Boudin Bakery started in 1849 when Isidore Boudin, the son of master bakers from France, got his hands on a wild yeast starter from Gold Rush miners for whom bread and pancakes were a staple. Drawing on his background in French bread making, Boudin went to work with the starter but noticed his loaves came out with a distinct sour, tangy flavor he wasn’t used to tasting.
It was then that foggy San Francisco’s Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis-rich atmosphere, mixed with flour and water, gave birth to the “mother dough.” And yes, the lactic acid bacteria “sanfranciscensis” was named after The City.
Sourdough bread won the stomachs and hearts of San Franciscans. Boudin set up shop first in a tent before landing a brick-and-mortar location at 319 DuPont St., which is now Grant Avenue. After outgrowing that spot too, Boudin Bakery moved to 815 Broadway. It was there when the earthquake struck on April 18, 1906.
Seeing fires approach, Boudin’s widow, Louise Boudin, grabbed a wooden bucket with the mother dough and ran.
“At the time of going to press the flames had leaped over Van Ness avenue and were whirling out Broadway, devouring everything in their path,” states a San Francisco Examiner article on April 20, 1906. “It looks as though practically every building in the city save a few on the water front and some south of the park will not be standing within twenty-four hours.”
“There is not a single hotel, theater, bank or business house left from Valencia on the south to the water front on the east, and from the Channel on the south to Broadway on the north,” states another article in the newspaper that day.
And the following day, a reporter wrote in the paper: “San Francisco from Van Ness avenue to the bay is a skeleton city.” Boudin Bakery on Broadway had been obliterated.
But Louise Boudin — with the mother dough — added flour and water, saving the business.
Boudin Bakery reopened on 10th Avenue and Geary Boulevard. It was eventually sold with the Boudin family’s blessing to the second master baker, Steve Giraudo, and in 1975 opened a demonstration bakery at Fisherman’s Wharf, which became its flagship store.
To this day, every piece of Boudin bread is made with a portion of the mother dough, trademarked as the original San Francisco sourdough bread.
“This weather, it’s the perfect environment for sourdough to thrive,” said Fernando Padilla, Boudin’s current master baker and only the third in its history. “The air that we breathe, mother dough breathes in. When you say San Francisco, you think sourdough.”
Today, 166 years after Boudin was founded, the flagship bakery produces up to 25,000 loaves a day, ships its mother dough to locations outside of San Francisco and its bread nationwide. The mother dough is kept in several locations across The City and stored in fire-proof vaults to safeguard it in the event of another natural disaster.
Steve Giraudo’s son, Lou Giraudo, who is co-chair of the company, learned to bake at age 6, and all of his children also learned to bake. But whether the family will stay in the bakery business for generations to come remains to be seen.
“San Francisco has changed more in the last four years than it has for the whole duration of my life,” Lou Giraudo, now 70, said. “So sure [the business] is going to change. Is the bread going to change? I don’t think so.”
While Boudin bread tastes the same as it did in 1849, it now comes in different shapes. Padilla, who began working for the bakery at age 16, has treated the loaves like Play-Doh and came up with sourdough critters — turtles, crocodiles and other fun animals. All it takes flour, water, salt and a piece of mother dough.
“We can’t live forever,” Padilla said, “but the mother dough can live forever, as long as we keep feeding her flour and water.”