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Pan dulce at La Reyna
Caleb Pershan

Historic Panaderias Hold On for Dear Life in the Mission District

La Victoria and Domínguez have been resurrected

Two toppled pillars of the Mission’s Latin American business community, rival bakeries Domínguez and La Victoria, have returned to life on 24th Street. La Victoria, which opened in 1951 but closed last year, has been resurrected by former employees at a new, nearby location as La Victoria SF. Meanwhile, the space that was home to Domínguez Bakery, established in 1965 and closed in 2014, has come back as a new Guatemalan and Mexican bakery called Eterna Primavera. It’s run by friends of the Domínguez family, who still own the building.

Both businesses opened just in time to serve celebrants at a busy Carnaval parade this past weekend, their arrivals inaugurated by dancers, lowriders, and floats at the vibrant multicultural holiday. Taken together, the two businesses represent a hopeful new generation of bakers determined to preserve the Mission’s rich Latin American history and baking traditions in the face of gentrification.

La Victoria’s closure last fall, like the loss of Domínguez before it, became a symbol of the changing Mission: Lost staples of local life in a neighborhood whose Latinx population has faced years of displacement. On Día de los Muertos last year, when La Victoria would once have done brisk sales of sugar-dusted pan de muerto, parade-goers instead waved a “Viva La Victoria” banner before its vacant storefront.

The closed Domínguez and La Victoria behind it
Caleb Pershan

In the ’70s and ’80s, “the Mission was such a vibrant Latino community,” remembers Jaime Maldonado, who inherited La Victoria from his father and ran it for decades before contracting out operations and finally closing. “It was Latins shoulder to shoulder to shoulder.”

Businesses like La Victoria helped establish the Mission, previously an Italian and Irish enclave, as a Latin American neighborhood. Over time, even holdovers like Italian bakery Dianda’s came to cater to the neighborhood’s new clientele, adding tres leches to its menu. That’s now their best-seller, eclipsing tiramisu by a mile.

But by the first tech boom, things were changing. According to a city report, the “Hispanic/Latino” population of the Mission had declined from 60 percent in 2000 to just 48 percent by a five-year period from 2009 to 2013. As San Francisco’s housing costs continue to rise, that population could slip to 31 percent by 2025, the report predicted.

Panaderia operators like Louie Gutierrez, whose parents opened La Reyna in 1977, have witnessed their core Latinx clientele erode over decades. Once upon a time, children would run down 24th Street after school or church, stopping at panaderias like his family’s. To entertain them, Gutierrez’s father installed pinball machines and a jukebox.

“Now you don’t have old ladies, and old men, and kids, coming in,” says Gutierrez, gesturing to 24th Street. The games are gone, too, along with tables and chairs: Today, all of La Reyna’s sweets are served to-go.

Outside La Reyna
Caleb Pershan
Louie Gutierrez
Caleb Pershan

Still, customers trickle into the bakery, if sometimes just to chat with the sociable proprietor. They help themselves to tongs and plastic trays at the counter, then graze shelves filled with pan dulce: Technicolor conchas, puerquitos in the shape of pigs, and abrazos, small danishes whose folded corners hug a dollop of jam. Each is less than a dollar.

Spanish conquistadors introduced wheat to Mexico in the 16th century, and French baking traditions took hold during France’s occupation of Mexico in the 1800s. But it’s an inventive streak — there are likely thousands of shapes and names for Mexican pastries — that makes pan dulce a uniquely Mexican creation.

According to Chuy Gomez, a 30-year Bay Area DJ born in Mexico and raised in the Mission, panaderias serve a crucial community function. “It’s customary, especially for Latinos, to have a piece of bread with your coffee, or with your milk before bed,” says Gomez. “It’s a taste of home… when families get together, it’s, ‘Let’s have a cafe with a concha, and tell me about your day.’”

Despite the changing demographics of the neighborhood, Gomez counts on the Mission’s remaining panaderias. “It’s nice to still have a place like La Reyna,” he says.

Conchas at La Reyna
Caleb Pershan

While La Reyna’s overall business has declined, it remains open in part because Gutierrez’s family owns its own building, insulating the bakery from the rent increases and evictions that have plagued the neighborhood. That’s not too common: According to neighborhood preservation nonprofit Calle 24, 75 out of 24th Street’s 130 businesses are Latinx-owned, but just 54 percent of those businesses own their own property.

Still, ownership alone doesn’t guarantee permanence. It wasn’t a rent hike or even declining sales that closed La Victoria. The Maldonado family owned their building, but closed the bakery and sold the property amid bitter family infighting.

”[La Victoria], it’s a fairy tale with a sad ending, to be honest,” said Jaime Maldonado. Richmond District Russian bakery Cinderella bought the building from the Maldonado family trust last year, and is preparing a second cafe for the location.

Danny Gabriner and Laura Hernandez, who ran La Victoria under contract during its final year of operations, aren’t ready to give up on the dream. As La Victoria SF — the Maldonados still own the rights to La Victoria’s original name — they’ve reprised the classic pan dulce recipes for which La Victoria was known; Hernandez worked at the bakery for 15 years. They’ll also introduce new offerings like a concha ice cream sandwich, a popular item in Mexico City.

Dancers at Carnaval outside the new La Victoria SF storefront
Caleb Pershan

La Victoria SF’s new retail location at 3249 24th Street, formerly a liquor store, isn’t yet fully operational. A mural depicting the old La Victoria storefront is partially finished, and plumbing is a work in progress. But it was already doing a brisk business during Carnaval weekend.

“Even though things have changed quite a bit, it’s amazing for me to see how many people are still consuming the pan dulce,” says Gabriner, showing off baked treats like canastas, conchas, and white, sugar-dusted Mexican wedding cookies, all delivered fresh from La Victoria SF’s commissary kitchen in the Bayview.

“Although there’s newer customers that didn’t grow up eating it, and are now finding it, there are still many, many people who grew up with it.”

Inside the new La Victoria SF
Caleb Pershan

According to Calle 24, about 4,000 pedestrians stroll 24th Street daily, making it an appealing destination for any business. New, non-Latinx businesses, like Jewish-style deli Wise Sons, have found a vibrant clientele on the strip.

Some traditional bakeries along 24th still enjoy lots of customers, too. La Mejor, opened by second-generation Mission baker Carmen Elias in the ’90s, bustles with patrons on their way to and from 24th Street BART: They’re grabbing custard-stuffed empanadas, reading Spanish-language newspapers, and sipping inexpensive coffee at several cafe tables.

Elias doesn’t own her building, but she’s received some assistance from the city and local nonprofit groups to keep her business in place. The Office of Workforce Development helped secure a grant for her to undergo renovations for ADA compliance, and Recology helped train her employees on recycling. On a wall, Elias proudly displays a photo of herself and SF Mayor Ed Lee, who visited the bakery.

La Mejor’s storefront
Caleb Pershan

Calle 24’s business liaison, Gabriella Lozano, spends most of her time helping add businesses like La Mejor to San Francisco’s legacy business registry. Legacy status entitles them to benefits like rent stabilization grants, designed to encourage landlords to extend leases on historic businesses, and business assistance grants of $500 per full-time employee per year. “Small business can become very fragile, so we’re here for that,” Lozano says.

Elias, now in her 60s, moved to the Mission as a girl in 1968. She remembers the vibrant 24th Street of her youth, and the many bakeries where her father once worked, including La Reyna, La Victoria, and Domínguez .

“After church, we passed by [Domínguez] to see my daddy working,” Elias recalls. “At the side door, he used to give us candies... That’s memories.”

Domínguez has been dark since 2014, when third-generation owner Rosa Hurtado finally entered retirement. Her grandparents, Concepción and Sebastián Domínguez, originally opened their business in the Excelsior, but followed La Victoria’s lead to 24th Street, taking over its space when it moved across Alabama Street to the larger location where it closed last year.

According to Louie Gutierrez of La Reyna, whose mother was Concepcion’s sister, most Mission Bakeries owe their recipes to Sebastían Domínguez. He brought them to San Francisco from the small Jaliscan town of San Juanito: “That’s where, I think, the story starts.”

Now, after years of quiet, Domínguez is busy again. New operators Carla Riechmann and Manuel Barrientos are serving Mexican and Guatemalan baked goods, as well as hot food like tortas, fajitas, and empanadas in the clean, spare space with table seating.

Inside the new Eterna Primavera in the former Domínguez
Caleb Pershan

Barrientos is from a baking family, too: His father opened the popular Universal bakery farther south on Mission Street. “He’s always wanted to come back to his culture,” says Riechmann. “It’s amazing for us to be back.”

At events like Carnaval, Día de los Muertos, or Día de Reyes — when bakeries like La Mejor and La Reyna stop pedestrians in their tracks with life preserver-sized rosca de reyes — 24th Street really comes alive. Gutierrez can even be seen parading through the streets with his Aztec dance group at holidays like Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe. The crowd swells: It’s shoulder to shoulder to shoulder.

“It’s a tremendous experience,” says Calle 24’s Lozano. “You come into the community like this, where there’s people that have been here five generations, they’ve forged the community, the look of the corridor, it’s mind-blowing.

“The elders, maybe they have native roots, they come out, they bless whatever events you’re doing, bring their fumes, and it’s like I’m back three millennia. And I look at this and think, how is it possible that people want to displace all of this, want to erase this? How is it possible, when you come and look at it. Doesn’t it give you goosebumps?”

Dancers in front of Domínguez at Carnaval
Caleb Pershan

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