It’s incredible that the French Pioneer Bakery has been in existence almost as long as Venice itself.
Jean Baptiste Garacochea apprenticed in his father’s bakery in Les Aldudes, a small village on the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains.
In the late 1800s at the age of 15, Jean Batiste traveled with his cherished cargo of sourdough starter and ended up opening a bakery in Santa Monica in 1908.
“Either Santa Monica went dry or the city just stopped him from making his wine,” says great-grandson John Garacochea. “That was enough for him to move the whole bakery.”
The Pioneer French Bakery at 512 Rose Ave. in Venice was built in 1917 in the European fashion, with the upstairs a residence.
Until recently the second story was used as offices with photographs on the walls to remind the Garacochea family of their heritage — both here and in France.
There’s even a photograph of the original structure in the collection.
“As we grew, we added on,” says Jack Garacochea, grandson of Jean Baptiste. “It’s too bad that when we started building on that we didn’t follow the architecture.”
It’s been happening for decades.
People never realize, at the time, what a shame it is to lose the architectural integrity of historic buildings that have their own place in time.
There were other Basque families living in Venice during the 1920s and 1930s.
Eugene Biscailuz, who served as Los Angeles County sheriff from 1932 to 1958, lived here.
The sourdough bread was sold by word of mouth mainly to these community members.
“The rest of the community at that time didn’t know about sourdough bread,” says Jack.
Jack started getting involved in the business in the ’50s.
He remembers, “We had a little sourdough business then. People weren’t concerned about nutrition or diet.
“One day, some customers in the store mentioned how great sourdough bread was because it had only flour, water and salt and wasn’t as fattening as the other breads, that were filled with sugar.
“White bread was popular in the ’50s — whole wheat hadn’t really come along yet.
“It dawned on us that we had something, so we got a chemist and decided to find out what’s going on.
“We had no sugar, no oil, no carbohydrates, no fats, and we started promoting it.
“It’s not only good bread, but it’s nutritious and nonfattening. We labeled it nonfattening.
“In those days you could say things like that and not have to back it up.
“Sourdough bread just started taking off. It’s now probably about 70 percent of our production.”
There have been a lot of changes through the years.
How many of us used to enjoy wonderful meals at the Boulangerie on Main Street in Santa Monica?
The Garacochea family owned that eating establishment.
“It was popular and profitable,” says Jack, “but there were two things going on.
“When the Third Street Promenade opened, all the merchants on Main Street just got killed.
“Overnight we lost almost 50 percent of our restaurant business. We didn’t appreciate the folks in Santa Monica because we actually built Main Street in that area.
“When we went to City Hall in the early ’70s they said, ‘What can we do for you?’ By the time we closed, it was awful to work with the people in that city.
“They had forgotten what we had done. There were all kinds of pressures. We couldn’t get any support. We were trying to grow a national business.
“We were one family with limited capital and we had to decide where we were going to spend it. There were too many frustrations, so we closed.”
A 90,000-square-foot bakery was built in Oxnard which became the national headquarters.
The bread was kept frozen and shipped across the country.
It turned out that business was growing way too fast and another bakery was needed.
Instead, the bakery was sold in 1996.
“We had something unique,” says Jack. “We had a Pioneer brand in supermarkets across the United States.
“It’s unique because grocery companies do not like brand names because they get nailed. Consumers will start complaining if the stores discontinue a brand.
“They’ll go someplace else. So, we sold the label outside of Los Angeles.”
How did a little company from Venice, California get into all the major food chains in the United States?
“With our service through the national company,” says Jack. “Sourdough bread is hard-crusted and it’s very dry when baked.
“You have a loaf of bread that basically has a couple days shelf life at the most.
“So, our service has always been ‘you’ve got to be fast and direct and be at the customers on time’.”
Several years ago I was given a tour of the bakery.
Silly me asked how many loaves of bread were baked daily.
Production is based on tons of flour used, which is about 50,000 pounds a day.
All baking was done in the 30,000-square-foot production premises.
Huge trucks transport dough to 50,000 pound tanks.
It’s then pumped into a scale where it is weighed and distributed to one of the three mixers, each of which holds 15,000 pounds of dough.
There are bread and roll making machines and refrigerators for the “retarding process.”
The “proof box” actually molds the bread.
The bread starts rising, or “proofing” as it is technically known, in the 80-foot oven, which holds thousands of pans.
Smaller ovens are used for specialty breads.
The bread then goes to packaging and shipping and off to supermarkets and restaurants.
Reminder signs for good sanitation practices and safety policies are posted throughout.
A sign on a conveyor reminded everyone to “Think Quality.”
What does the future hold for the Pioneer French Bakery as it approaches its 100th year?
A new century will bring a new chapter in its history.
Now gone are most of the employees and the machines, moved to a bakery in Santa Ana, and the trucks have been relocated to a depot in Torrance.
The retail store is still open, but toward the end of the year it either will be in a temporary Venice location or we will have to go to the Pioneer Boulangerie at 804 Montana Ave. in Santa Monica for a while.
A small bakery and retail store will come back, reincarnated into a bakery cafÈ restaurant that will be the focal point of a mixed use project.
“Originally I wanted to design the bakery cafÈ to look just like the original bakery on the site in 1917,” says John.
But I think we came up with something better and that is inside the courtyard, where you walk into the project. The faÁade is going to be a replica of the original bakery.
“So, it will feel that, wow, they saved the original and built the whole project around it in the big courtyard.”
Fronting Rose Avenue will be five commercial units.
“Everyone has been outspoken about wanting those to be retail because we designated them live/work, but the concern was that people would put up curtains and it would loose the pedestrian effect,” says John.
He is now so committed to the retail that he plans on participating in several of the shops.
So, expect to see bicycles, chocolates and wine for sale.
“It’s an opportunity to have a positive impact on Rose Avenue,” he adds.
About 25 percent of the total space will be open and green, “which is well over what we were required to do,” says John.
There will be 70 condominiums for sale, including seven on-site low-low-income units.
Although construction will take place in the 21st century, materials used almost 100 years ago will be incorporated into the design.
The existing wood floors and glass will be recycled and there are a lot of old bricks from the original bakery that have been saved.
There are even old wooden boxes from the 1950s and 1960s to be used.
John also plans to replicate lampposts from the 1917 pictures to provide light for the property.
A clock tower, reflecting the Garacochea’s ties to the Basque country, will dominate the skyline.
“Every Basque village has a church with a big clock,” says John.
The preliminary process is now complete.
John credits his developer, David Wald, with helping him get through the initial steps.
“He knows the ropes,” says John. “I’m just a baker.”
On August 16th the California Coastal Commission gave the project its approval.
“We got through the final leap,” he adds. “I had to remind myself to breathe a couple of times at that meeting.”
John is also pleased with his architect, Wade Killifer, who is in partnership with his wife, Barbara Flammang.
“We really liked his creativity and designs,” says John. “I liked him a lot when I met him. You get a feel for people.”
John acknowledges the impact of the community on the project.
“There were a lot of really valid great criticisms and we incorporated those things,” he says. “So, it just hasn’t been the Garacocheas.”
Demolition is anticipated to take place in December or January and construction is expected to take not less than 15 months.
“One of the exciting things about the project,” says John, “is keeping our Venice roots and baking bread for the community.”
One current aspect of the Pioneer French Bakery that will not remain is a mural, painted in 2002 by Francisco Letelier, on the Fifth Avenue wall.
“When I was approached by SPARC (Social and Public art Resource Center) regarding the mural, I told them that the bakery would not be here very long,” says John. “We’ll get it on digital and, we haven’t decided yet, but maybe somewhere in the project we can re-create it on a smaller scale so there’s a historical account of it.”