The sights and sounds that once defined San Francisco’s Mission District five decades ago are hardly recognizable these days.
Gentrification can do that to any vibrant and bustling neighborhood. But look — or smell — closely, and some relics of a bygone era remain.
The Mission’s long-standing La Reyna Bakery began baking its pan dulce in 1965 in Woodlake, California. But for Clemente and Josephina Gutierrez, moving the family business to San Francisco seemed inevitable.
Clemente and Josephina relocated their family to San Francisco’s Mission District in 1971, briefly leaving their panaderia behind in Woodlake. For five years, the couple worked at a bakery owned by a fellow family member — Dominguez Bakery — on 24th and Alabama Streets.
“From ‘71 to ‘75 we lived on Alabama Street behind the [Dominguez] bakery, then we moved to Hampshire,” said Luis Gutierrez, son of Clemente and Josephina. Then finally on July 7, 1977, Luis’ mom and dad moved their bakery from Woodlake to 3114 24th Street, the heart of the Mission.
They’ve been there ever since.
Last month, La Reyna celebrated its 46th anniversary, a triumph against the gentrification that has caused many businesses in the corridor to shutter their doors.
In the ‘70s, 24th Street was home to numerous Mexican bakeries, much like La Reyna, including the one owned by Gutierrez’s aunt — Dominguez Bakery.
But today La Reyna is one of the few standing in the neighborhood. Dominguez Bakery, which was one of San Francisco’s oldest, closed in 2014.
The 46-year success of La Reyna Bakery is largely due to the fact that Gutierrez’s family owns the building.
“My sister is the owner, my mom left it to my sister and my brother-in-law works here. He’s the head baker, and I work here with my sister,” said Gutierrez. “A regular day is just my sister opening up, we’re more relaxed than my mom and dad. They were like gung ho 24/7. She’ll open up at 10 a.m., and I’ll come in to close at 4 p.m.,” he said.
Family ownership of the building helped keep the business afloat through wave after wave of neighborhood gentrification, and through the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There was always commerce and always movement on the street. Now those businesses, when gentrification hit — gone. The ones that stayed were probably the ones that owned the building because other than that, it would be hard. Rent, for example, next door, went up from $3,000 or $4,000 thousand to $8,000,” said Gutierrez. “So questions like that came up, who can stay and who can’t stay? And those of us who were owners stayed.”
Remaining in the neighborhood meant La Reyna witnessed change happening around it.
“There were no real kids walking down [the street] in soccer uniforms. I didn’t hear the banging of basketballs in the street anymore,” said Gutierrez.
But recently, Gutierrez noticed a change.
“I just saw about a week ago, two families over here that have kids. They were in here at the same time and that hasn’t happened, that I’ve seen, in over 30 years; where a family with kids from across the street will come in and buy bread and then go back home,” said Gutierrez. “And before gentrification, that was how it was.”
Gutierrez thinks the recent addition of low-income housing in the Mission District has a part to play in bringing kids back to the neighborhood.
And although La Reyna has remained through the years, it too has changed. Gutierrez and his family would take trips to San Diego, where Gutierrez was born, and bring items back to sell. Everything from piñatas and pigs feet to tortillas and milk.
“That was the hustle that my mom and dad did,” he said.
But La Reyna wasn’t just a place to buy pantry staples. “My dad would put machines in here like Donkey Kong … and Pacman. Even during the Saturday Night Fever craze, my dad put a jukebox in with Saturday Night Fever songs,” said Gutierrez.
Today, the bakery is more simple.
“My sister, her hustle is different, she likes just bread,” said Gutierrez.
Shelf-stable goods like traditional pan dulce and low overhead costs have also kept La Reyna running.
“That’s one of the reasons we’re still here,” said Gutierrez. “We don’t charge a lot. We’re not trying to get rich off our customers.”
And the question of ‘why not charge extra?’ has come up before. But that isn’t how La Reyna has ever operated. “That isn’t our customers. Our customers are not going to pay extra money, and the customers who do pay extra money, they don’t buy our bread. So, we’d lose our customers,” said Gutierrez.
After all, La Reyna has been a Mission staple for 46 years because customers keep coming back, and Gutierrez’s work is honest. “I think it’s that we grew up here as a family and you know, literally the customers are our friends. During gentrification, your community got smaller so you had to communicate with even people you didn’t think were friends,” he said.
“Like my mom said, we’re not ever going to get rich. You’re not ever going to have what you want, but you’re going to have what you need,” said Gutierrez.
A family-run bakery that treats customers as friends — that might just be the true recipe for success.