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Manuel Barrientos, the proprietor of San Francisco’s first Guatemalan bakery, was 79 when he died on November 25, but for many, his vigor and dedication to his craft made his age difficult to gauge.
When Barrientos was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given just three months to live, it was not his own death that he feared most, but his inability to work, said his son.
“He took it bad, because he wanted to keep working,” said the youngest of Barrientos’ three sons, David.
Even during his final days, Barrientos could be found at Panaderia Universal, the mom-and-pop bakery and restaurant run by him and his family for some two decades at 30th and Mission streets, greeting his customers and making bread for his community.
Every day, the Daly City resident would go “from his house straight to the bakery,” said Sofia Keck, owner of Los Shucos Latin Hot Dogs, a Guatemalan street food restaurant at 22nd and Mission streets.
In 2014, as Keck was searching for a Guatemalan baker with expertise in artisan bread before launching Los Shucos, she fought hard to convince Barrientos to take her on as a client.
“He was hesitant,“ said Keck. “In the end, he didn’t do it because he needed the extra money – he did it because he wanted to help me.”
Barrientos and his wife visited Los Shucos once before it opened for business. Inside the store, he invited Keck and her son to join him in prayer.
“He was a very religious man,” said Keck.
The radio at Panaderia Universal was usually tuned to a Catholic station.
Those who knew Barrientos agree that he was fiercely focused on two things – his work and his family. On most days, the two coexisted in the same space because running Panaderia Universal was a family affair that involved all of Barrientos’ sons and his wife, Vilma.
“Walking into the bakery, you’d see David manning the register,” said Keck. “The others would be in the back making the bread.”
David described his father as exemplary of the “American Dream,” sacrificing his own needs for his work, and later, for his family.
“He wasn’t scared of working. Any laziness, he took it out of you,” said David. “At the same time, I have never seen a man treat a woman the way he treated my mother. He wouldn’t even eat until she was there.”
Coming from a “long line of bakers” in Guatemala, David said, his father first began working in a bakery at age 5.
“He didn’t have a childhood,” he said.
At age 11, Barrientos ran away from home, according to his son, to escape his abusive father. It was his father’s work ethic, David said, that not only helped him to survive, but kept him out of trouble.
After trying his hand at various businesses in Guatemala, Barrientos immigrated to San Jose in his 30s, where he picked fruit for a month before making his way to San Francisco to work at the Fairmont Hotel.
But Barrientos’ passion for baking and for his Guatemalan culture never left him. Finding the latter to be lacking representation in San Francisco, Barrientos decided to open a business that would blend both.
“He felt people needed something from back home, and there weren’t many businesses that represented us at the time,” said David.”
In 1982, Barrientos began baking Champurradas – cookies typical to Guatemala – out of the kitchen of a former employer at 24th and Potrero streets. He then sold the cookies door to door – driving routes that took him on deliveries as far as Mountain View.
“He and my mother both had a route – It was a team effort, that’s how they started,” said David, adding that the budding business, coupled with his day job, often had his father working 18 hour days.
Some eight years later, the lease of the storefront that served as Barrientos’ makeshift bakery eventually fell into his hands, enabling him to open his first business and San Francisco’s first authentic Guatemalan bakery – on 24th Street.
“That’s what motivated him,” said David. “There was nothing authentic from his country here.”
But just as his bakery took off, a fire displaced Barrientos from the 24th and Potrero location in 1995, forcing him to reopen Panaderia Universal at 3458 Mission St.
The move proved a beneficial as the new location came with a kitchen space, allowing Barrientos to expand into a full-fledged Guatemalan restaurant.
And his customers from in and outside of the Guatemalan community willingly followed.
“He left a great legacy. Not just with his business, but with his family,” said Keck. The doors at Los Shucos have been locked for the past week – the business remains closed out of respect for Barrientos and his family.
Upon reopening, Keck said she will continue to source her bread from Panaderia Universal.
“Even though our bread is made at Panaderia Universal because we don’t have the kitchen space, he always said that was our bread – Los Shucos bread,” said Keck.
As for Panaderia Universal, Barrientos’ sons – and perhaps, one day his five grand children – will continue to carry on Barrientos’ legacy. Although perhaps they will work a little less.
“One thing he told us is, ‘Don’t follow my example,” said David. “Don’t work all the time.”
The burial service for Manuel Barrientos will be on Sunday, December 4, from 10 a.m. to noon at the Cypress Lawn Funeral Home at 1370 El Camino Real in Colma.