The first time Rey Sumano, 49, sampled sourdough bread he hated it. It was…well, sour….and he was expecting it to be sweet, like a French loaf.
But after working in bakeries that specialized in the historically artisan bread that takes 24 hours to prepare and bake, he came to love it. It became his favorite bread and a huge breadwinner for what has become a $6.5 million-a-year family business.
Today he makes 3 million loaves of sourdough a year at his Watsonville and Los Angeles bakeries. He said this week he’s about to move his headquarters to GIlroy at 7050 Monterey Road just north of 10th Street, a building that once housed the Farmhouse Brewery and Diamond Doors.
At 23,500 square feet, the new site is more than double the size of his current location in Watsonville. Sumano said he spent $2 million on it, planning to double his business, which now has 65 workers. He’ll spend another million dollars getting it up to code for food preparation and adding a retail outlet.
“This is what it’s about,” he said. “Creating jobs and opportunities. It’s the American Dream.”
He chose Gilroy because it’s near the freeway and he can reach customers in Silicon Valley. He distributes the bread as far north as Pleasanton and Mountain View, but plans to expand sales to the capital of sourdough, San Francisco.
“We are very confident we will do well there. We have a very good product.”
His bread uses no preservatives or additives and is delivered fresh to markets daily. His outlets include Safeway, Albertson’s, Lucky’s, Nob Hill and Whole Foods. Gilroy’s Cafe 152 Bread Co. uses it for sandwiches already. If a loaf hasn’t sold, he buys it back and replaces it with a fresh one.
He’s also supplied all the bread for the Gilroy Garlic Festival for the past five years.
Sumano’s bakes 364 days a year, closing only on Christmas Day, and starts delivering to stores at 2am. The business goes through 70,000 pounds of flour a week in Watsonville, shipped from a mill in Oakland. Loaves sell for between $4.50 and $5.29. The firm sells baguettes and French breads, but sourdough is their mainstay.
Sumano’s life has truly been the American Dream. He came to the U.S. illegally at 15 from a small town in Oaxaca state and worked in the fields in Half Moon Bay. That led to a job at Gayle’s Bakery in Capitola, where he was introduced to sourdough. From there he and his brother, Rafael, got jobs at Alfaro’s Bakery in Watsonville where they worked for 13 years until it went out of business. They bought the used equipment and started Sumano’s 16 years ago.
Both became American citizens after serious study for the naturalization test.
“This is the country I want to live in and the country I want to die in,” said Sumano. “This is my home. It’s incredible how many opportunities you have here if you work hard and get a little smart. You can make it here. There’s no other country like this one.”
He’s raised four kids, now ages 13-23, with wife Maria Elena. He drives them back to Oaxaca twice a year–a three-day drive–so they can appreciate how poor they would have been if they had stayed in Oaxaca and how much they have here. “I want them to appreciate what they have,” he said. They also visit his mother brothers who still live there.
The company uses the same sourdough starter the Sumano brothers created 16 years ago–one of the things that keeps sourdough authentic is that it is all born of the same starter–and among their many secret and not-so-secret ingredients are fog rooms in the factory that keep the unbaked loaves in a San Francisco-style climate.
Bigger bread companies that need more speed for more profits give up on sourdough because it takes so long to age and prepare, leaving a niche for this smaller business.
Sumano said there are plenty of customers who are surprised that he’s making this San Francisco favorite instead of authentic Mexican tortillas or pastries, but he said he wants to stick with what he loves. He’s tried to sell sourdough in Mexican markets with little success.
His favorite way to eat sourdough is toasted with butter. “I never get tired of it. My customers either, I guess. We keep growing.”
He may move to Gilroy when he opens here. He will offer a shuttle service for his longtime workers from Watsonville.
When he opens sometime next year, the company will turn downtown Gilroy into a literal sandwich between two bread makers. There’s the big Lavash flatbread bakery at Monterey and Leavesley on the other side of town.
The company already makes a garlic and rosemary bread, but Sumano said they will add a specialty Gilroy garlic bread when the move is complete sometime in 2018.