The shelves of the British Bakery are full now, but a few weeks ago almost nothing remained. No more Ahmad tea bags, Heinz beans or Walkers Scottish Biscuits. “Every product was sold out,” says Patrick Alexander, 75. Blame the royal wedding, he says.
Alexander has owned this improbable corner of Britain in the Mission since the 1970s. Its name is somewhat misleading — it bakes absolutely nothing. More than anything, it’s a teleportation device between the Mission and England, Alexander’s native country. Well, a teleportation device that mostly works for beans and candy.
When Alexander moved his business here from 10th Street in 1973, he mostly sold traditional British chinaware. “Nobody was selling these products in San Francisco,” he says, “so I thought it could have been a good business to start with. This is the main reason why I moved to the States. Then the dining fashion changed to be informal. People today prefer plastic dishes.” He still sells the dishes, though the small English factories that he bought them from are almost all gone. A plate commemorating Queen Elizabeth II’s 18th birthday is still on the shelf, on sale at the special price of $24.95.
The British Bakery is tucked away on the hilly dead end of 15th Street, but once you’re near it, you cannot miss it. Its white walls, blue trim and red doors stand out from the gray warehouses around it. “White, blue and red remind people of the colors of the Union Jack,” says Alexander. “The color white just makes the building look bigger. Originally I chose to buy the whole building because the previous owner agreed in giving me a loan. It was a convenient deal at the time.” Alexander’s family never lived in the building, though. “We could have lived here, but I decided to rent the second floor and initially to keep the first floor as my office and as storage for goods.”
The odd location hails back to Alexander’s roots as a wholesaler. The neighborhood was industrial, and he never intended to sell directly to the public. In the ‘70s, he explains, it was very quiet. “There was just the San Francisco Seals Stadium and many warehouses.”
But people began to move into the warehouses and live there, and they would come to Alexander’s front door, asking if he would sell them some biscuits. So he opened the shop.
“Business soared in the 1990s, when the dot-com boom changed both the city and the neighborhood,” Alexander says. ”A lot of people from all around the world gathered. They were working at startups and they enjoyed English food.”
The boom also introduced Alexander to e-commerce. Today, the shop has many regular customers, but most of its business is online. His daughter Simone is helping him run the business, and Alexander spends most of his days with an assistant, packing delivery boxes with Walkers chips, lemon jams and Ribera Juice. But what his customers like the most are candies and chocolate bars.
According to Alexander, the British Bakery’s customers share something: They have lived or traveled in Europe, and want to taste British food again. “Besides the 30,000 English people who live in the Bay Area, my best customers work in the U.S. Army. I send a lot of products to military post offices.”
It doesn’t matter if some of the products are available in America, he says. Smarties and Mars taste different if you purchase them from the British Bakery, “because they’re made in England.”
The British Bakery, 726 15th Street, is open to the public Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.