It’s incredible that the French Pioneer Bakery has been in existence almost as long as Venice itself!! Jean BapisteGaracochea apprenticed in his father’s bakery in Les Aldudes, a small village on the French side of the Pyrenees Mountains, an origin of sourdough bread. Jean Batiste traveled with his cherished cargo of sourdough starter and settled in Venice where he founded the Pioneer French Bakery in 1908. The bakery at 512 Rose Ave. was built in 1917 in the European fashion where the residence was upstairs. The second story is now used as offices and there are 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. “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 20s and 30s. Eugene Biscailuz, who served as 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% of our production.”
There have been a lot of changes through the years. How many of us have enjoyed 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% 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 pressure. 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 feet bakery was built in Oxnard that was 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.”
We may still enjoy the sourdough and sweet breads from the Pioneer French Bakery. There are two retail outlets … at 512 Rose Ave. and the Pioneer Boulangerie at 804 Montana Avenue in Santa Monica.
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 is done in the 30,000 square feet 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 feet oven that 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 such as Hal’s in Venice and Michael’s in Santa Monica. There are reminder signs for good sanitation practices and safety policies posted throughout. A sign on a conveyor best reminds everyone to “Think Quality”.
What does the future hold for the Pioneer French Bakery as it approaches its 100th year? “This is not the most popular place in the world with all our trucks and everything as far as the neighborhood is concerned,” says Jack. “We deliver from Orange County to Santa Barbara County.” A move of the bakery to a more industrial area in downtown Los Angeles is anticipated. “This bakery is very old,” says John Garacochea, Jack’s son. “We’d like to develop this property into a bakery café and replicate what the bakery looked like in 1917 as the centerpiece.” The first step of an update has already taken place. A wonderful mural is now on the large west wall.