When investors call United Bread and Pastry owner Andrea DeGuzman about buying her highly sought-after property on Griffith Park Boulevard near the intersection of Sunset in Silver Lake, she keeps the conversation short.
“I am not planning to sell, so please take me off your list,” she tells them. “Please don’t call me again. I’m a very busy woman.”
Although DeGuzman has been offered more than $1.5 million for the location housing her small Filipino bakery, she says she has no plans to sell — ever.
Sandwiched between a modern Taiwanese restaurant and a gourmet organic market, United Bread and Pastry is a remnant of Silver Lake history that newer residents may not know about — and it's probably one of the few remaining relics to remind you that the hipster wonderland wasn’t always about mustaches, upscale restaurants and yoga studios.
It's also a hint that Filipino Angelenos aren't just sectioned off in Historic Filipinotown in southwest Echo Park. There once were a number of thriving Filipino businesses, including now-closed bakeries like Betsey's on Vermont, which opened in the late 1960s and closed in 2010, and Bemba's Bake Shop on Silver Lake Boulevard.
DeGuzman's L.A. journey began in the early 1980s, when she worked as a medical assistant at Good Samaritan Hospital. Her husband, Romeo, who was undocumented at the time, earned a living by baking Filipino pastries and having his wife sell them to her co-workers. Before long, word spread and the couple were making a steady living out of their kitchen.
In 1985, her husband convinced DeGuzman to quit her hospital job, get the small storefront and build a business.
The first baked item that Romeo sold continues to be the most popular. The siopao, or Chinese-inspired pork bun, encases slow-cooked pork in a sweet, white, chewy bread. They sell hundreds daily. If you’re really hungry, get the large one. It’s massive.
The second most popular item is the adobo roll, which is a Spanish-inspired flaky roll that comes filled with chicken or pork. Filipino adobo is a hallmark dish of the Philippines, a luscious stew simmered in vinegar, soy sauce, garlic and peppercorns. And if you’re hungry for snacks, the joint is fully stocked with Filipino drinks, chips, instant noodles, peanuts, homemade cakes, candies and family platters of your favorite Pinoy dishes.
DeGuzman also sells goods like frozen lumpia — those deliciously fried pork and shrimp egg rolls — wholesale, to places all over the nation. One time, she even shipped hundreds of frozen lumpia and siopao to a homesick customer in Alaska.
About 70 to 80 percent of the customer base at this point is from outside of Silver Lake, according to DeGuzman's youngest son, Mark — though hip neighborhood stragglers come by and try foods they aren’t used to, like the popular Filipino street food balut, a fertilized duck egg that's buried in sand and incubated for 18 days before being boiled for consumption.
DeGuzman initially chose the name United because she felt her L.A. neighborhood was a melting pot of different people from all over the world, and she wanted them to come together at her establishment. Over the last 30 years, her bakery has accomplished her goal.
In addition to providing baked goods, United has helped longtime customers coordinate the immigration process, with the business successfully petitioning for six Filipino and Latino families who have worked in the bakery to get green cards.
But DeGuzman's help didn’t cease with immigration paperwork.
She opened the bakery at a time when the neighborhood was a lot poorer and saw some rough times. The worst memory she has of the bakery dates back to the late 1990s, when someone was shot and killed while using a telephone booth outside. “The gang members eventually got married, became good, and then they come back,” DeGuzman says. “They say, ‘Mrs. DeGuzman, do you remember me? I used to steal the chips.’ I said, ‘I saw that but I didn’t say anything, because I care for you!’”
DeGuzman, whose parents were poor rice farmers, often gave the local kids free pandesal, a slightly sweet bread roll, when they got out of school and didn’t have money to buy snacks.
“I treated them like they were my own sons, because I came from a poor family and I know how hard it is not to have money,” DeGuzman says. “When you are poor and somebody gives you a little, you treasure it. That’s why I think I’m still here [even though the neighborhood has changed]. I treat people nice.”
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While Filipino food isn't yet fully mainstream, young, second-generation chefs and Filipino eateries with potential mass appeal are helping the island cuisine emerge as a contender for the “next big thing." DeGuzman wants her sons to adapt to the neighborhood change.
For now, though, she’s not changing for anyone.
“This bakery gave us our life,” she says. “Why would I sell? What is $1 million or $2 million? How long will that last? No. It’s up to my kids when I’m dead. But I hope they keep the legacy to help people.”
United Bread and Pastry, 1515 Griffith Park Blvd., Silver Lake; (323) 661-0037.