On Aug. 20, San Francisco Chronicle Inside Scoop columnist Paolo Lucchesi reported on “swirling rumors” about the historic Italian-French Baking Co. in North Beach (1501 Grant Ave.) suddenly closing its doors. Lucchesi relied on an article by Geri Koeppel, North Beach expert for the website Hoodline, in which Koeppel says that she “spoke to someone, a self-identified manager named Tony, who refused to give his last name” and that he “was adamant that the bakery would not close.” Koeppel goes on: “He said the small storefront would be closing for three extra hours in the afternoon for temporary remodeling, before returning to its regular 6 a.m.–6 p.m. schedule.” Right about now, GraceAnn Walden — the late, great creator of Inside Scoop, and a true North Beach expert — is rolling in her grave. (I can hear her now: “What the hell happened to food reporting in this town?”)
Both the Chronicle and Hoodline noted a mysterious hand-scribbled sign in the “papered windows” which claimed the bakery had closed for remodeling and would return soon for an exciting new bakery concept. The word “concept” was in red quotes added to the glass outside with what appeared to be lipstick, leading Inside Scoop commenters on SFGate to speculate, some facetiously, about what was really happening (“Maybe it will reopen as a Uber/Lyft waiting station … what next Caffe Trieste becomes a Starbucks?” lamented “thought-dancer”).
It just so happens I know one of the silent partners in the venture, so I called him to get the real inside scoop. Because he’s a silent partner, he asked to remain anonymous, but he invited me down to the bakery for a chat and a look around.
Baking bread from brick ovens since 1917, Italian-French Baking Co. arose after bakery workers in North Beach threatened to go on strike — they wanted better working conditions, including one day off each week. After meeting with the workers, a group of bakeries in the neighborhood joined forces to form the Italian-French Baking Co. (hence the unusual name) in an effort to bring down their rising costs. Over the years, the bakery changed hands (and names) a number of times, returning to its original name in the 1960s.
Five years ago, a group of investors took over the lease from the current operator and renamed the business North Beach Baking Co. (though customers and neighbors still referred to it by its old name), supplying bread to Chris Cosentino, Hubert Keller, and other well-known chefs in San Francisco.
“At the time, we thought the landlord was going to do some upgrades,” the partner said. “Or at least offer us some rent back so we could do it, but that never happened.” The ancient bakery continued falling into disrepair, garnering citations from the Health Department. “They closed us down a couple of times,” the partner explained.
While baking bread in two hundred-year-old brick ovens sounds charming, it had actually become a dangerous job. “One of the vents stopped working completely and the other was barely working,” the partner said. “Since the Health Department did its visits during the day, we didn’t start baking in the brick ovens until after midnight.” But recently, the vent on the second brick oven gasped its last breath.
During a nighttime visit, the workroom seemed more appropriate for the set of a horror film than a bakery. The walls behind the ovens were covered in grease from the lack of ventilation, some of the crumbling bricks on the smaller oven were missing, and the floors were covered in various shades of gunk and goop. “There’s no floor drain,” the partner pointed out. “So this is from years of not being able to power wash these floors. I had a guy willing to do it for free, but I couldn’t let him because he would have flooded the place.” To top it all off, the building isn’t ADA compliant.
Despite the health code violations, lack of disabled access, and two nonworking ovens, the landlord not only refused to work with the owners on upgrades, she asked for a rent increase.
“She wanted us to go from $13,000 a month — which is already a lot — to $15,000 a month. Some of our clients have closed, too, like Giordano Bros., Capp’s Corner, and Volare here in North Beach, and Annabelle’s on Fourth Street, so it just became impossible.”
A prominent San Francisco baker who liked the idea of baking in the old brick ovens came to look at the space, but he was shocked not only by the condition of the building but also by the price tag to bring it up to code, which could be upward of $1 million.
“We were running in the red, so we were rolling in dough, but not the right kind,” the partner said. “With everything else that’s happened recently, we had no choice but to close.”