Thursday, October 14, 2021

A Very Brief History of French Bakeries in Old Los Angeles

Once upon a time, a long long time ago by Los Angeles standards, the city was just a tiny pueblo that lacked a proper bakery.

You might assume that the first bakeries in Los Angeles specialized in Mexican baked goods. You would, however, be mistaken. For LA's first 72 years of existence, the ONLY bread baked in the city was French bread.

In those very early days, Andre Mano and Pierre Domegue set up shop in the Plaza area, baking French sourdough around the corner from the Plaza Church. 

Andre Mano was born in France around 1809, is listed in the 1850 Federal census as a baker, and shared a house with 28-year-old Pedro Dornes (or Domec), a cooper who was also from France. Ten years later, the 1860 census still listed Andre as a baker, with another French housemate, laborer Martin Echepare.

Little seems to be known about Pierre Domegue, except that he was married to, and also baked bread with, a Native American woman whose name and nation aren't mentioned in the few sources I've found. 

Joseph Lelong, who set up shop in 1851, inexplicably named his French bakery after Swedish opera superstar Jenny Lind. There was a Lelong Block on Spring, south of Fifth, at least as late as 1890. If Lelong did indeed own property on that block (tax assessments suggest he had assets), he would have counted two other French bakers (Augustus Ulyard and Louis Mesmer) and a French grocer (Auguste Chauvin) as his neighbors. 

Lelong was the busiest baker in town...for a couple of years, anyway. He faced strong competition when Augustus Ulyard arrived in 1853. Ulyard, born in Philadelphia to French parents, started out with French bread, but soon added German and American breads and pastries, appealing to the growing Yankee and German communities. Ulyard added fresh crackers in 1860, filling another market gap (crackers shipped from San Bernardino or San Francisco tended to arrive stale). The former site of his bakery is now home to the Alexandria Hotel.

Ulyard eventually retired from baking, selling his bakery to Louis Mesmer. 

As Louis Mesmer merits his own entry, I'll restrict this to his activities as a baker. 

Besides the former Ulyard bakery, Louis Mesmer owned the New York Bakery at Sixth and Spring (the very first Ralphs Bros. Grocery stood next door). Mesmer, a devout Catholic, was the first baker in Los Angeles to bake matzo for the local Jewish community.

Los Angeles gained an army camp in 1861 in case local Confederate sympathizers revolted (Southern California had a lot of ex-Southern residents, and Los Angeles in particular leaned Confederate during the Civil War). An army marches on its stomach, and Camp Latham needed baked goods. Louis Mesmer got the contract, and erected a bakery at the camp along Ballona Creek (he also sold baked goods to neighboring rancheros). He was still operating the New York Bakery downtown. When Camp Latham moved to Highland Park, he supplied baked goods from the New York Bakery instead of building another bakery location.

Sometime around 1870, the Taix family arrived in Los Angeles. The Taix French Bread Bakery opened its doors in 1882 at 321 Commercial Street. Later, Adrian and Joaquin Taix owned The French Bakery at 1550 West Pico Boulevard. When the family tore down their bakery in 1912 to build the Champ d'Or Hotel (which would house the original Taix restaurant beginning in 1927), the Taix bakery moved, ending up in Northeast Los Angeles.

Dominique Foix, born in Haut-Garonne, arrived in 1882. He established a tannery and saddlery in his Macy Street home, later founding Foix French Baking Company downtown in 1886 and delivering bread door to door with a horse-drawn wagon. Foix soon moved his bakery into the oldest industrial building in the city - a three-story brick building erected by Abel Stearns in 1831. Foix often traded goods with customers who were short on cash, and received so many live frogs as payments that he was able to start a frog farm and sell frogs' legs to the many French restaurants in town. This led to Foix supplying bread to restaurants, which necessitated moving the bakery into a bigger facility in Highland Park. The bakery's flour came from Capitol Mills, housed in the oldest industrial building in the city - a three-story brick flour mill erected by Abel Stearns in 1831.

Foix turned over the bakery to his son in his later years, and Foix's grandsons were running the bakery at least as late as 1941. That same year, a broken water main below Elysian Park's reservoir flooded the bakery. Louis Foix evacuated all 15 employees, but the water and mud ruined 6000 pounds of flour. The bakery unfortunately seems to have closed down in the 1990s.

French Basque immigrant Jean-Baptiste Garacochea founded the National French Bakery in 1908, later changing the name to Pioneer French Baking Company. Pioneer operated in Venice from 1920 to 2006, operated by several generations of the Garacochea family. Great-grandsons John Baptiste and Charlie Garacochea co-own the Etxea Basque Bakery, which supplies bread to restaurants.

To hell with counting carbs - good French bread is an LA tradition! Pass the sourdough.

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