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.”
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.”