Annie Cheng

Flour, water, egg and yeast. The sweet, sour fragrance is the first greeting of a bakery. The next, the buttery indulgence rising from rolling racks of fresh pastries. They say baking is a science: A product can change radically in the transformation from dough to loaf. Just ten more minutes of dry air exposure, and a perfectly proofed dough can collapse into a disappointing heap. With innovative flavor combinations or new shapes and structures, bread and pastries carry communal stories from all over the world. In many ways, bread forms a foundation for cultural togetherness: To meet someone new is to offer a bite, to share a loaf is to connect, to roll out the dough is to understand the history of the grain and economy and society around it. The art is in the simplicity and the possibilities alike. Civilizations are born from the grains that sustain them: rice, corn, wheat, durum, millet and so many more. New Haven is home to histories as rich and diverse as the bakeries it hosts. In mapping the Elm City through bakeries, we understand the people who rise before the sun to feed our neighborhoods.

Mi Lupita Bakery, Fair Haven

The racks are laden with Mexican pastries, stacks on stacks of pan dulce: conchas, coyotas, orejas and more. As my eyes wander — and my mouth waters — my daze is interrupted by two kids poking at my scooter. I ask to talk to their abuela and she comes from the kitchen all smiles and flour dust. The family matriarch Yolanda Guzmán grins as she shakes my hand. She keeps a stern eye on the little girl, who introduces herself in a tentative whisper as Elena. Elena wobbles on unfamiliar wheels as we tuck our bodies into the single corner table of the shop. Since I have arrived near the end of the day, the baking process is beginning to wind down. Guzmán’s daughters lean over a sink scrubbing mixing bowls and other baking tools; her brother Fidel hovers near the stove tending tlayudas.

Guzmán’s family has been running the tiny Fair Haven bakery for several decades. “Thanks to God, we have continued to be able to sell delicious bread from my country of Mexico,” says Guzmán. Hair tied up, she presses her fingers into the dough, kneading it to check the elasticity under her palms. Her shop is the only Mexican bakery in the area, and she takes pride that “[they] get to feed la gente with fresh, hot bread for the people every day.” Their customers include Mexican and Latinx neighbors along the historic Grand Street, as well as other small grocery stores just steps away. She proudly states that their bakery is the only one selling the round, egg-based pan de yema of traditional Oaxacan origins.

In The Politic, Oscar Lopez Aguirre ’20 wrote of his experience at the bakery: “I had found a home not in the concha nor in the bakery — maybe not even in Yolanda’s family — but in the baking of the bread. Identity, I thought to myself, then, cannot be encapsulated and consumed. It has to be made.” In many ways, Mi Lupita forms a community space for people to stop by for daily fresh bread on their way home from work, a common tradition across Latin America mostly absent in the U.S. It’s an affirmation of identity for the first-, second- and third-generation immigrants of the neighborhood — bread is a tangible, grounding reminder of home.¶

A bell dings and her grandson walks in from his day at Fair Haven High School, sneaking a shy wave before heading to the back. Her other grandkids squabble over the scooter, playing amongst the shelves of pan dulce. Mi Lupita has sustained three generations since Guzmán moved the operation out of her home kitchen in the early 2000s, citing increased demand. The Guzmán family flows through the shop in the same rhythm as they always have, moving through the motions with a practiced choreography. The kids watch TV on their phones, childish theme songs a constant backdrop.

The first time I visited the bakery, I collected nearly a dozen pastries with plastic tongs, my mouth watering. Wide-eyed and hungry, I peeked into each tray at the rows of treats, each one fluffier than the next. Sitting in the car, I took a rushed bite of each one and saved them for later, a terrible habit from my childhood days of untethered dessert consumption. The second time, I sit in the shop quietly and listen to the Spanish “Peppa Pig,” the steady slap of dough on tabletop, the quiet rush of the kitchen tap. I tear open a concha with my fingers, and slowly, I savor it.

Pan Del Cielo 2, Fair Haven

A young man in running shorts accompanies his grandfather, both ordering in Spanish with the familiarity of longtime regulars. Un sandwich de pernil, pastelito de queso. Beneath glass cases, buttery pastries glisten invitingly, each labeled carefully with their fillings: guava, cheese, pineapple, strawberry and more. The sweet scent of melted sugar sticks to the walls, and the ongoing gentle hum of dough mixers and machines hovers in the air. Since 2007, the Mera family has been serving up traditional Latin American pastries to Fair Haven families. “[The neighborhood] has grown a lot in the past decade,” says Edwin Mera, owner and panadero.

After immigrating to the United States from Ecuador in the early 2000s, Mera worked in New York City waiting tables and working in restaurants while saving to open his own business. Pacing around the stainless steel counters that double as his desk after baking hours, he confesses that buying and operating Pan Del Cielo 2 with his family was his first experience with baking.

“The first thing I did here is treat the customers well and learn more and more because I knew almost nothing from the beginning,” says Mera.

Since then, he’s grown the business significantly by appealing to a broad variety of clientele. “I returned to Ecuador and brought back recipes, fusing breads from Ecuador, Puerto Rico and Central America.”

The demand is clear — despite the late afternoon hour of our conversation, a steady stream of customers cycles in and out, paper bags in hand. “Every day, every day. We do fresh bread from five in the morning … and very rarely do we not sell out,” Mera says.

Retail customers, mainly Puerto Ricans and Central Americans, come for pan sobao and pastillitas of all types. But Pan Cielo 2 distributes as far as Brooklyn, serving grocery stores all over Connecticut and New York. Even so, Mera describes himself as old-school and says the business doesn’t actively promote itself across any platforms. “El chisme is the best way to advertise for me,” he says.

The next location will open in West Haven with improved machinery and a more spacious layout. His goal is to continue serving his changing customer base, adapting the menu to reflect and welcome the tastes of new arrivals. On the day of my visit, the store is set up for the Ecuadorian holiday el Día de los Difuntos, selling guaguas de pan (baby-shaped breads) and colada morada (a maize- and fruit-based beverage).

Pan Del Cielo 2 is a gastronomic node of the community, feeding folks from all over with simple ingredients made from scratch. After Mera retires, his son will take over the bakery and serve the New Haven community with the same commitment to consistency and quality products — from tres leches to empanadas.

Atticus, Campus + New Haven

Originally opened as a used book store, local favorite Atticus has been frequented by New Haveners for 45 years. The bookstore-café welcomes students and residents alike to check out new books, simple fresh salads and delicious pastries throughout the day. Espresso machines whir constantly, and conversations abound at the crowded fine line between bookshelf and dining area. Similarly, the natural partnership between Atticus and the Chabaso Bakery, where it sources its bread, verges on the seamless.

Atticus owner-operator Charlie Negaro does not take his multiple roles lightly. As of Nov. 1, he has become the CEO of Chabaso Bakery, the home of the best 99-cent coffee in the city. Since taking it over from his father, Negaro has ushered in a new age for the company. He emphasizes his responsibility to customers as “creating great bread.” Through programs like free bread for election stickers, Chabaso and Atticus have become more than just retail locations. The Chabaso and Atticus teams aim to serve the city in other ways besides their country rye bread. For example, Chabaso uses excess energy from the  plant to power a nearby garden of New Haven Farms — which is now an independent organization.

“‘Bakers for a better world’ has been an internal rallying cry for us [from the start],” says Negaro. ”Who are we trying to be? What are we all about?”

Both companies view New Haven as integral to their identities, especially for the workers they employ. Most of their staff live within a five-mile radius in Fair Haven. Negaro has emphasized the importance of a people-first business philosophy in his work, and the intergenerational lineages of his employees represent his success.

Production manager Maribel Rodriguez, who started at the company 22 years ago, notes how company culture has affected her career at the Chabaso factory. Her husband has worked alongside her for over a decade. They are one of the many families who have been with Chabaso since Negaro was a child. “I love working with this company for its values, and the community is really positive. We have opportunities to grow on the daily,” says Rodriguez. She adds that the bakery is a career, allowing for continued development of advanced skills and baking knowledge with annual review of promotions. Most of the kitchen and client-facing staff have been at Atticus or Chabaso for years, building its institutional memory.

But Negaro’s dreams go beyond New Haven.

“We’ve become more interested in the local grain movement in the past few years in the Northeast,” says Reed Immer, communications director for Atticus.

According to Negaro, most Connecticut grain production serves dairy farms. “It’s a hard economy to make money, to be a better steward to the land … it’s a commodity grain.” Localizing production would allow grain producers to be more selective about sustainable crops and charge a premium to survive competitive agricultural pressures.

In response to these concerns for grain movement in Connecticut, the Chabaso and Atticus duo have recently hosted the first annual Grain Gab conference — an event bringing together local bakers, brewers, large industry partners and agricultural scholars. According to Negaro, this was an effort to begin establishing a foundation for a circular New England grain economy, a more sustainable form of food production that minimizes waste.

G Café, Everywhere

Owner and operator Andrea Corrazino is a well-traveled business mogul, having passed through Venezuela, Spain, Italy and Germany before finally settling in New Haven. He moves with a certain grace and knowledge of industry, greeting customers and pouring cappuccinos between snippets of conversation. “Simplicity is the most important thing,” says Corrazino as he foams a cup of coffee.

He lives by this rule, and the company keeps ingredient lists short and flavor profiles complex — as per the classic German bread-baking techniques which birthed the name Whole G. Despite overseeing both Whole G Bakery and the retail storefront G Café, Corrazino still finds time to bake every day, explaining that it’s important for his staff to see him interacting at every level of production. Whole G leaves its mark all over the city, including Yale dining halls, Willoughby’s, Nica’s Market, East Rock Brewing Company, Blue State Coffee and the newly opened Graduate Hotel’s Old Heidelberg restaurant. Every morning, the downtown factory’s freshly baked goods are shipped all over Connecticut with the finest attention to detail. “We have a very informal atmosphere, but behind the scenes, everything is rigorously under control,” Corrazino says.

This painstaking attention to detail is even evident in their coffee offerings, such as the Italian house blend which they have used since opening. “I think once you find the perfect cup of coffee, you never want to change,” Corrazino nods. Most recently, they began grinding Willoughby’s beans as well. Though I’m a relatively new coffee drinker, the cappuccino here is like no other — smooth, decadent and buttery.

Alex Hall, who started as a barista, took over as the manager of G Cafè in January 2019. A hint of an English accent lingers in his voice. He emphasizes the long hours and list of responsibilities required for the cafè’s upkeep, gesturing to Corrazino’s high standards as directly reflected in the carefully managed cafè and consistent customer experience. “But I like it because I’ve learned a hell of a lot in a short amount of time … the philosophy has begun to rub off on me.”

G Café employees are a family, Hall says. When someone goes on maternity or sick leave, they are promised their jobs upon return while the rest of the team works extra hours to make up. All employees try the new pastries coming off the bakery line, and Hall says there hasn’t been a single one he hasn’t liked. “There are people we come here every day, we serve them every day,” says Hall. Their customers range from downtown office workers to politicians. They’ve even sold pastries to Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-New Haven, and Gov. Ned Lamont.

A massive print of Eric Carle, author of the children’s book “The Very Hungry Caterpillar,” welcomes customers into the space. A hand-scrawled annotation sings the praises of Corrazino, his wife and his bakery. “[Eric and I] are good friends, in fact,” Corrazino laughs. The painting brings a certain joy to the space, a sense of earnestness complementing the company’s precision and passion for bread.