Walking into a Mexican bakery to smell fresh bread is so comforting – especially on a cold morning. Drivers, housekeepers and farmworkers on the early shift start their mornings savoring a warm cup of coffee and a piece of bread so fluffy that it melts in your mouth.
Salinas is home to many bakeries that showcase the European influence on Mexican bread. Conchas, bolillos and turnovers, all European-inspired, are some of the must-have pastries in any Mexican panaderia. But there are also types of bread that are unique to Mexico and, sometimes, bakeries show these off as well.
This is the way things work at Panaderia Acambaritas, a family-owned bakery in Salinas. The bakery specializes in oversized bread following traditional recipes from Acámbaro, Guanajuato, a Mexican city that is known for its bread. Bread is so important in Acámbaro that every year the city celebrates La Feria de la Panificación – a bread festival.
Jorge Acosta, a cofounder of Acambaritas, says the idea of starting a bakery came to him after he found out how famous the bread from his wife’s home city is. Claudia Fraide, Acosta’s wife, remembers telling him, “You’re crazy, but if you want, OK, I will support you.”
Acosta knows that his vision is a specific one. “It’s a niche within a niche because it is not just Mexican bread. It’s pan Acambarense.” But he believed in it, and the family opened the bakery in 2003.
It wasn’t a completely unlikely idea – the family’s baking heritage goes back three generations. Juan Carlos Nuñez, Fraide’s uncle and the baker who adds his magic to each bread at Acambaritas, has been baking for over 40 years, using 100-year-old family recipes.
Nuñez learned the trade when he was about 8 years old. He’d bake alongside his grandfather, standing on top of a plastic bucket to reach the table. The first bread he learned to make was conchas. “They are the easiest to make,” Nuñez says as he works, adding sweet brown topping and shaping conchas on a tray, getting them ready to be baked.
To make the fermented Acámbaro dough, bakers use flour, vegetable lard, eggs and sugar – similar to Jewish challah. Sometimes it also has spices or raisins and milk, depending on the type. Acambaritas offers a bunch of different Acámbaro bread flavors such as ranchero, pan de leche and picón.
Nuñez says the flavors haven’t changed during his 40 years, but the process is easier since there are now machines to prepare the dough, toppings and fillings. It’s a good thing Nuñez has access to this technology at Acambaritas – every morning he makes over 80 different types of bread and pastry (more than 1,000 pieces per day).
While Panaderia Acambaritas has been successful in its niche-within-a-niche for the past 18 years, the pandemic hit hard. Sales fell by over 30 percent, and the family started looking for grants and business loans to stay afloat. That’s when they came across Comcast Rise, an investment fund program that helps minority-owned small businesses by providing marketing help, tech services and more.
Through Comcast Rise, Acosta says they received free high-speed internet for one year, as well as tablets and laptops. “It helped us a lot because the internet, the cable, the phone lines – it’s all integrated,” Acosta says. The business also got a 30-second TV commercial.
While the program was helpful, sales are still down overall at Acambaritas. And there’s another challenge that’s hitting the food industry across the board: The bakery is facing a labor shortage.
Acambaritas currently has just one baker and Acosta says it’s too much work for one person. To keep things running, sometimes they have to work 18-hour shifts. Fraide starts her day at 4:30am, preparing coffee and breakfast burritos, stocking the bread and helping customers.
Still, “the demand is here,” Acosta says. And that, to Acosta, points to light at the end of the tunnel. They just need another set of hands to make the bread.
PANADERIA ACAMBARITAS is at 1552 North Sanborn Road, Salinas. 771-2079, acambaritas.com. For more information about Comcast Rise, visit comcastrise.com