27th Street Bakery Shop is resisting COVID-19, one pie at a time

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The bakery in this bustling south Los Angeles corner was born the year the United States Supreme Court ruled that segregation on public buses was unconstitutional. The sign on a lamppost tells passers-by: “27th Street Bakery Shop; East. 1956. ”

Inside the bakery – known for its homemade sweet potato pies – are remnants of a distant past juxtaposed with modernity: a black Blodgett oven and 1950s cash registers sit behind a chip reader credit card; on a wall, hang framed photos of awards, distinctions and newspaper clippings from 1980 to 2018; two radial telephones are perched atop a pastry display case.

And nearby and everywhere, it seems, are reminders of the all-too-present deadly virus lurking everywhere: plexiglass barriers surround the register; a sign below reads: “Protect yourself and others from COVID-19”.

COVID-19 has brought a lot of hardship to small businesses like this bakery on the corner of Central Avenue and 27th Street. In South Los Angeles, business in cafes and restaurants fell by as much as 70% at the end of March. Across the country, black-owned businesses have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. According to a University study published in May, 41% of black-owned businesses closed between February and April, compared with 17% of white-owned businesses. Experts attribute the disparity to less access to capital, including paycheck protection program loans, lack of support from banks, and funding disparities exacerbated by the pandemic.

So being there 64 years and counting is something to be proud of.

TO 27th Street Bakery, sales plummeted when 50% of the mom-and-pop stores they supplied pies to closed. Those who stayed open cut their orders in half. Panic shopping in grocery stores was rampant, so ingredients were hard to come by.

Jeanette Bolden-Pickens, owner of 27th Street Bakery Shop in South LA, bakes pies. The bakery was founded by his grandparents in 1956.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“I remember going to three different stores in one day to look for supplies,” said Jeanette Bolden-Pickens, 60, owner of the bakery. “I would get up early in the morning and go to the store. If you woke up later you couldn’t find anything.

Even then, standing in line for hours did not guarantee that you would get what you needed. Demand was high and stores limited the amount of a product customers could buy. The eggs were so scarce that Bolden-Pickens went looking for them beyond the county lines. She sent her sister and a friend in Riverside – a 90-minute drive away – to an egg farm to look for some.

“When we could find something, the prices had almost tripled,” Bolden-Pickens said through a blue mask.

“You are fighting lost sales, now you are fighting to make sure you stay safe and your employees and customers stay safe,” she added.

Even as the bakery and its employees suffered one hit after another from the pandemic, other curved balls made life – and work – more difficult. The bakery’s pie press broke down.

“We resuscitated him every time, gave him CPR and it just got worse and worse,” Bolden-Pickens said.

Jeanette Bolden-Picken delivers a pie to Clarence Ellis, a loyal customer in the LA neighborhood of Sylmar.

Jeanette Bolden-Pickens, left, delivers an order of pies to customer Clarence Ellis. When the pandemic hit, Bolden-Pickens said bakery sales fell 50%.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

But just when things started to get daunting, a little luck: after successive failures, the bakery finally got $ 10,000 PayPal Empowerment Grant – part of a $ 10 million grant program for black-owned businesses in partnership with Assn. for the business opportunity. Bolden-Pickens used the money to buy a shiny new pie press. It allowed the bakery to produce twice as many desserts and arrived just in time for the vegan and sugar-free sweet potato pies launch and the holiday rush.

“We all have one goal: to bake as many pies as possible,” said Bolden-Pickens. The day before Thanksgiving, the shop was waiting to make 900 to 1,400 nine and five inch pies. This year, with large family gatherings out of the question, more and more people are ordering smaller pies.

Through it all, the community got her back. Orders in April increased when small businesses were excluded from federal financial support. A woman once even bought a pie for $ 2.25 and left $ 100; she didn’t want her to change. This support has helped the bakery stay open. Yet with the resurgence of coronavirus cases and normality still a distant dream, the future looks bleak.

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Harry and Sadie Patterson, Bolden-Pickens’ grandparents, moved from Louisiana in the 1940s to Central Avenue, the heart of Black LA. Nat King Cole, Charlie Parker and Dinah Washington.

The couple regularly nurtured a loyal base of foodie customers hungry for cakes, cobblers and sweet potato pies. Over time, the business grew from a restaurant to the bakery it is today, establishing itself as a household name in Black LA. & Final.

In 1980, Alberta Cravin and Gregory Spann, Bolden-Pickens’ mother and brother, took over the business, which created many challenges. After civil unrest in LA began in 1992, the 27th Street Bakery Shop hit rock bottom. The small businesses to which the bakery supplied pies had been set on fire. Half of corporate business customers have evaporated. But the family persisted.

A teenager, then young adult, training as a track and field athlete who would eventually win gold in the 400-meter relay at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, Bolden-Pickens helped the bakery.

In high school, friends teased her often.

Guadalupe Valdovinos, left, packs pies at the 27th Street Bakery Shop.

Guadalupe Valdovinos, left, who has worked at 27th Street Bakery Shop for 40 years, packs pies. The specialty of the bakery? Homemade sweet potato pies.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“’Remember when you picked us up in your mom’s station wagon with pies rolling in the back seat as we went to practice?” Bolden-Pickens recalls. Her mother had made a pact with her: If she wanted to drive the car for training, she had to deliver pies.

“I have learned that no matter what is going on in your life, you can achieve your goal, you just have to focus,” said Bolden-Pickens. “In the ups and downs, you have to stay focused. ”

She held onto those lessons years later after a series of family tragedies: Her mother had a stroke in 2001 – that same weekend, coach Bolden-Pickens and his UCLA team took to the job. won an NCAA Championship. Then Spann, his brother, died suddenly of pneumonia in 2002. In 2004, his younger brother Lavance was caught in the crossfire and shot. And in 2007, while Bolden-Pickens was in Japan preparing for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, his mother passed away.

After 25 years of training, Bolden-Pickens turned to the bakery. She took it back with her husband and sister.

“We have to continue like this,” she said to herself. For the community. For his son and daughter; his nephews, nieces and their children; and for Armon, his 2-year-old grandson.

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Christine Tello had wondered about the bakery in front of her clinic for a while. That day, she finally decided to enter.

“I ran into it and thank goodness I did,” said the 53-year-old Compton resident. She walked out smiling and hugging a white paper bag with a sweet potato pie, red velvet and German chocolate cakes to her chest.

“I know good cakes and pies when I see them,” Tello said with a laugh.

Every customer who walks through the doors of 27th Street Bakery Shop is greeted with a smile. This is something Bolden-Pickens said his mother, brother, and grandparents did.

“We try to make the people who come here feel at home,” she said.

James Chong came from Long Beach to buy pies from Jeanette Bolden-Pickens at the 27th Street Bakery Shop.

Jeanette Bolden-Pickens fills James Chong’s pie order at 27th Street Bakery Shop. When times got tough during the pandemic, a $ 10,000 grant, plus community support, helped Bolden-Pickens keep the bakery afloat.

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

It is not easy for businesses to survive in normal times. But great customer service makes it easy, Bolden-Pickens said. People remember good gestures. But the tradition goes also far. She said pies are still made like her grandfather did over 60 years ago. Only four people know the recipe for the sweet potato pie.

“People are really happy when they come here, and I think it’s because we help them remember their childhood,” Bolden-Pickens said. “So many places where you grew up don’t exist anymore. They have been replaced by a franchise or an apartment building. But here you have a taste for tradition.


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