End of an era for bakery with German flair

by Lydia O'Connor

After 68 years of satisfying Richmond District citizens with old-fashioned treats and service, the Wirth Brothers Pastry Shop has closed its doors. A new era will begin at the corner of Geary Boulevard and 23rd Avenue, when a Chinese bakery opens.

The store is currently undergoing remodeling, hidden behind newspaper-plastered windows. Yet in spite of its abandoned appearance, the once bustling and neighborly bakery still stands out on Geary Boulevard, thanks to its iconic red and white marquee sign which pictures a chef's hat-clad man running with a cake in one hand, reminiscent of decades past and illustrative of the dedicated service they provided.

Andy Wirth, who once owned the business, recalls fondly the 1940 opening of the German bakery. Speaking softly and meditatively, the gentle and amicable 87-year-old gestures with his cane as he walks listeners through the timeline of the shop's ownership. Wirth often looks off into this distance, smiling as he recalls the many years he and the other five bakers spent whipping up wreath cakes, layers of fluffy, spongy cake adorned with icing letters spelling out "Happy Birthday," traditional Danish pastries and every kind of pie imaginable. There were two ovens, baking 120 pies each, for the six clerks to display in the glass cases for customers to stare into hungrily.

Originally from Chicago, a 17-year-old Wirth decided to move to San Francisco where his father went to "see what was going on," he said. Wirth and his father worked in another bakery together for three years before his father and uncle opened up the Wirth Brothers Pastry Shop.

Wirth would eventually buy the business from his father in 1960, but like most children in a family business, he did his time working in the shop, as did his sister Catherine.

Wirth and his father used unique tactics to lure customers.

"Right across the street is St. Monica's, and after Sunday Mass there used to be a lot of people standing around outside of the church," Wirth explained. "My dad had this fan, and he'd turn it on and blow the bakery smells across the street. Oh, they came over!"

The pastry shop was also the first store in San Francisco to install take-a-number ticket dispensers for ordering purposes.

The bakery met great success in its early decades.

"Being in San Francisco as long as I have, I can say we had one of the more active places," Wirth said.

A bakery wagon strike in the late 1940s gave Wirth and his father a chance to gain customers.

"When the bakery wagon drivers went on strike, we were one of the only places to buy pastries," Wirth said. "We had them lined up around the block!"

Wirth attributes much of the shop's success to its service to particular demographics common in the Richmond District.

"You built your business on a certain nationality," Wirth explained. "Back then, the neighborhood was predominately Irish and Jewish."

The bakery, even up until its recent closing, was known for its poppy seed wreath cake, a popular desert in Jewish culture, which Wirth created by mixing yeast, Danish filling, milk, honey, and poppy seeds. In the true spirit of dedication to their customers, Wirth's father had a special grinder designed for the sole purpose of pulverizing the already miniscule poppy seeds to create the perfect texture for the filling, something Wirth said no other pastry business did.

Geary Boulevard Merchants and Property Owner Association President David Heller said he believes the bakery was initially successful because of the Wirths' community involvement.

"They were members of the Geary Merchants Association and participated in neighborhood issues," Heller said. "When you do things for the community, they pay you back.

Wirth sold the business in 1975 to a young couple who "did their best," as Wirth said, to keep the bakery as it was. Though he still owns the building, Wirth explained that it was getting to be too much to wake up six days a week before 3 a.m. to bake and get the shop running.

According to Wirth, the new owners had trouble keeping the business alive because of changing demographics in the neighborhood and eventually couldn't afford to stay in business. "The neighborhood became mostly Russian and Chinese," Wirth said, explaining that many other German bakeries have already gone out of business.

Wirth said he also sees Geary Boulevard's evolution from a friendly neighborhood shopping street to more of a busy thoroughfare cluttered with buses and cars as a downer for business.

"In the Richmond, people used to walk down Geary," Wirth explained. "We called it 'street traffic,'" he said, citing instances of people taking their daily strolls down the street and popping in to see what the store offered, soon becoming both regular customers and personal friends to the Wirths.

Heller said the static selections the bakery offered as its downfall.

"Geary Boulevard has become really diverse, and they were still trying to do the same pastries since it started," Heller explained. "The place never changed. They never remodeled, and they just didn't keep up with the times."

Competition in the pastry and baked goods business is intense on Geary, according to Heller.

"You've got Peet's Coffee on 16th, Royal Ground on 17th and Starbucks on 19th, and they all sell pastries, too," Heller said.

Heller said the new bakery will have to establish itself as a neighborhood staple in order to be successful.

"They need to do pastries and sit-down," Heller said, noting other businesses that have met success by providing a place for senior citizens in the community to sit down and play cards.

Wirth said he is happy to know the building will still be used as a bakery and has faith in the new owners.

"The new owners are young and ambitious," Wirth said, expressing his confidence in them due to their experience as bakers. Wirth said the most recent owners struggled from not having a history in the bakery business.

Although the bakery that has been such an immense part of Wirth's life and has served as a reminder of what Geary Boulevard used to be like, Wirth isn't bitter.

"I have no regrets," Wirth said. "The business made a good life for my family and myself. It's just the end of an era."