By Carolyn Chun
The food scene in San Francisco is marked by restaurants of all kinds — including its bakeries. The following three eateries come from different backgrounds and work in different communities. One makes croissants. One makes dumplings. One makes pizza.
A green cloth overhang and gold script mark the entrance to Arsicault Bakery, a small space in Inner Richmond where the smell of coffee and pastries greets customers. Tall windows let in light from the street, and a set of stairs leads up to a few tables in the back.
It was here that Bon Appetit Magazine found a croissant it liked so much that it named Arsicault the best new bakeshop of 2016.
Alongside round, sugar-lacquered kouign amann, morning buns and currant scones, there are plain croissants, ham and cheese croissants, chocolate croissants and sugar-dusted almond croissants. They all bear the same browned, almost caramelized crust, which, once broken, gives way to rich and tender layers.
Watching new customers have a croissant is one of the highlights for baker and owner Armando Lacayo.
“I see people come here for the first time and take the first bite, and they look surprised,” he said. “They go, ‘Oh my God, that’s good.’”
“One condition for something to be art is that it should surprise you,” he continued.
Lacayo is a French native who came to the United States for college almost 30 years ago. His career took him into finance, Wall Street and investment. It was not until he came to the States that he began to bake, the result of what he described as the high standards of his own taste.
“I have enjoyed food my whole life, and I tended to be the guy who complained, ‘Oh, this is not good. This could be better,’” he said, laughing. “One day, I decided to shut up and make it myself.”
He taught himself through books, the internet and his own experimentation. Asked how long it took to perfect the recipe for their croissant, he said, “We’re still working on it.”
Lacayo engages in a constant process of observation and improvement, explaining that his background in finance taught him the benefits of being objective, systematic and disciplined.
He explained that this is an ethos he has worked to instill in his team, as well. Once, a baker insisted that a croissant was “not that bad.”
“It drove me crazy, because we are not in the business of making things that are not that bad,” he said. “We are here to do the best we can.”
Though Lacayo did not know the neighborhood before purchasing the old bakeshop that would become Arsicault — named after his French grandparents — he has since come to appreciate the people and the area. Lacayo said that he has gotten to know the regulars. Lacayo once had a customer honk at him to say “Hello!” when he was coming out of his apartment and ran back upstairs to offer the man some of the bread he had just baked.
He added that he appreciated the support the community has offered. After the Bon Appetit article ran, he said, “There was a big line, so the regulars were a bit miffed.”
“But at the same time, they were very happy for us,” he added.
In turn, Lacayo hopes to offer hospitality and a touch of luxury. At $3.75 for a plain croissant, he acknowledged that his pastries are more expensive than some, but he said that he hopes to make it worth it.
“People appreciate quality,” he said.
Day after day, Arsicault continues to offer its best pastries to the people who walk through its doors.
“We were named the best new bakery in America, and now we’re working to be the best old bakery in America,” Lacayo said.
Good Mong Kok Bakery
On the eastern side of San Francisco, in the heart of Chinatown, sits Good Mong Kok Bakery, its name printed in white script beneath green, calligraphed characters on an orange awning. Scores of such Chinese bakeries dot the city’s historic Chinese district, the largest Chinese enclave outside Asia.
Small bakeries, restaurants and shops have become symbols of the old Chinatown. A recent art exhibition by the Chinatown Community Development Center, titled “Eat Chinatown,” recalls the historical role of Chinese food businesses in the area, as affordable places to eat home-cooked meals, a source of work and a means for Chinese immigrants to gain merchant status and help relatives into the country under the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Another goal was to document the visual pieces of nostalgia that characterized the Chinese food scene, from hand-painted bilingual signs to pink pastry boxes. Stacks of these boxes line the window of Good Mong Kok, as they do at bakeries around Chinatown.
Good Mong Kok sits on a lot declared a historic resource and which San Francisco records indicate was first converted to a food service establishment in 1993. It is compact, with most of the narrow inner space occupied by the counter from which two women dole out dumplings, noodles, scallion bread, turnip cakes and steamed and baked buns filled with barbecue pork.
There are no seats inside, and service is quick and brusque, to match the long lines that are a fixture outside of Good Mong Kok’s door.
Most customers do not appear to live in Chinatown. One woman in line was not even from San Francisco and had not been in several years. However, she said that she had to make a stop.
“It is so good,” she said, peering through the window at the breads and treats.
A few streets away from Golden Gate Park is Arizmendi Bakery, whose vine-green exterior frames its large glass doors. The print on the window declares that the shop sells bread, pastries, pizza and sweets. Inside, a banner that reads, “Make loaves, not walls,” hangs over the open kitchen.
Arizmendi is a workers’ cooperative, which means that all of the bakers, like Heather Farnham, are member-owners. Each of the 21 members receives an equal share of the work and profit. At monthly meetings, logistics and initiatives are decided on a consensus basis, or, if the issue is urgent, with a 75 percent majority.
“You really have responsibility in making the business successful, in making decisions with regard to profitability and keeping your customer base,” Farnham said.
This Arizmendi Bakery, in Inner Sunset, is one of six locations in the Bay Area, the earliest of which began operations in the 1990s. All are part of a broader parent association called the Association of Arizmendi, which collects fees from the bakeries to run development, outreach and logistics. The group is continuing to work to fund new bakeries in different locations. A current initiative also involves the development of cooperative businesses in other fields, including one that would seek to build affordable housing in San Francisco.
“A cooperative is a different option and can be a great way to go in starting a business,” she said.
Farnham has been at Arizmendi for 15 years. She was living in Inner Sunset when Arizmendi opened and attended the planning commission meeting where Arizmendi sought permission to use the space.
“It was very well-received,” she said. “I think that the Bay Area, just because of its diverse and liberal base, has the mindset to foster this kind of alternative business.”
Farnham applied and was hired, undergoing a standard six-month approval period before she attained full membership in the cooperative. She cited the social and political mission of Arizmendi as part of the reason she came to work there.
“There is some understanding that it’s not just about making as much money as we can,” Farnham said.
“We can choose to keep the prices fair for our customers,” she continued. “It is about earning a living, but not about having an unfair advantage over our community.”
The neighborhood has continued to support Arizmendi.
“I feel like we have a strong footing, mainly because our customers are loyal,” she said. “They choose to support this business over a chain bakery.”
In turn, this and the other Arizmendis around the Bay Area have worked to involve themselves in their communities. Farnham mentioned that all of the food left at the end of the day is donated to local food banks. Another recent initiative has used the sale of T-shirts to fundraise for local immigration counseling services. The Arizmendi located in the Mission, on Valencia Street, she added, has dedicated itself to combating gentrification.
The recent closure of the well-known Mexican-owned La Victoria Bakery in the Mission this past fall was attributed in part to the same rapid changes that had pushed out other Latino businesses in the area.
Farnham also expressed the life and business that she feels Arizmendi brings to the area.
“I think it offers a thriving community,” she said. “It has just been great to see how this neighborhood flourishes, when a few of the businesses are leaders as sustainable, reliable and friendly places to go.”
For Farnham herself, the bakery has become a home. She talked about celebrations for the 10th, 15th and soon the 20th anniversary of the bakery, as well as the sight of children growing up in and around the bakery.
“That always felt to me like, ‘That’s the kind of business I want to work in,’” she said. “It is a family-operated business. There are 20 families making this happen.”
Of course, there is also pride in the food. “Nobody’s tired of the pizza,” said Farnham, smiling. “There are [workers] who have been here for almost 20 years, and we don’t get tired of it.”