This year, La Mejor bakery celebrates 30 years of serving pan dulce in the Mission and is now recognized by the city as a Legacy Business. Its owner, Carmen Elias, has been in charge of following a family tradition and continuing with one of the most important cultural legacies in Mexican cuisine.
La Mejor has been a staple at 24th and Mission for 30 years. If we think about the last 30 years, San Francisco and the world have gone through many changes, but one thing has remained constant: doña Carmen’s pan dulce. This business has survived sociocultural and economic changes and even a global pandemic. The business that started as an investment opportunity has now become an emblem for the community and a continuation of a trade that has been going on for three generations.
In 1966, Elias’ father, Gonzalo Morales, came to San Francisco and two years later brought all his family from Mexico City.
“I grew up in 24th and Folsom and lived there for many years until I married and moved to Fremont,” Elias told El Tecolote. “Even though I moved away from the Mission [District] for a while it was always my first home in the U.S. and what reminded me of Mexico City.”
When she lived in the neighborhood, Elias’ father worked at most of the bakeries in the Mission, such as La Victoria and La Reyna. In Fremont, Elias worked for 20 years at Bank of America and managed to retire when she was only 39 years old.
“An ex-coworker and good friend of my dad knew about this place at 24th and Mission that was on sale so I decided to buy it with my retirement money and start my panaderia,” said Elias.
Elias’ father passed away before she started La Mejor. Nevertheless, he had multiple friends with whom he had worked in the past at various bakeries, which helped Elias start her business.
“My father was the one that knew all the bread recipes so I felt a little lost in the beginning. However, my dad’s friends were a big support for me,” Elias shared.
This bakery in the heart of the Mission has seen it all. In an interview with Doña Carmen, she comments on how this neighborhood has changed in the last 30 years: “People have changed, there is more diversity. Before there was a very strong Central American presence and now it’s nice to see the diversity in people, languages and restaurants. Many people also come to our bakery asking if we make bread here and they like that it continues to be an artisanal process because they feel that it is original.”
In addition to the satisfaction of giving back to the community, for this long-standing Latina businesswoman, who came to the U.S. at the age of 14, starting her own business was an equally satisfying challenge. “After so many changes in my life, I had to leave but came back when I bought the bakery. I felt a lot of appreciation from the community.”
Currently, businesses like Carmen’s face the need to gradually incorporate technology to the best of their ability to make the time they must dedicate to the priority of their business, which is making quality bread and customer service, more efficient. “I would like to have more technology, especially so that they can set up a payroll system so that it’s not a headache. More than anything I would like to include technology in everything that is related to bread.”
To keep businesses like La Mejor alive, the city has the Legacy Business program, which is in charge of recognizing and promoting businesses with more than 30 years of experience with the aim of keeping the small business culture alive in San Francisco.
There are currently 15 legacy businesses within the Latino Cultural District, ranging from restaurants to sports stores that have been an essential part of our community’s culture and have exemplified generations of excellence and resilience. They have become a fundamental part of the lives of many people.
Elias expressed that the first years of La Mejor Bakery were very difficult for her as she was making little to no income.
“Ay ya sabes,” Elias said. “Like any other starting business, we struggled a lot but with time, and plenty of love and support from our community we made it work and now it has been 30 years since it all started.”
La Mejor Bakery has a variety of Mexican pan dulce, cakes like tres leches, tamales, and coffee to grab and go or sit and enjoy. The 30-year-old corner remains a thriving place for Mission’s community to gather at any time, catch up in between working shifts, or just say buenos dias or buenas tardes to Elias, her bakers and cashiers that welcome you with a warm smile.
To learn more about the San Francisco Legacy Business Registry, visit legacybusiness.org.
Mariana Navarrete is a contributor to El Tecolote, and Diego Garza is a Business Liaison in the Calle 24 Latino Cultural District.