Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Soccoro Cuadillo: 50 Years of Tradition

IT'S MINUTES before 6:00 AM.

The air outside feels like ice against the skin and the morning sky is painted gray with clouds that float lethargically above. Traffic on Echo Park Blvd. off the corner of Sunset is light, though by afternoon this will become a busy intersection. The fluorescent red, yellow, and greens, flicker on the stoplights emitting a bright flash of color in the grey dreary morning. Soccoro Cuadillo doesn’t let the drab morning ruin his cheery mood.  Today is a morning just like any other. You can call a man in his profession by many names, yet the way he performs his craft is much like that of an artist pursuing perfection. Instead of brushes and canvases, the tools Caudillo uses are found in the heated arena of the kitchen. Titanium steel ovens, bags of flour, and a staff of family-friendly Angelenos, have kept Caudillo’s business, Celaya Bakery, operating successfully for nearly 50 years. The clock strikes six and his store is open for business. 

   “It’s the warm smell of fresh baked bread. It reminds me of waking up early in Mexico, going to the kitchen, and finding my mom pulling a fresh batch out of the oven,” Caudillo tells me behind his thick Mexican accent and even scruffier beard. That is what keeps him going every day. Owning a successful business takes dedication, and it’s the dedication of “our family,” he says, that keeps this business owner waking up before dawn every morning.

Panaderias (as they’re commonly known), or “bakeries,” are plentiful in ethnic parts of downtown Los Angeles. Walking a few blocks, an individual may encounter five or six different types of Mexican eateries that all offer similar goods. Caudiallo and his staff's dedication  keeps the doors of Celaya Bakery open. The job calls for early hours in a cramped space, yet this small family business has left customers smiling for almost half a century.  Most innovators try to add twists and turns to the every day object. Caudillo is a man of rituals and customs:  “I’ve been using the same recipe for years,” he says. “Sure, maybe a few things have changed here and there but the idea is the same.” His bread and treats are traditional in every sense of the word, however time and practice has allowed Caudillo’s staff to produce a perfect product. The sugar coating on every piece of pan. Pan, the Spanish word for bread, is Caudillo's specialty.  His pan dulce, (candy bread), is is light and sweet and comes in an array of pastel colors.

Caudillo has brought an art to his food and service that only family can provide. Although Celaya Bakery is big in heart, its location in busy downtown Los Angeles offers only a tiny space inside a popular consumer district. The kitchen is small and Caudillo and his team developed their own body language to maneuver around one another when the days get busy.  Baking to these employees comes as simple as taking a breath; their rhythm makes their job seem simple.

Caudillo was born in Chapala, Mexico, just outside Guadalajara. After marrying his wife and deciding to settle down, the pair packed their bags and headed to the United States to ensure a better future for their would-be family. Starting a business in 1960s Los Angeles is no easy task. In a time where crime and freedom of speech roamed the streets, the city was changing rapidly with the construction of freeways, housing, and a vibrant nightlife. Southern California provided the perfect weather and Los Angeles lined it’s street with opportunity and trades. “I grew up around small towns and villages… the city was always a long drive,” he says, “It was hard to adapt [here] at first… but I learned the ways of the streets.”  Caudillo found a niche in the vast city and stuck to what he knew. “There wasn’t many options for me when I moved here. I had some money saved up and decided to use it for something I’m good at,” he explains. From sunrise to sunset, Caudillo provides a pledge to every customer walking in that they will leave satisfied.
Located only a mile from Dodger Stadium off Sunset Boulevard and Echo Park Avenue., Caudillo set up shop in a location that would draw hundreds in every day.  On game days Caudillo opens his doors to a rush of Dodger fans, hurrying to fill his tiny shop. Families come and load up on many of the sweet breads, fresh carnita burritos, chile reyenos, or homemade horchata. Customers are always smiling and pleasant as Caudillo’s atmosphere emits a slice of home. “The city has changed quite a bit. New suit shops come up every few years… one thing that won’t change is people’s hunger,” he laughs. “People like to eat food, good food. I want to make sure every customer leaves smiling.”
Caudillo and his family (along with a few extra helping hands) have run and operated the business for almost half a century,  surviving several of Los Angeles' recessions. While many neighboring businesses have come up and down, Celaya Bakery provides products that are always in demand. More recently, Celaya Bakery stood strong during the neighborhood's gentrification all the while keeping his business worth of a grade "A." While many businesses often relocate because of regional or societal dilemmas, Celaya Bakery has stayed put since it’s inception. “I like to keep things simple. It’s easier that way,” he says.
The changing city of Los Angeles has brought many different customers through the doors of Celaya Bakery. No matter what streets and parkways are under construction, native citizens always find their way to the bakery when the doors open to find a nice slice of home waiting for them.

-- Michael Flores

Photo Credit: Michael Flores

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