inside. There, they'll be able to peruse the baked goods, Mexican chocolates, Rancho Gordo beans and tins of preserved fish from Spain.
The high tide of the city's baking renaissance seems to be lifting many boats. Long Beach-born and bred Jesse Hellen-Lloyd and his wife, Christina Wilson, oversee Hey, Brother Baker out of their Bellflower home kitchen. They don't have their own retail space but their crusty loaves of pain au levain have earned them a devoted following during the pandemic.
Hellen-Lloyd had been baking part-time while working as an audio engineer. He was about to start doing sound for television when COVID-19 hit. As his work dried up, he turned his attention to baking full-time and found himself slammed with orders. Southern Californians, driven by fear and anxiety, were looking for comfort wherever they could find it. What's more soothing than warm, freshly baked bread?
"I think well-made bread is still a novelty for most people. The pandemic has been a catalyst for them to discover good baked bread," Hellen-Lloyd says.
Hey, Brother Baker's loaves regularly sell out at Long Beach coffee and wine shop Commodity and at Solid Coffee Roasters in Artesia. Hellen-Lloyd picked up another restaurant account when Heritage Sandwich Shop on 7th Street opened this past summer.
"I think people are starting to value food, specifically developing an appreciation for good bread. Bread and baked goods can be a staple but they can also be a luxury. I've tried to focus on the staple side of things," Hellen-Lloyd says.
If there's any connective thread among all these Long Beach bakers aside from geography, it's their use of local and seasonal ingredients.
"I'm really passionate about fruit and florals. I love translating those into our pastries. I do like introducing people to something they never would have tried before," Colazas-Rodriguez says.
To accomplish that, she has had to develop strong relationships with farmers and independent food vendors. As much as possible, Colazas-Rodriguez buys citrus for her bostock and mushrooms and herbs for her miso mushroom danishes at the Long Beach Southeast Farmers Market instead of the Santa Monica Farmers Market, which many chefs rely on. "Part of our mission is to support local markets and local agriculture," she says.
Sitting high on a hill on Alma Street in San Pedro, Colossus Bread boasts panoramic views of the Port of Los Angeles and is next door to celebrated chorizo-maker Humberto Raygoza, aka Chori-Man. Almost every day during its first few months, the bakery sold out within a few hours of opening its doors.
"Our initial business success was spurred by some press that we received but it was largely locals coming through and locals who supported us," Colazas-Rogriguez says. "San Pedro is a community fiercely dedicated to small business. We only saw this reaffirmed and reinforced over the last year of shutdowns."
She was already thinking about expansion but then the coronavirus pandemic arrived. Colazas-Rogriguez went into survival mode as she struggled to meet demand. In the early days, when people were hoarding toilet paper, beans, rice and other staples, demand for her bread skyrocketed. She had customers buying six or seven loaves at a time and she considered placing a limit on the number they could purchase.
"We didn't really understand what was happening. We were so hyper-focused on the business," Colazas-Rodriguez says.
At the end of March 2020, as the number of cases continued to rise, Colazas-Rodriguez closed the bakery for a week and furloughed most of the staff. Operating with a bare-bones crew of three people, compared to the dozen who had previously worked there, she only did delivery to individual customers and avoided third-party delivery apps. In July, she was able to reopen the storefront and rehire most of her employees. Slowly but surely, Colossus rediscovered its niche and Colazas-Rodriguez started to look to the future.
"I think for the longevity of the business, we've always needed to expand," she says.
Later in February, she'll open Colossus Bread + Coffee on 2nd Street in the Belmont Shore neighborhood. It's larger than the original location, allowing Colazas-Rodriguez to offer seasonal, grab-and-go snacks alongside her signature breads and laminated pastries. It also houses coffee roasted by her husband and co-founder, Nick Rodriguez, under the Penny Coffee Roasters label.
Colazas-Rodriguez hopes she can sustain the momentum. The pandemic has inspired many of us to think about where our food comes from and how it arrives at our tables. She hopes more people will see the value in shopping small and buying local. For some consumers, that requires a major change in perception. Bread is no longer a functional, forgettable starch that serves as the base for more interesting flavors. Bread, made with distinct grains and high-quality flour by people who are paid a living wage, is a food worthy of admiration — and there's no better place to find it than Long Beach.
"I'm hopeful about it," Colazas-Rogriguez says. "I think that we are going to slowly change the perception of bakeries in Long Beach."