Sweet tradition runs in the family

06/06/2012 12:00 AM

06/15/2012 10:20 AM

Step inside La Esperanza Bakery and the sweet aroma hits you within seconds.

It's a tantalizing welcome of sugar and cinnamon baking into fresh batches of Mexican pastries – pan dulce – that wafts through this small but time-honored south Sacramento store.

Stacks of fresh pastries fill the counter: fruit-filled empanadas, shell-shaped conchas, sweet breads in the shape of pigs called puerquitos, hornlike cuernos and so much more. Also mouthwatering: the prices. Most pastries cost between 40 and 60 cents each.

For more than 40 years, tucked in an aged strip mall near a busy stretch of Franklin Boulevard, La Esperanza remains one of Sacramento's great sweet spots. A new generation of family members is now in place to keep the pan dulce production thriving, despite a new wave of competition that's developed over the past few years.

"We still get the old customers who moved out of the area," said Jorge Plasencia, whose father founded La Esperanza in 1969. "They say they like the taste of our bread. It's hard work, but we enjoy the people and want to keep going."

Plasencia, 58, keeps the bakery rolling with his sister Emma Delgadillo, 65. Some of his father's grandchildren now serve as managers: Jorge Plasencia Jr., Michael Plasencia, Luz Ramos and Rosa Plasencia.

They've all helped grow La Esperanza Bakery into a multifaceted Mexican foods business. La Esperanza No. 2 is a few doors down from the bakery, specializing in carnitas, fresh tortillas (distributed to area restaurants) and masa, the dough essential for making tamales.

The family also owns Los Jarritos, the long-running Mexican restaurant on Broadway, and created a line of Mexican ice pops (paletas) that are distributed through an Oregon company and also sold at their stores.

But it all comes back to their pastries.

"The heart of the business is La Esperanza Bakery," said Jorge Plasencia. "Everything was initiated there. That's the base."

Time-honored influences

Before La Esperanza Bakery was in business, this space was known as Hollywood Bakery and specialized in pies and American desserts. Salvador Plasencia had been working as head baker at La Fiesta, a tortilla factory and restaurant once on Broadway, when he heard about this space becoming available on Franklin Boulevard.

Plasencia was originally from the Mexican state of Jalisco and had worked in bakeries since the age of 13. He'd learned all the classic pan dulce recipes and some for Mexican candies, too.

"Sweets were just in his blood," said Jorge Plasencia.

Pan dulce recipes are a hybrid of Mexican cooking traditions and French influences, which arrived during France's occupation of Mexico during the mid-1800s. Bolillos, which are among La Esperanza's most popular items, are essentially French rolls that make a perfect torta sandwich with some freshly grilled carne asada filling. Panettone, a loaf of sweet bread that's a holiday staple, also has Italian influences.

The senior Plasencia opened two versions of La Esperanza in Mexico, including a location in Tijuana, before moving to the United States in the early 1960s and baking at La Fiesta. By the time Plasencia opened La Esperanza in 1969 on Franklin Boulevard, he was a true maestro of Mexican pastries, spending most days in a baker's hat and with flour-coated hands.

The actual baking area at La Esperanza probably has changed little in 40 years. It's like the land that digital forgot, with an old-time scale used to weigh butter and other goods, and a well-worn 16-foot wooden table for preparing pastries that serves as the bakery's backbone.

A team of eight bakers attends racks of pink frosting for conchas and wheel in crates of fresh eggs. The ovens await their next loads of goodies, as does an 80-quart mixer.

The family roles

Plasencia's 12 children and grandchildren know this space well. Most of them worked at La Esperanza at some point, from stocking the shelves during summer breaks to working the counter and filling up pink boxes of pan dulce.

Jorge Plasencia originally mulled a career as a police officer before dedicating himself full-time to La Esperanza in the mid-1970s. He now acts as general manager, bestowed with the recipe book that details the ingredients and cooking methods for La Esperanza's beloved pastries. (See the recipe at the bottom of this page for a rare opportunity to bake one of La Esperanza's signature cookies).

Salvador Plasencia never retired. He died at age 90, after a car accident in 2001, overseeing the business until his last day. His spirit remains a guiding force for La Esperanza's third generation.

"Little by little he got us all involved," said Luz Ramos, who started in the family business by waiting tables at Los Jarritos. "On vacations, we'd come in and help as much as we could. During the holidays we give out calenders, and we'd be at home rolling them up. And on Sundays we were always at his house. He was very family-oriented."

New challenges

The family could feel the competition creeping up about five years ago. That's when Franklin and Stockton boulevards became home to a new wave of Mexican supermarkets, including La Superior and La Hacienda, that dwarf any mom-and-pop store. At first, La Esperanza supplies some of their bakeries. Now, most of these supermercados run in-house bakeries of their own.

That's one of the main challenges for this latest generation, which will someday run La Esperanza's enterprises. Having worked for the family business since teenagers, they feel ready – and now have college degrees to add to their résumés.

Ramos, 27, earned a business degree from California State University, Sacramento. Jorge Plasencia Jr., 27, studied economics at Sac State. He'd first considered working in finance, perhaps as an analyst or stockbroker, but knew his future would always be in La Esperanza.

"My father and aunts would talk to us as we were getting older, saying our grandfather built this for his family, and if we wanted to do it, it was here," he said. "I was expected to work, but little by little it morphed into something I really liked and enjoyed."

This latest generation is considering another La Esperanza location, maybe not in the immediate future. Many residents who grew up in the surrounding neighborhood have moved to other parts of town, but invariably seem to return for their beloved pan dulce. A La Esperanza in, say, Elk Grove or Natomas could save them a trip to south Sacramento.

"We have a diverse clientele and a lot of people say, 'When are you going to open another bakery?' " said Jorge Plasencia Jr. "That's eventually one of our goals."

The family says business remains solid, though the bakery sees a slight downtick in customers during the summer. Creating the line of frozen treats was intended to help offset the slower summer months.

But during the holidays, prepare for lines – lots of them and very long. That's when folks load up on pan dulce for holiday gatherings and especially on masa dough, with Thanksgiving through the end of a new year being the high tide for tamale season. At its peak, La Esperanza will sell about 5,000 pounds of masa dough every two days.

On a recent midafternoon the bakery still feels festive. A multicultural group of customers comes through, speaking a mix of Spanish and English as they order their favorite pastries. A row of blue and pink piñatas hovers over the counter, while other shelves are stocked with hominy, spices, bags of chicharrones and more. One customer needs two trips to her car to haul all the pink boxes of pastries that she's just bought.

Delgadillo, who proudly wears her La Esperanza shirt as she works the counter – as she has for decades – soaks in that sweet smell of family success.

"It's been a great experience," said Delgadillo. "The customers come from as far away as Placerville and Reno. They tell us, 'Thank God and thank your dad that you're still here.' "


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