Bicycle Bread Company
It’s hot. Really hot–a sticky, sweltering kind of heat that passed uninvited from the concrete South Los Angeles streets through the open glass door of a tiny neighborhood bakery, where a crowd of visitors laugh, chat, and devour cookie-sized samples of chocolate orange bread percolating with melty chocolate chips.
“Hey Ben,” one customer addresses the lanky, rosy-cheeked blonde manning the counter in a t-shirt and jeans.
“How are you?” the co-founder and co-baker, Ben Gordon, asks cheerfully as he wipes his forehead with the back of his forearm.
Seven days and six nights a week the bustling unairconditioned space belongs to Rosita’s, a Mexican bakery, but on Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. it’s helmed by Bicycle Bread Company, a brother-owned bakery dedicated to providing its North University Park neighborhood with fresh, healthy bread.
“Good! You?” the customer returns Ben’s enthusiasm.
“I’m doing pretty well; awesome,” Ben responds before greeting me.
The 6-foot-something, just-turned college senior at the nearby University of Southern California started Bicycle Bread Company with his older brother Stephen three years ago. When Stephen (Ben’s elder by about five years) was a senior at USC, he sought a way to stay in the neighborhood and produce for his community because, “When you look around, with a lot of the businesses all the money goes back to the Westside,” Ben explains, as we step outside to get a (slight) reprieve from the warmth. “It’s rare to find a local business where there’s people investing here in this community.”
Bicycle Bread Company became that business. More than just a means of providing nutritious, seasonal breads (Ben’s favorite is apple spice) to eager locals and college students, the bakery is a place where Stephen and Ben can live out their personal values, to offer conversation and kinship with each loaf sold.
“The bakery exists because we want to provide fresh, healthy bread for a population that doesn’t necessarily have it and to spread the love of God in some way,” Ben says, greeting another patron. “It’s weird to think of the bakery being a vehicle to see lives change, but we’ve seen that happen, which has been a really amazing thing.”
Two from a family of eleven children, Ben and Stephen grew up on their mother’s homemade bread, which she self-milled from wheat berries sourced from Montana. Moving more than 2,000 miles from their home state Florida to Los Angeles, the brothers were left wanting for breads of their mom’s caliber.
“When we moved out here, we realized that there were no bakeries–no bakeries in all of LA–that grind the wheat into fresh flour,” Ben laughs at my incredulity. “As far as we can find anyway,” he amends.
Stephen received a wheat grinder as a graduation gift from their parents, and the two began grinding their own flour and baking bread in the kitchen of a Hollywood church at 3 a.m. Once finished–a task that for 100 loaves of bread takes a total of around nine-and-a-half hours–they would load up the bread and an ironing board, trek to the bus stop and catch a metro line to USC, where they sold their product and handed out samples on campus in the years before they rented the storefront.
“Those were the longest days of my life!” Ben gives an exasperated grin.
But their taxing quality led to the incident which gave the company its official name.
“Right at the beginning we were like, ‘Oh my goodness. We need some way to transport this bread.’ We posted an ad on Craigslist that said ‘Will trade bread for bicycle,’ and someone called us, and we traded 10 loaves for a bike, and so we’re Bicycle Bread Company,” Ben said.
The trade was not the first of the brothers’ Craigslist transactions, as they spent much of their early time scouring its ads for wheat grinders–though these they purchased with actual currency.
“At one point we were using four wheat grinders to grind as much wheat as we needed, and then we finally found this wheat grinder in New Hampshire that we had shipped to us because they’re not super common items,” Ben chuckles. “Now we just use that one,” he points inside, behind the counter to the back of the kitchen. Large stainless steel machinery churn out loaves of bread, and a lone paper tower flaps–the only giveaway of a single fan stationed in the corner. “It’s that big machine.”
While they’ve been renting the kitchen space from Rosita’s for two years, they’ve only occupied the storefront for half that time. Before manning the bakery, Ben and Stephen sold their bread just off of the USC campus, gaining publicity by Ben pedaling a tandem bike with a friend outfitted in a giant slice-of-bread costume. They’ve since transferred the entire business to the bakery, which sits on a corner just north of Washington on Union.
“We’re trying to channel people to the bakery more. We want people to visit the bakery specifically and have more of a focus there. We have been delivering on campus, but our hope is that people come to the bakery,” Ben said.
Though students and alumni miss their presence (an alumni who now works in the USC Credit Union building informs me he longs for the days Bicycle Bread Company would set up a table on Trousdale, the central walkway through campus), the storefront has allowed Ben and Stephen to better implant themselves in the surrounding community.
“We want to be able to invite other people into our lives. We don’t want it to be like ‘this is work and this is the rest of our lives.’ We want this to be an integral part of our lives,” Ben tells me. “We had one girl come to the store at first because she thought it was a bike shop. And she came in and just started hanging out with us and just started coming to escape other bad influences in this neighborhood. Through that, we started hanging out with her outside the bakery and to see her life transform just because we got to say, ‘Oh no–it’s not just because we grew up with good parents … that’s not why we love you the way we do; it’s because we know the love God’s shown us, and we want to show that to you.’ That was just probably five months ago and we’re great friends.”
A truck shuttles by, triggering a series of small dog yips, as Ben details the downside of the bakery’s location as being a low foot traffic, high auto traffic area. But that hasn’t stopped a growing group of loyal customers from frequenting the spot. There’s Ashley and Princesa, two bubbly high schoolers. Though Princesa lives close now, she laments an impending move to Missouri next week.
“I’ll miss the dirty streets,” she says, unknowingly poetic.
Then there’s the paint-splattered Raul who buys bread for his family each week; Roberto, his cheerful companion, and Lisa, who knows both of them through the bakery and incidentally lives down the block from Raul.
“The benefits of working here are that you get to eat the product and the community,” Justin, who works a day job but volunteers at the bakery, told me later.
It’s a group and a space that Ben one day hopes to expand but has grown to cherish in the present.
“I think that it was easy for us, for me, to get discontent with what we had in the moment,” Ben says humbly. “I guess I would be like, ‘Oh I just want this beautiful, little, preferably Victorian house’ that we transformed into a bakery, and it has wood floors and beautiful windows, just like this picturesque bakery, and it was hard for me to be excited about what we had right now, and so as things have changed it’s like, ‘Oh, you know, what this bakery is being used for right now is…something we can get really excited about.’”
To pay the bills, he and Stephen have taken up part-time jobs: Stephen as a web designer for a non-profit downtown and Ben as a professional balloon artist.
“It’s been really cool because I get hired to do all sorts of crazy things like create props for TV commercials and do all sorts of high-end parties and make cool things for ESPN and ABC … I’ve been given a lot of cool opportunities because there’s a distinct lack of good balloon artists in LA,” he says wryly, sharing that among his most high-profile experiences are making a dog for Orlando Bloom, a princess for Jessica Alba’s daughter, and a caricature for Steve Carell.
Eventually, though, both brothers hope to devote their full time to Bicycle Bread Company.
“Sometimes I get a little embarrassed about the fact that we’re only baking twice a week, and I think, ‘Oh you guys have been doing this for three years, and you’re so small,’ but I think that hopefully we can continue to expand our hours as more demand comes along with the bread and that we can have a self-sustaining business that can be here all week long … I think a lot of people are like, ‘Oh, why don’t you open up on the Westside or Beverly Hills; people would love this; people would die for this kind of bread out there,’ and it’s like well, we might do well financially, but that’s not my neighborhood, and I want to be here in my neighborhood where I’m forming relationships and not just going there for the sake of a job.”
Before heading back inside to attend to another small burst of customers, he describes his and Stephen’s dream to transform the “bad reputation” connotated with South LA with their bakery. He modestly credits his brother for keeping this dream possible.
“I think that Stephen has been an amazing person to work with because he’s just so full of grace, and I seem to mess up all the time,” Ben laughs. “And … I think without him at the helm, this would have gone under a long time ago. He’s just an awesome guy.”
We walk back inside where new faces smile, wipe crumbs from their face, and eagerly exchange five dollars for loaves of bread. A woman asks if this week’s seasonal flavor, jalapeno cheddar, will be back next week. It will, and so will Ben and Stephen and the volunteers and regulars who make up the bread and butter of this soulful spot. They’ll be back the week after too, and every week following, as long as there’s bread to be made and bellies to fill.
Watch: And just in case you’re curious to learn more about Ben’s side job as a balloon artist, check out this short film he starred in which showcased his skills: