Two years ago, Jeffrey Brown and Jenny Chen returned from a trip to Europe to find their San Diego neighborhood gripped by the coronavirus pandemic.
The pair, life partners who spend their time traveling, rock climbing and working as photographers, suddenly found themselves in self-imposed “quarantine” together, staying home and dearly missing their connection to the community.
In this late-pandemic era, many people look back with a chuckle at a short-lived “bread-making” phase from those days — the early period of stay-at-home activities. Brown and Chen tried their hand at baking, too. They wanted to capture a feeling of warmth and find a way to connect safely with neighbors, they told KTLA sister station KSWB in a phone interview.
Their bread-making was no phase: It evolved into a life-changing endeavor, a new bakery with an exploding fan base that’s quickly outgrowing its unique location in an East Village loft.
Now Yelp has named Izola 2022’s top bakery in the U.S. and Canada. How did they ascend so quickly?
“We made a lot of mediocre bread,” Brown says with a laugh “A lot.”
As simple as it sounds, the pair credits their venture to trial and error. In a typical apartment-style kitchen, Chen and Brown baked and baked, mostly sourdough and croissants.
Proud of their work and desperate for a way to reconnect with their community, the two decided to offer their goods online.
How to do so socially distanced, though? The pair was baking in a tiny space above Brown’s former photo studio, in a historic building on 13th and G streets. They decided the safest way to get their goods to neighbors was to put that unused rock climbing equipment to work. They rigged up a basket so they could lower it to the sidewalk from the window, keeping everyone safe despite the public health emergency.
“I remember IZOLA’s first day, June 10, 2020, we lowered 12 croissants in a basket out the 3rd-floor window to socially distanced customers waiting below,” Brown later wrote in a capital-raising campaign. “After their first bite, we saw their faces smiling up at us and realized we’d found our purpose.”
Chen said that’s what it was all about: Finding a way to warm their neighbors’ hearts again, despite all the darkness and anxiety around them.
“Even though we were three stories apart, we were able to feel close to them,” Chen said.
And the basket technique helped make Izola a sensation. Neighbors would come around the corner, curious about what was going on with the contraption, bobbing up and down the building all day as buzz built around the little operation. People would bring their kids to watch. A woman and her husband’s only trips out of the house were to get fresh baked bread.
And “fresh” is the key, Brown says. Every item they serve is still hot from the oven, not baked earlier in the day, and that’s a crucial advantage over even the more established bakeries in town.
“It’s the same way we feed our family and our friends and the people we love,” Brown said. That’s how he wants each customer to feel when they bite into a croissant, sourdough slice or morning bun, baked in small batches and served warm.
As the pandemic waned, Chen and Brown welcomed their neighbors back inside, making use of their spacious former studio’s ample light and high ceilings. It’s a very bright, white space filled wall-to-wall with little bistro tables. Sometimes musicians play.
“We want people to linger,” Chen told KSWB. They are welcome to stay long after they’ve finished their snack.
That welcoming atmosphere has helped the pair fill their ranks as demand grows and grows. Many of their employees work part-time, including some who are enjoying successful careers in other fields. Nearly all of them are converted customers.
It’s hard work, Chen and Brown say, including dashing up and down the stairs to the sidewalk for “Izola drive-by” service. But the staff thrives on a sense of community.
The ranks will grow soon, too. “We’re pretty maxed out in that place,” Brown said.
The bakery is deep in talks to acquire a space in the Azalea Park neighborhood of City Heights, which would give them much more room to bake and serve guests.
Brown notes with pride that the bakery is led by women and members of LGBTQ community. He says it’s critical that Izola pays “purpose-filled, living wages” and the entire team shares tips. The bakery also partners with community organizations and aligns itself on “environmental, racial, orientation and economic justice,” Brown said.
Friday marked exactly two years of Izola’s existence, and Chen and Brown marvel at the way their little effort at pandemic connection has grown into a family of employees and repeat-customers, who seem to multiply with each visit.
“The community has grown,” Brown said. “(A customer) comes one day. They come back the next day with their partner. The next day they come back with their parents.”
You can place an order, learn more about a variety of pick-up options and keep up with the bakery on Izola’s website.