Did you know that the best challah in the neighborhood can be found at La Boulangerie Lopez (647 5th Avenue between 18th and 19th Streets)? Well if you didn’t, you should stop by soon.
And, of course, there’s a story behind it. A good one. It starts out on a farm in Puebla, Mexico, where Gumencindo Lopez worked in the agricultural industry before he came to New York.
“When my wife and I came here, I didn’t know anything about bread,” he said.
But that would soon change. He jumped at the chance to work at Eli’s Bakery soon after he came to the city in 1994.
“I wanted a new job. Eli was very tough with everyone, but for some reason he was very nice to me,” says Gumencindo. “He told me, ‘I’m going to give you three to four weeks to learn everything.’ And I did it. I learned the basic mixes, and after six months, I was running the night shift.”
Eli’s is known for its bread, babka, Jewish traditional foods, and a wide selection of delicatessen items. So learning about challah came as a natural part of the job.
Gumencindo worked at Eli’s and the Burke Bakery (which closed in the ’90s), where he continued to bake bread and “create my own style of challah.”
Florina Lopez encouraged her husband to open a bakery.
“She has the business sense in the family,” says Gumencindo. “I wanted to work for myself, so I thought this was good idea.”
And so the Lopez family opened a Crown Heights wholesale storefront in 2001. “We opened on September 11,” Gumencindo tells us. “I’ll never forget the day.”
But their fledgling business came to a halt after a fire burned down the building, and an insurance policy would not reimburse the family. Florina began to sell tamales in the street, and Gumencindo drove for a car service for two years.
“But my wife pushed me to try again. She’s the brains. She understands how to manage money.”
The Lopez family purchased a small storefront at 423 5th Avenue at the corner of 8th Street (now a Subway Sandwich restaurant) and re-opened their wholesale bakery.
“It was 2005. We had a pizza oven and a small mixer. That’s all,” recalls Gumencindo.
But the neighbors started stopping by to ask to buy bread. “People passed by and they loved the smell,” says Gumencindo. And they began to sell to local businesses such as Dizzy’s — the Lopez family continues to sell bread, including challah, to both diner locations (230 5th Avenue and 511 9th Street).
And at that point, their reputation was growing. As was their space — the family was able to purchase their current bakery at 647 5th Avenue.
“We had been living around the corner on 19th Street for 20 years, so we knew the neighborhood well,” says Gumencindo. And La Boulangerie Lopez opened in 2010, selling tamales, challah, conchas, and many other dishes to a dedicated group of customers.
When asked why the Lopez family used the French “boulangerie” for the business name, Gumencindo explains: “I worked around lot of French-speaking people from the Caribbean. We used their term.”
The Lopez odyssey is about to have a new chapter, and it looks to be an exciting one. Gumencindo and Florina are planning on retirement over the next few years. But Gumencindo will be giving the recipes to their two sons, Eduardo Puebla and Ivan Zarco. The brothers are very excited to run the business.
“We have the best recipes from my dad,” says Puebla. “And I was a barista in Seattle for awhile. We’re going to have amazing coffee, too.”
Puebla is bright-eyed while he speaks about the business, while Gumencindo and Florina Lopez sit peacefully.
Puebla smiled when he was asked which La Boulangerie Lopez traditions would continue.
“It’s all going to continue to taste good. We’re going to have the best coffee. And the best challah, of course.”