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New bakeries enjoy sweet success despite opening during pandemic

Siblings Clinton Prager, right, and Louie Prager, second from right, wait on customers Saturday, April 25, at their newly opened Prager Bros. Artisan Breads store in downtown Encinitas. Despite opening the shop during the pandemic on April 17, the brothers say the shop has been surprisingly busy.
(Pam Kragen / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Bread, bagel, biscuit and doughnut shop owners say fresh-baked goods lift spirits of cooped-up customers

Chef Gabriel Ferguson dreamed for 10 years about opening a comfort food eatery in San Diego before he took the leap eight months ago and leased a shop in Hillcrest for his Sunnyboy Biscuit Co.

After renovating the old Smok’d Hog space at Park Boulevard and Indiana Street, Ferguson perfected his biscuit, pie, jam, gravy and dessert recipes, set up his website and social media accounts, hired and trained his staff and got all the proper permits for a grand opening on March 17. Then, on the eve of his opening day, the county announced mandatory shutdown orders for all restaurant dining rooms due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Chef/owner Gabriel Ferguson inside his newly opened Sunnyboy Biscuit Co. in Hillcrest, which is thriving despite having opened the same day the county shuttered all restaurant dining rooms due to COVID-19.
(Courtesy photo)

Ferguson was stunned by the news and debated whether he should furlough his staff, wait out the quarantine and have a grand opening in better times. Instead, he opened his doors the next morning for takeout-only service and, to his immense relief, customers were lined up outside.

“As it turns out, people in the neighborhood were waiting for us to open,” said Ferguson, who previously worked as the resident chef and cooking teacher at Sur La Table in La Jolla. “We saw a lot of people right away, and we’ve been steady ever since.”

A tray of fresh-baked biscuits at Sunnyboy Biscuit Co. in Hillcrest, which chef/owner Gabriel Ferguson opened on March 17, the same day the county enacted takeout-only rules for San Diego restaurants due to COVID-19. Despite the challenges, Ferguson said business has been very good.
(Courtesy of Gabriel Ferguson)

Although the shutdown order has devastated the local restaurant industry, the pandemic has had a surprisingly positive impact on a handful of new bakery businesses that all opened since the quarantine began. Each of the new biscuit, bagel, bread, pastry and doughnut shops say they’ve thrived because their counter-service concept adapts well to takeout-only service and because there was pent-up community anticipation for the bakeries before they opened.

But Louie Prager — who runs 8-year-old Prager Bros. Artisan Breads bakery in Carlsbad with his brother, Clinton — believes there’s another reason for the instant success of their new retail bread shop that opened April 17 in downtown Encinitas. It’s what’s on the shelves.

“For people these days, it’s nice to have a place they can go where they can take a break, shop with their eyes and have a good experience that highlights their day. It’s like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.

These are the stories of several new bakeries unexpectedly enjoying the sweet taste of success.

Customers line up in a taped-off, socially-distanced queue on Tuesday, April 28, at newly opened Solomon Bagels & Donuts North Park. Despite the challenges of opening during the pandemic, the shop has been very busy.
(Pam Kragen / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Solomon Bagels & Donuts, North Park

After nearly three years of construction and design work on a building at 4152 30th St. in North Park, Jeffrey Wang wasn’t about to let the pandemic delay the opening of his Solomon Bagels & Donuts bakery and shop.

Confident in the uniqueness of his product — he kettle-boils his bagels in water before baking in the traditional New York style — he opened the doors April 17 to a line of socially distanced customers that stretched to the end of the block. Customers have reported on social media waiting for 30 minutes to two hours on weekends for Wang’s bagels, doughnuts, sandwiches and soups.

Wang, who immigrated from China in 1980, is a serial bagel entrepreneur. From 1981 to 1997, the self-taught baker owned a series of bagel shops and a deli in Long Island, N.Y. Then in 2007, he launched Kettleman Bagels in Portland, Ore., which grew to five stores before he sold the company for $5 million to the Einstein Bros. Bagel company in 2011. A year later he retired to San Diego, but he grew bored and couldn’t find any “good New York” bagels in town. Now 65, Wang said he has one more bagel empire to build before he dies.

Owner Jeffrey Wang, right, and his apprentice bagel-maker Jacob Lynch hold a tray of everything bagels, the best-selling product at newly opened Solomon Bagels & Donuts in North Park on Tuesday, April 28. Despite the challenges of opening April 17, during the pandemic, the shop has been very busy.
(Pam Kragen / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Wang designed the 4,000-square-foot North Park shop himself with a large commercial kitchen and rear parking lot for a future wholesale operation and separate prep and cooking areas for baker Tammy Strange’s scratch-made doughnuts. Wang jokes that “bagels and doughnuts used to be enemies, but here doughnuts are the sweet dreams of bagels.”

Doughnut baker Tammy Strange holds a tray of her popular apple fritters at Solomon Bagels & Donuts in North Park.
(Pam Kragen / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

During training a week before the shop opened, Wang gave out free bagel and doughnut samples to passers-by, which alerted the community that the shop, which had been under construction for 2 1/2 years, was finally about to open. By 2 p.m. on opening day, Wang had to close temporarily because it had sold out of food and ingredients that were expected to last three days.

“They were waiting for us,” Wang said of his customers. “COVID made the local community stronger and more supportive of local businesses. We were a bright light for people who are feeling depressed. We want them to know we’re all in this together.”

Wang’s landlord Avi Stieglitz said he’s amazed Wang was able to open during the pandemic but not surprised at the shop’s success.

“After three years of seeing all the delays, I was positive there was no way he’d get past this hurdle and get open,” Stieglitz said. “But he did get open and he’s providing the community with an essential service with something they can look forward to.”

Siblings Louie Prager, left, and Clinton Prager wait outside their newly opened Prager Bros. Artisan Breads store in downtown Encinitas on April 25. Despite opening the shop during the pandemic on April 17, the brothers say the shop has been surprisingly busy.
(Pam Kragen / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Prager Bros Artisan Breads, Encinitas

After two years of construction on their first stand-alone Prager Bros. store at 543 S. Coast Highway 101 in Encinitas, Oceanside siblings Louie, 34, and Clinton, 32, were aiming for a March 1 grand opening. But, worried about the growing threat of a pandemic-related shutdown, they pushed back their opening by a week. Then two weeks. Then three.

When the COVID-19 tsunami hit San Diego County in mid-March, it wiped out 40 percent of Prager’s sales overnight, due to the closure of the farmers markets and higher-end restaurants that purchased the company’s Old World-style hand-formed, naturally leavened, organic whole-grain breads.

After a month of putting out fires and figuring out new safety protocols, they sent out an email to customers at 9 p.m. on April 16 that they would open the Encinitas shop the next morning. Then they crossed their collective fingers.

“That first day was like shooting in the dark to figure out how much to bake,” said Clinton, who set aside a professional music career to join his brother’s burgeoning bread business in 2013. “We didn’t know what to expect, but the customers were so grateful we were open.”

A tray of sablé shortbread cookies ready for sale at Prager Bros. Artisan Breads store in Encinitas on April 25.
(Pam Kragen / The San Diego Union-Tribune)

Among those first customers was Brian Bird, who had been driving to the Carlsbad bakery for years and was thrilled to have a shop within walking distance of his Encinitas home. In the store’s first week of business, Bird visited three times.

“These guys have done so much for the community,” Bird said. “They’re always giving back, and they have a great product. I love their scones, and they have the best baguettes in town.”

The Prager brothers said opening during the pandemic was a clarifying event for them and their business. It proved that their brand awareness was strong enough to support a more profitable direct-to-consumer approach rather than relying on wholesale business. In recent years, the company was growing so rapidly, peaking at 40 employees on March 1, the brothers never had time to stop and determine what they wanted their company to be.

“It’s hard to walk away from all the accounts and the money when you have bills to pay. You have to have a lot of courage. The virus did that for us. We were able to pivot,” Louie said. “We use the metaphor of a fruit tree. To make it really strong, you have to prune it every year. We didn’t have time to prune, so it just kept growing out of control, and it wasn’t growing perfectly. Restructuring gave us a good, strong trunk.”

Baker Francisco Guevera inside newly opened Donutgram doughtnut shop in Escondido, which he owns with his mom, Virginia, and sister, Mitzi.
(Courtesy photo)

Donutgram, Escondido

The Guevara family of Escondido worked for many years for doughnut chains like Yum Yum and Winchell’s before they decided to open their own shop, Donutgram, on April 10 at 1131 E. Washington Ave., in Escondido.

But opening their first shop together during the pandemic was one business scenario they’d never experienced in their previous jobs. For one thing, they named their shop for a marketing concept that they haven’t been able to deliver yet: special delivery boxes of doughnuts with telegram-style notes.

Donutgram is co-owned by baker Francisco Guevera; his sister Mitzi Guevara, who manages sales; and their mom, Virginia Guevara, who does all the doughnut decoration.

Mitzi said the family wanted to open their own shop, rather than buy a franchise, because they wanted to experiment with their own gourmet toppings and flavors. They’ve topped some doughnuts with breakfast cereals and recently introduced Mexican-inspired flavors like horchata and Mazapan (peanut) candy. The shop also bakes its own croissants and muffins and sells breakfast sandwiches, bagels and smoothies.

A dozen doughnuts at newly opened Donutgram in Escondido, which is thriving despite having opened during the COVID-19 quarantine.
(Courtesy photo)

The Guevara family took over the doughnut shop left vacant when Marte’s Donuts closed after 41 years last fall when its owner retired. Mitzi said she thinks that’s one reason Donutgram was successful right from the start when they opened last month.

“People were familiar with a doughnut shop in this location, and we have a lot of friends in the community who came out to support us and spread the word,” she said. “But also, people feel good about helping others out in our tough times. We’ve been very happy to feel the support from the community.”

Owner/head baker Roanna Canete uses a mask while baking at her newly opened Gluten Free Baking Co. in North Park. It opened in February just as worries of the pandemic began sweeping through San Diego.
(Courtesy of Lindsay Kreighbaum)

The Gluten Free Baking Co., North Park

Roanna Canete actually opened her Gluten Free Baking Co. retail shop at 4594 30th St. in February. But when the pandemic struck town and hoarding emptied supermarket shelves countywide, she quickly adapted her new store’s merchandise to meet the needs of customers with celiac disease or other food allergies.

She stocked the shop’s shelves with everything from cupcakes to personal protection equipment. And she created her own version of a farm box program by allowing customers to order boxes of allergy-free baked goods like sandwich breads, bagels and cinnamon rolls for pickup. She said the service has been a comfort to customers who can no longer find gluten-free items in their supermarkets.

Canete was a globe-hopping leadership consultant when her son was diagnosed as gluten-intolerant. In the process of learning to cook for him, she found her new vocation. After running a wholesale production bakery in Coronado for several years, she decided to open the shop in North Park with her in-house cake designer Lisa Altfest.

“During these unsettling times, we support our clients by simply staying open,” Canete said in an email. “They are already restricted in what foods they can eat so it is our job to provide security by making those foods not just available, but fun. We’re proud to have the most amazing customers who encourage us daily with their kind words, flavor suggestions, and loyalty.”

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