Historical ambiance baked here

Old fashioned bakery keeps the calm in small-town San Juan

RARE FIND San Juan Bakery and Grocery has been a town fixture since 1938, when it was opened by the Cornaggia family before finally being purchased by Dianne Hampton and her son, Jesse, in February of 2012. Featured: Dianne Hampton right, with Beto Gloria and Juliana Szabo. Photo: Robert Eliason

Every small town should have a home away from home. A place where friends meet, delight in a pastry or cup of coffee, and take in the chatter of the town. And one preferably smelling of freshly baked-bread, straight out of the oven.

In San Juan Bautista, that place is San Juan Bakery & Grocery.

Bakery regular and San Juan Bautista local, Cindy Tatro, says the atmosphere is a rare find these days. “We enjoy every aspect of the quaint old fashioned place,” she says of herself and husband. “[Watching] the people gathering to enjoy a ‘heavenly bite’ or other selection—mostly passers through—and are excited about the same things we enjoy!”

The small-town bakery at 319 Third Street has been a San Juan Bautista fixture since 1938, when it was opened by the Cornaggia family. After changing hands three more times, Dianne Hampton and her son, Jesse, purchased the establishment in February of 2012.

“My sister-in-law’s family, the House family, had [the bakery] from the early eighties until 2003,” says Hampton. “And they just called me to come into work one Saturday in early 2003; it was an emergency. And I walked in and I fell in love with this place.”

Hampton, a Gilroy native and resident, soon became a permanent employee at the bakery. Just months later, it was sold to Luis Santos, who then sold it to Hampton in 2012 (Prior the House family, it was owned by the Paradis family—after the Cornaggias).  

Seven years after purchasing it, Hampton has found her hands in every aspect of the bakery—everything from purchasing ingredients at dusk, to bagging/shelving breads, prepping food for the oven, or keeping up on paperwork. “I’m a worker bee,” says the former bookkeeper.

Another worker bee is her son, Jesse, who is literally a hands-on owner. As one of its bakers, Jesse works at the bakery six days a week—as does Dianne.

Their love for the bakery is evident in how they preserve the integrity of its baked goods. Hampton says the Cornaggias handed down a binder full of recipes from its original baker, so former customers can continue to experience the same breads they had as children.

“What’s amazing is the binder still smells like the bakery,” Hampton says. “Even when I took it home as I was buying the bakery, it smelled like the bakery.”

Inside the coveted binder are recipes for the bakery’s famous french bread, apricot turnovers and more. The recipes don’t include preservatives in the breads, and calls for everything to be handmade.

Cooking everything in the bakery’s original 1938 brick-oven (which is gas-torched every night so ready to bake the next morning), the Hamptons continue to use the binder to prepare all its baked goods.

Before it was a bakery, the landmark (built in 1860) was a grocery store, according to employee, Katie Smith. “It was like a mercantile,” says the San Juan Bautista resident, who is a four-year employee. “The shelves were full of canned goods and there were big scales on the counters to weigh dry goods.”

In fact, its history lends a clue as to why the bakery still includes ‘& Grocery’ in its name.

The San Juan Bautista Municipal Code, Title 11, states “Existing signs on historic buildings shall be maintained intact to the greatest extent possible for their historical ambience.”

So the name remains the same. And though visitors may be swayed, locals know the bakery for more than its name.

While its famous french bread and apricot turnovers are notable customer favorites, the bakery also sells other fruit turnovers, regular and savory rolls, and a variety of breads. “There’s probably 15 different flavors of sweetbreads, similar to poundcakes; chocolate brownie, almond poppyseed, pumpkin, banana bread,” says Smith. “There’s also a sandwich bread called German Black—it’s a dark rye-wheat mix that’s really good.”

The donuts have also become popular in recent years; giant donuts for a dollar have become hit.  And—only sold on weekends—customers can enjoy its blueberry donuts. “They’re like cake-donuts,” says Smith.

And though a wide assortment of cookie jars will be found on the shelves, they are not for sale. In fact, many belong to local customers. “Dianne had two cookie jars when she bought the bakery and put them on the shelf,” explains Smith. “Then people started bringing her cookie jars and so most of them have been gifted to us by people in the community. A lot of them have names inside of who brought them. So they just live here,” Smith laughs.

Just as fond as the current locals are of the bakery, past locals and visitors also hold fond memories of the establishment.

San Juan Bautista native, Carolyn Rivera Day, recalls attending Spanish mass at the San Juan Mission with her grandma and then accompanying her through town with a stop at the bakery.  “We would either pick up sweet pastries or a loaf french bread to go with Sunday dinner,” she says. Though Day now resides in Portland, Oregon, she says the bakery was a dream job she never got to fulfill. “It’s too bad I never worked there because I would’ve learned so much.”

Smith says similar stories are recalled by visitors who used to stop by San Juan Bautista as kids, on their way home or from nearby cities. “They come in and say, ‘I used to come here with my grandparents and they’d always buy two loaves of french bread. The kids could eat one in the backseat, but the other one we had to save for dinner.’ We have heard that from so many families—that same experience.”

San Juan Bakery & Grocery also acts as the town’s Visitor Center, run by San Juan Bautista Community Business Association. Visitors can find such things as merchant flyers, brochures, calendar of events, T-shirts, hats, and historical books of the town.

“It’s staffed Friday to Sunday from noon to 4pm,” Smith says. “When they’re not there, we answer the questions if we can.”

Though Dianne will manage the front counter occasionally, ever the “worker bee,” she often finds herself running things in the back of the bakery.  

“I tell Dianne she’s missing the best part of working here—it’s talking to the people when they come in,” Smith laughs.

San Juan Bakery & Grocery is open Tues–Sat from 7am–5pm, and Sun. 7am–4pm. Call 831.623.4570 for more information or for orders.

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