Photo by Joy WebberAt 3 a.m., when most Orange Countians are halfway through their slumber, Solomon Dueñas leaves Aliso Viejo and begins the 15-minute commute he's made nearly every morning since 1988. The 54-year-old arrives at Solomon's Bakery and immediately relieves the three bakers who slaved through the night baking 20-pound loaves of rye and challah breads, trays of delicate cookies, and batches of heavily frosted cupcakes. Dueñas ensures that all pending orders are complete, then fills out accounting forms through the sunrise until the first of four vans arrives at 6. He helps load the vans that will distribute pastries across the county until Solomon's 5 p.m. closing. Dueñas remains afterward to prep the returning, rested bakers for another long night of toil. He punches out around 8 p.m.
Somewhere between the baking, supervising, manning the counter, visiting clientele at their homes, and buying supplies, Dueñas takes one short mid-afternoon nap.
"I have to recharge the batteries, you know," apologizes Dueñas, who always sports a sparkling golden necklace with the Hebrew word chai, "life." "But I love working 18-hour days. I'm happy at my work, and happiness keeps me alive one more day. There are no successful men who work part-time."
This relentlessness belies the otherwise soft-spoken nature of Dueñas, a Salvadoran Jew who operates one of the county's few full-fledged Jewish bakeries from an unremarkable Laguna Hills industrial park. His story is much like that of any successful immigrant's, marbled with unexpected but fortuitous incidents, sleepless nights and ever-present charm. He originally immigrated to Los Angeles in 1969, hoping to earn a bachelor's degree in agricultural science. "But life's realities forced me to get a job," Dueñas jokes, and he joined the invisible immigrant workforce for a couple of years. One day while visiting the Salvadoran consulate with a visa question, an official suggested that Dueñas enroll in a pastry program at a local college.
Turned out the consulate knew about the wonderful breads Dueñas baked privately for friends, a hobby he picked up in El Salvador as a youth while practicing his Judaism in accordance with marrano customs, a secretive way of life adopted by Jews that hid their religion under a veneer of Catholicism after the Spanish Inquisition. Dueñas followed the consulate's advice and enrolled in a baker's college as a pastry chef. He soon parlayed that associate's degree into a baker position at a Los Angeles-area Safeway. Safeway management was so impressed with Dueñas' creations and attentiveness that they asked him in 1986 to help open a new branch in Newport Beach.
But Dueñas had grander ambitions. Throughout the years, Dueñas studied the mystery of Jewish baking under the legendary Abraham Kaplan of Costa Mesa's Kaplan's Deli fame. Finding Orange County "lacking in Jewish food" and with Kaplan's guidance and blessing, Dueñas opened Solomon's Bakery in 1988.
"Mr. Kaplan told me that if I wanted to succeed in life, I had to go out on my own," says Dueñas, his voice dropping a couple of octaves to a respectful awe. "When I started Solomon's Bakery, he helped with the baking, design scheme, everything. He insisted that I hire his best employee from him. And he helped me find loans that allowed me to open. That's something I'll never forget."
Business was tough at first. There wasn't much to Jewish life in Orange County during the late 1980s—in fact, Dueñas was a founding member of one of South County's first synagogues, Mission Viejo's Congregation Eilat. He remembers working 18-hour shifts and sleeping at the bakery during that rough first year, switching shifts with his wife, Sue, at the register and ovens.
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But revenue rose exponentially for Dueñas with word of mouth, the development of South County and the arrival of Jews in the area—it's estimated there are now more than 60,000 throughout Orange County, with a majority south of the 55 freeway. Solomon's was their manna in the Sinai that is South County, a bit of culture in a region notorious for lacking any. His staff grew from two to seven, and Dueñas expanded into catering, a full-stocked deli and cake decorations.
Dueñas keeps Solomon's bustling primarily because of his genuine care for customer and craft alike—by the end of our interview, he was already calling me "a good-hearted man" while forcing on me a pastrami on rye with mustard. Glass displays at Solomon's are clean, highlighting all the favorites of the Jewish-pastry galaxy—stomach-stuffing babkas; fruity hamantaschen; crumbly rugelach available in chocolate, raspberry and apricot. Even better is a Dueñas original that he calls an apple-raisin bran, a block of caramelized flour so decadent that customers drive in from San Diego and even Washington state just for a sniff.
Dueñas admits to being a workaholic, but he relishes returning home to spend time with his three teenage daughters, each of whom has a delicious sandwich named after her. "But I better be in bed by 10 every night," Dueñas says with a glint of glee. "After all, the alarm goes off at 2:45 a.m."
Solomon's Bakery, 23020 Lake Forest Dr., Ste. 170, Laguna Hills, (949) 586-4718. Open Mon.-Fri., 6 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., 7 a.m.-4 p.m.; Sun., 8 a.m.-1 p.m. Lunch for two, $14, food only. Pastries by the pound—but cheap! All major credit cards accepted.