The Mission Panaderia in the Time of Tech

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story states that La Victoria will be transforming into a bar. The bakery will continue to operate as a restaurant and bakery with a focus as a Latin Bistro, according to Jaime Maldonado, owner from la Victoria Bakery. We regret the error.

In 1968, Carmen Elias moved to San Francisco from Mexico City. She settled into a comfortable job at Bank of America, where the years drifted into decades. In 1993, she decided it was time for a change and opened La Mejor Bakery on 3329 24th Street, just a few paces away from 24th and Mission BART.

The move empowered Elias, but tore her family apart. “They didn’t talk to me for two years,” she said, sliding a tray of pumpkin empenadas behind the glass counter that young students routinely stare at in open-mouthed anticipation. “They thought it was really a bad neighborhood, really dangerous. And it had a bad reputation.”

So for months, cream-filled pastries and buttery cookies took the place of friendly family phone calls. But as the neighborhood started to change dramatically in the past decade, Elias says that her family’s perspective about the bustling panaderia did, too. “Everything has changed because it’s clean. Because of the BART cleanup, more people are coming to my business because they aren’t afraid to walk down the street. They take their time, pass by the store, get a coffee. They feel safe. I see the neighborhood change and I see it growing and I’m very happy.”

Carmen Elias grabs a pastry at La Mejor Bakery. Photo by Erica Hellerstein.

Carmen Elias grabs a pastry at La Mejor Bakery. Photo by Erica Hellerstein.

Elias says the tidier streets have inspired other places to set up shop, like an artisan pizza shop next to the bakery, which tends to draw a younger crowd that’s newer to the Mission. “They go there, get some pizza, and then stop here and get a cookie,” she said. “It’s been good for business, having more places and more people walking down the street.”

For other local bakeries, though, the increased foot traffic and demographic changes have come with their own set of challenges. Louie Gutierrez, who works at La Reyna Bakery on 24th, said sales constantly fluctuate and it’s hard to predict how business will be in the coming hours, days, and months. “Today’s busy,” he said, reaching across the counter for a set of tongs. “But tomorrow, maybe nobody will show up. I never know what’s regular because the community is changing so much.”

Gutierrez plopped the pastries in a white paper bag and handed them to a young man in a fur coat. “$2.65 for these gorgeous pastries?” He peaked inside the bag. “That’s the best deal I got all day.”

The bakery’s low prices, Gutierrez said, are part of what keeps it in business. But it’s hard for him and his parents, who opened the store in 1977, to compete with the newer cafés on the block, often catering to a different crowd with vegan treats and pricey juices. “We’re not gluten-free, and our recipes are at least 50 years old,” he said. “So that’s the issue. The neighborhood’s changing, so how do you implement all this new stuff into the old recipes without changing the taste?”

And if they change the taste, Gutierrez wonders what will happen to his loyal customers, many of whom no longer live in the Mission and visit the store on weekends, or weekdays on their way home from work.

“The majority of my clients are Mexican but don’t live here anymore,” he said. “They come from San Jose, Excelsior, the Tenderloin, and lots of tourists. We get more people from out of the state than down the street.”

As if on cue, a Polish couple approached him with a tray full of pastries, puffy and swelling of dough. The woman’s cheeks were flushed with cold and the tips of her hair soggy from the rain. She said they were in town for the weekend and wanted to stop by an authentic Mexican bakery.

Down the block on 24th, La Victoria Bakery is transitioning with the times. According to Saralany Carvajal, a cashier at the café, big changes are on the horizon. The space is in the process of transforming into a Latin Bistro –a move that management hopes will maximize profit.

“It’s hard,” said Carvajal, a Mission lifer whose family has been in the neighborhood for two generations. “We’re the oldest Mexican bakery in the Mission. We’ve been open for 65 years, but business is just not what it used to be. It’s hard to compete with all the new stuff. I grew up coming to this place. We don’t want to see it go.”

Still, Carvajal is of two minds about it all: the newcomers, rising cost of living and steady decline of the Mission old guard. “I’m born and raised here. I don’t want to say it’s for the better because so many places that have been around forever are losing business. But this is one of the first years of my life that I can walk down the street at night without getting bothered or hassled.”

She ran a damp washcloth along the bottom of the espresso machine and flung it on the counter. “But I would never say something like that to my friends.”

54 Comments

  1. 24-24

    times change, my grandparents both grew up in the mission, they are both irish. They died, so did their version of the mission, so will Saralany Carvajals version of the mission. Thats just the way it goes.. Get over it people..

    • 24-24

      Oh, and my other grandparents grew up South of the slot, and they are Mexican. So please don’t get all Raza on me for saying the mission doesn’t belong to the Mexicans.

      • Bet most of this audience has no idea what south of the slot means.

      • MissionBernal

        The one thing that seems to have remained consistent about the mission is that (historically) it has always been a blue collar neighborhood. It was the Irish hood back in the early 1900’s, and it’s the South/Central American neighborhood now. As you said, there’s no way to predict how it will look in the future, but people need to evolve. It sounds like this bakery is attempting to do just that. Good luck to them!

        • zig

          Well that is the crux of the issue and what has changed.

          There is no longer a cheap, central accessible neighborhood for blue collar people

          • John

            There is a cheap, central neighborhood. The Tenderloin.

            But SF is different from many other US cities in that the wealthy live in it’s core, and it is the poorer folks who commute in from further out.,

      • zig

        There is a cheap, central neighborhood. The Tenderloin.”

        I think this is debatable now but even if true it misses my point that we can’t really keep SF structured like a medium sized city in a region of 6 million

        WAY too many SFHs in San Francisco now

        • John

          Yes, I have long argued that we need to see the real city as being the Bay Area, with SF being it’s Manhattan.

          People are much too parochial and that gets in the way of strategic solutions.

    • Hunter

      You are comparing apple to oranges.

      The Irish and the Italians left the Mission because they wanted to flee to the suburbs.

      Much of the current community is being forced out by sky high rents.

      Big difference.

      • John

        Hunter, there is a “chicken and egg” element ti that argument. Assuming it’s true that the Irish and the Italians did leave the Mission in order to live in the suburbs, that still leaves open the question of “why?”.

        If that was a response to the area becoming poorer, more Hispanic and developing a higher crime rate then that is a pattern seen in many US cities i.e. people fleeing a decaying urban area.

        If those decaying inner city areas are now becoming less blighted, then that is a positive thing since it remedies a former problem.

        All that said, I don’t think that framing the issue in terms of ethnicity is helpful. Few issues ever are.

        • Hunter

          Turning a blind eye to the way race operates doesn’t make it go away.

          Still, regardless of race, there is no logic in justifying the displacement of the current generation of Mission residents by pointing out that prior generations moved on, for whatever reason. Displacement is NOT a good thing.

          • John

            Nobody’s home is going to be saved by trying to play the race card.

            The Mission has always been shifting and changing. I worry much more about people trying to stop that happening than I worry about peoples’ ability to manage change and seek new opportunities.

        • nutrisystem

          It’s well established that migration to the suburbs in the post WW2 era was a massive economic power-play. The main operator/beneficiaries were the auto and petroleum industries, as well as connected real estate wheeler-dealers who made vast fortunes turning farms into subdivisions.

          Letting cities go downhill was a key element of this strategy (not hard to do – just tell the city, police and courts to not work so hard).

          So in SF and a thousand cities around the country, the Italians and Irish were not forced out by cost, but rather were MANIPULATED out by a combination of the illusion of a nicer life in the burbs and concerns about deteriorating conditions in the cities.

          Now that the puppeteers have played-out the migration to the suburbs scheme, they’ve come up with a new one: the migration to the city scheme. Brilliant!

          • John

            I’m not in the business of telling people where they can live or cannot live. And as historically interesting your account is, or is not, that doesn’t change anything about the situation now.

            And the situation now is that more people want to live here than there are homes for, so inevitably price is going to be an important factor in resolving that imbalance.

            People are very good at managing change as long as it is gradual and they have time to adapt. That is the case here.

          • zig

            utter nonsense

          • John

            I don’t agree with nutrisystem’s comments either, but calling them nonsense isn’t sufficient. you need to present refutations, as i have done.

          • Rickshaw

            What you are referring to is “white flight”. In the Midwest it directly coorelated to the urban decay of neighborhoods and this school systems due to union pillaging. The demise of Detroit and other cities is not some grand consipiracy scheme as in your dreams.

        • zig

          No assuming, it is true

          It wasn’t just the suburbs but the suburbs in the city. I also believe the timing was such that the Hispanics filled the void.

          It had a lot to do with returning GIs. My grandfather came back from WWII, got a loan and bought a SFH in the Excelsior which at the time was more desirable than Noe Valley.

          • John

            I’m sure there were many concurrent factors, as is typical in a high-growth, highly mobile place like the US.

            But we cannot freeze a neighborhood in time and say that is the way it must be. Areas evolve and change through forces larger than the ability for politicians to control.

        • chente

          To John, the Irish and Italians left the Mission to the suburbs because homes were built and they could afford to buy them. They didn’t leave because of higher crime, I guess you imply, was brought by Latinos. The facts are new developments were built in the Sunset and of course people wanted to own homes and jumped at that chance. Whereas Latinos now have to leave cuz of higher rents. These are the facts. What frustrates people is they are forced out of their lifelong community and its excused by people who don’t care how our economic system creates unfair imbalances. So this problem and many others, created by our economic system, will continue on because people accept it.

    • zig

      my grandparents on one side were Irish and German and from the Mission too. They choose to leave for the Excelsior, Sunset or Peninsula so there is a big relevant difference there.

    • Cindy De Losa

      Get over yourself (144)

  2. JD

    *Tourists* coming to the Mission?! My how times have changed…

  3. 22ndAndFlorida

    Just a minor correction: La Mejor Bakery is at 3329 24th Street.

  4. Profile photo of Erica Hellerstein Erica Hellerstein Post author

    Noted — thanks for the correction!

  5. Hunter

    At least one panaderia on 24th street has shut down – it was on the stretch between Potrero and Hampshire.

    And very recently, La Flor de Jalisco, right across from La Victoria, closed its doors. It’s not clear that it’s re-opening.

    • John

      Restaurants open and close all the time in San Francisco.

      • nutrisystem

        Yes, but there’s a pattern: affordable ones close and expensive ones take their places. Never saw it go the other way.

        • SciLaw

          Limon closed down the high priced concept on Valencia and went with their cheaper Roti chicken concept. Phan’s Wing Ho General Store closed on Valencia and will be replaced by something cheaper. It does happen so disingenuous to say “never” (unless you’re deliberately shutting your eye to the fluctuations in the economy).

  6. zig

    the loss of the Mission as a blue collar, accessible neighborhood is a problem. I don’t see it as a race issue.

    The issue is not the Mission changing itself but that there is nowhere else to go. SF is structured like a medium sized city when the market is demanding multifamily housing that greatly exceeds supply. So now you have a situation where working immigrants are taking over formerly single family neighborhoods and living in garages, dining rooms, closets. This is not a good solution for anyone.

    City Planning is the failure here. And lets not even get started with the failure in the rest of the Bay Area

    • John

      There is somewhere else to go. There is Oakland, a few miles and minutes away.

      The problem is people thinking they are entitled to live in SF when that is just one part, and the most expensive and desirable part, of the much larger and more affordable Bay Area.

      • zig

        Oakland is becoming very expensive now as well and of course people need to factor in much higher transportation costs and very rough areas in some examples

        You are a seemingly conservative fellow and I share some of these views. I hope you are not hypocritical with your views on zoning. The problems could be fixed by simply allowing areas with too many SFHs to become much denser. Geary is a nice example and it should have started 2 decades ago

        • John

          I’ve done some pricing in Oakland and the home prices and rents are about 50% of SF, on a per square foot basis. So it’s not cheap per se, but it’s certainly significantly cheaper than SF.

          But yes, I want to see much higher densities and heights in SF, and that can start with obvious transit-rich locations like Mission and 16th and 24th, and all the way out along major arteries.

    • MissionBernal

      I think Zig is completely right. The real problem here is that the City government held a vice grip on building permits for years and made it nearly impossible for new homes & apartments to be constructed. Now, all of a sudden there’s a huge shortage and a huge demand for housing in SF. Not to mention that contractors can opt out of adding “affordable housing” units in their new construction if they pay off the City. The City is suppose to use that pay off to build more housing for the lower & middle class, but nothing has happened. What I would like to know is why the City hasn’t put those millions they’ve been paid to good use and built new units? That money isn’t doing anything to help the situation if it’s just sitting there.

  7. mission resident

    Excellscior, bayview, hunters point, daly city, south sf, visitasion valley, the sunset. My spelling sucks. All of these place are in SF or within 5 minutes of SF and you do not have to pay a bridge toll to get there. Why does everyone say “go to Oakland”? There are plenty of San Francisco locations that are still affordable. The mission is the best weather, best public transportation, most restaurants/bars and central to the entire city. Too many people feel they are entitled to the best area in the city. The same people are too snobby to move to one of the areas mentioned above so they bitch about affordability. Sorry, the mission is only going to get more expensive as it is the best area to live.

    • John

      Yes, a lot of the time when people say that SF homes aren’t affordable, they mean SF homes that are cool and hip enough for them to aspire to.

      If these people are not willing to compromise on neighborhood, then why should they be subsidized?

      • zig

        Sorry homes are not affordable to working class people anywhere in San Francisco including Bay View

        • John

          But they are much more affordable in those parts of SF and that was the point being made.

          • zig

            true but SFH that are not transit accessible and don’t do much for single people moving to a new City without a car. They also don’t support new immigrants really well or students

    • zig

      The accessibility and formers cheap prices of the Mission is the key

      My grandparents immigrated there (independently from different countries) got their flat in the Mission and raised 3 kids. Neither ever had a car and my grandfather was marginally employed on and off.

      For the most part the places you have listed are for people to move up to when they can afford to buy a house not for the working poor. The Sunset and most of Daly City shouldn’t even be on the list as it way out of reach for working class people

      People have to do what they are doing now which is packing 3 families in a SFH with 12 cars out front and illegal in-laws in the garage. Not a good solution really

      • John

        I see no problem with people moving further out to find affordability given that the central core of SF is more desirable and expensive. Commuting from Daly City really isn’t such a big deal.

        • zig

          There is some mutli-family housing in Daly City so that is an option for some but not enough and the commutes are long because you have to take a long bus ride to BART usually.

  8. Very well written. Thanks for posting.

  9. Mel

    Dear La Reyna Bakery,
    My answer to this question…. “We’re not gluten-free, and our recipes are at least 50 years old,” he said. So that’s the issue. The neighborhood’s changing, so how do you implement all this new stuff into the old recipes without changing the taste?”…is….please don’t change anything about your pan dulce! It is deeelicious, especially fresh out of the oven. I love gluten. I love the gluten in your pan dulce. You should let people know what times of the day they come out of the oven and then business will be steady and predictable!
    Thanks!

  10. someJuan

    I’m a snob when it comes to pan dulce mexicano. Unfortunately, with the exception of one, the panaderias in the Mission suck. They use the same dough to make the different types of bread. That’s just wrong. Each type of pan dulce requires the dough to be prepared in a specific way. Then on top of that, they charge $1+ for each piece of pan dulce. Outside of the Mission you can get at least three pieces for $1.

    • zig

      I guess we got the wrong kind of Mexicans, LOL

      Our Italians never made pizza very well and our Jewish people never opened Delis

      WTF?

  11. Cindy De Losa

    Why don’t all you people who are’nt natives go home

  12. Native

    Hey folks its not going to be a bar. Its going back to being a Mexican Restuarant like it orignally was when they opened then a panaderia and then panaderia/restuarant and now back. They will be closed for remodeling for three weeks

  13. mrs Sheppard

    A young man in a fur coat “peaked” inside the bag? I hope you mean “peeked.” let’s keep it family friendly here.

  14. GentrifySF

    Change is good for the Mission. Unlike the very aggressive Latinos who buy into all that race-bating “La Raza” nonsense, this is not a race issue. The neighborhood is cleaning up nicely and becoming less-blighted and rundown, and that is a positive thing. There are plenty of vacant or rundown businesses along Mission Street that need to be shut down or revitalized with a different type of business. The Mission suffered from the 70’s – 90’s because of rampant Latino gang violence, so it’s time for that element and the people who excuse it to GET OUT.

    • landline

      Did you take a lesson in race-baiting from John? Or are you self taught?

      • John

        Yes, he forgot the golden rule here. Hispanics can never, ever be criticized. While whites, of course, can never be commended.

        This diversity stuff is quite simple once you get the hang of it.

    • Native

      There is good change and bad change. This is bad change. When people are being hurt and forced out of their homes then its bad. Its great people who have lived in this neighborhood are not getting out easy. Its peoples right to fight and not just roll over because other people want to make money.
      Its unfortunate that this country has a long history of racism and its still very much apparent. Not all white folks are racist and many are also being displaced. The fact is that this history will follow you. By the way crime is up in the neighborhood. Is it then the fault of all the new white folks that have moved in ?

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