When the financial crisis left Manuel Ruiz and Sergi Arnán out of work in 2008, each began to consider becoming self-employed. They met in 2010 and by 2012, La Hogaza, their artisanal bread-baking business, was already active. Since then, the company has grown, though not without its fair share of hardship. They do the baking themselves, beginning at 11pm and sometimes finishing as late as 11am the next morning.
Manuel drives, while Sergi stares out the passenger window. It’s cold out – the sun is long past set – but Manuel rolls his window down half an inch so he can smoke while he drives. The silence between the two men is companionable and comfortable, filled only by the anonymous voice of a host on Canal Sur Radio. At this hour, most streetlights are blinking yellow, out of commission for the night, and there aren’t many other cars on the road. From the Arch of the Macarena, at the north end of the historic center of the city in Seville, it’s about 20 minutes to San José de la Rinconada, where their warehouse is.
As Manuel pulls up outside, Sergi hops out of the car to open the large gate barring the way. Upon arrival, the two men sit at a small table in the corner of a larger part of the warehouse, smoking hand rolled cigarettes, drinking coffee out of glasses, preparing for the night ahead of them. The outer shell of the warehouse is painted white and bathed in florescent lighting; it’s almost garage-like, with an unassuming concrete floor. Further inside is the kitchen, equipped with stainless steel tables, two industrial mixers, bags of ingredients, and an industrial-sized oven, walled off in the corner.
“How many kilos of the whole wheat bread?” Sergi wants to know.
“Two,” says Manuel, without looking up from the night’s work order. Coffee is made in house, albeit somewhat haphazardly – the pot is broken and missing a handle. “We haven’t had the time to get a new one,” Sergi says. For now, he grips it with a kitchen towel, swearing as the heat burns him even through his improvised glove.
The two change into their eclectic uniforms – sweatshirts, loose-fitting patterned pants, bulky black shoes caked with flour, small white hats. “They’re work clothes; they’re comfortable and they can get dirty without consequence,” Sergi explains. By the end of the night, the men’s shoes, pants, sweatshirts, and hands will be tinted with splotches of white flour and patches of dried dough.
Even having just started their workday at one in the morning, they’re both brimming with energy. Both men are built similarly, thin and wiry, their open faces set with determination. They started La Hogaza in 2012, having met while both trying to teach themselves to bake bread at a communal oven in a community garden in Seville, the Huerto del Rey Moro. Before the financial crisis in 2008, when Manuel was laid off, he worked in construction, building solar technologies. Sergi lost his job in 2008, too, as the computer-engineering firm he was working for closed. He spent two years unemployed. “After the business closed, I started to realize that I didn’t want to work for other people anymore,” he says. He took a short course, followed by an internship at a bakery in Bormujos, west of Seville. “It helped me realize what I wanted to do, and I started trying my hand at baking at the Huerto del Rey Moro.”
After meeting, the two then joined Proyecto Lunar, an initiative of the Junta de Andalucia (the regional government) to support new entrepreneurial projects. The support they received included a subsidized lease on the warehouse, which is owned by the Andalusian Center for Entrepreneurial Initiatives in San José de la Rinconada. They would have preferred a location in Seville, but all premises had already been taken.
The process of baking bread is not exactly complicated so much as detailed. They begin by portioning out ingredients for the different kinds of bread –this much flour for the base for the whole wheat, this many grams of salt for the molletes– and setting it aside while the fermented base is mixed by one of the two large machines in the kitchen, like oversized blenders with two mechanical hands. These industrial mixers start the process of the mixing slowly, gradually speed up, and then slow back down as the dough matures. “This process depends greatly on the type of flour,” Sergi says. “Even with a fixed recipe, you have to be observant, because it’s all in relation to the flour. Some require more water, some less oil, things like that.”
He keeps his eyes on the dough. “This flour is from Catalonia, from Lleida,” he says, changing the speed of the mixer. “I’m Catalan,” he adds, and there’s a hint of pride in his voice. He’s originally from Penedés, from a small town next to Villafranca de Penedés, called Sant Pau D’Ordal. His family still lives there, but his partner, María, a high school biology teacher, is from Seville. They met in Dublin, where they were both studying for a year, and eventually moved back to Seville. They have three sons Unai, eigth, Marc, six, and David, who is almost three.
Once Sergi and Manuel are both in the kitchen, they start a second base of dough, placing it in a second, older looking machine. It thrums to life, pounding the dough, producing a rhythm like a heartbeat while it works. “She’s called the ruidosa,” Sergi says. They bought it from a woman whose business was closing, who told them she’d bought it second or third hand – and “we’re sure,” Manuel says, “that there were other owners before that.”
Sergi laughs. “I like la ruidosa,” he says, “but if she made less noise, I would like her more.”
Manuel grins and walks the length of kitchen. He always seems to be moving in and out of the kitchen, checking the summary of the night’s work on the table outside or taking a drag of a cigarette. He has very bright eyes and olivecolored skin. For the moment, he is sporting a beard, although pictures lining one of the windows in their warehouse show that his facial hair has changed through the years. He’s 40, but he looks much younger – something about his per sona, maybe, his hyper but easy laugh, his sense of humor. “The first loaf of bread we ever made,” he says, “was absolutely terrible. We ate it, though. It was like the first spark.”
They went without pay the entire first year of La Hogaza. It was tough to get started: their only clients were their neighbors and their friends. “More than that, we had invested a ton of money. To start a small business in Spain is incredibly costly,” Manuel says. “And it takes a lot of time. We had a lot of luck starting out that allowed us to continue on.”
This Wednesday night is a calmer one, the baking only lasting about six hours from start to finish. It is exactly six in the morning when the two men finally exit the kitchen, change into their regular clothes, and walk to Manuel’s car, brisk from the cold. On these calmer, lower production nights, the two make around 40 to 50 kilograms of bread; a busier night, they’ll spend 12 hours in the warehouse to make as much as 150 kilograms of bread, and there’ll be no time to sit at all, only a moment or two to sneak a sip of coffee or a drag of a cigarette outside the kitchen, and then it’s back to work.
In one of these slower moments, Manuel stares at the clock, noting that it’s still an hour ahead, left unchanged from daylight savings a week and a half ago. He takes it down off the wall and brushes a thin layer of flour from its face before changing the time. “It dictates our lives, the time,” he says.
They began with a wood-burning oven that could fit 12 kilos of bread – they’ve now expanded to their current, electric one, which can fit 40. They regularly cater to between six and seven stores, a hotel, and three or four restaurants, as well as orders that come in from individual customers. The business has grown substantially, but still, they feel that nothing is for certain. “We keep pushing forward, but each day is a unique challenge,” Sergi says.
They pay a business tax of 350 euros a month to the government as self-employed workers, 500 euros a month for electricity, and the salaries of their two employees. “The price of goods keeps rising, and so do taxes,” Manuel says. “We need between eight and twelve thousand euros a month just to pay everything.”
Pressing, too, is the subsidized lease on the warehouse, which will run out in June. They’ll either have to find a new, non-subsidized location for their business or attempt to apply for an extension on their existing lease. Although they know being granted the extension is unlikely, if they choose to move the business to a new location, they’ll face a sharp increase in costs. The two are still unsure of what they’ll decide to do come June.
Monday nights are the most grueling production-wise, because they come after the weekend, and there’s usually high demand after two days of no bread. They give themselves two nights off a week – Saturdays and Sundays. Weekends, they “eat, sleep, and not much else,” Manuel says, laughing. They spend time with their families and their friends as they can, working around the schedules of their wives and friends, sometimes going for a beer or spending a day at home. They close each year for the entire month of August (the slowest in Seville, largely because of the heat) having decided the first year that they needed a month off from the toil of a nocturnal work schedule. “The body is meant to sleep at night and be awake during the day,” Sergi says. “Monday, the first night back after the weekend, it’s like doing it for the first time. We’ve talked with people at other bakeries and they’ve told us the same – the body is resistant to this kind of schedule.”
During their month off, they spend time with their families. Last summer, Manuel drove to Germany in his Volkswagen, traveling up the coast of France to Dusseldorf, Germany where Manuel’s partner, Claudia, who also works as a high school Biology teacher, is from. He’s been taking German lessons – he can order a coffee or say thank you. They’re expecting their first child: a girl, to be named Carlota. Once his daughter is born, he hopes she’ll be bilingual. Claudia’s due date is December 4th – they’re expecting an induction – and during a quieter moment in the night, the two men hunker over the table hosting their broken coffee maker and cups, staring at the calendar. They’ll probably need someone to help the night of the 27th. Definitely the night of the fourth. Should they close from the first Wednesday of December to the following Tuesday?
Manuel’s mother is staying with him and Claudia now, too, anticipating the baby. He’s from Los Barrios, some 200 kilometers away in the province of Cadiz, near the Strait of Gibraltar. His family – his mother, his brother – still lives there. His dad died young, but he was also a baker. “He couldn’t teach me, and he never gave me any recipe – he never told me, with 100 grams of flour, this many pinches of salt, and this kind of dough, you make bread,” Manuel says, “but I still feel like it’s something familial.”
Most nights, it’s just the two of them baking in the kitchen, but as they’ve gradually expanded, they’ve been able to hire some help. Th company has twoemployees, including Hector, who also does the deliveries. “Before we hired Hector, we were doing our own deliveries,” Sergi says. “That was good for us, financially, but spiritually – not so much.”
Once, with the help of Manuel’s brother, they made 100 roscones de reyes (Three Kings’ cake) the night before Kings’ day, on January 6th, a holiday in Seville and most of Spain. Even with an extra set of hands, including preparation, baking, and delivery, that work day lasted 23 hours – the longest they’d ever logged.
They’ve also hired Maricarmen, the woman who minds the storefront function of the factory in San José de la Rinconada. Tuesdays and Fridays it’s open to the public, and the two men sell whatever they’ve made that week or whatever’s been made to order; tonight, while waiting for the dough to set, they’ll make torrijas. They’re typical of the Semana Santa in Seville: bread that’s been left a day to harden, then dipped in a mix of milk, lemon zest, vanilla, and eggs, then fried in olive oil, and finally marinated in a mix of honey and water, something Manuel calls almíbar (an Arabic word, he says). They’ll sell them Friday, at store opening.
“Torrijas,” Manuel sighs, as Sergi cooks, and the outer shell of the warehouse begins to smell warmly of something fried and sweet. “Torrijas, torrijas.” They each take a box of four home. “That leaves nine,” Sergi says aloud, to Manuel, but also to himself. “Nine boxes of four to be sold at 3 euro each. That’s 27 euros.”
Besides Manuel’s brother and a handful of friends, the list of people that have spent an entire night with them is relatively short. Sergi’s kids have come a few times. “On top of that, they didn’t stand still the whole night,” adds Manuel.
Both Sergi’s parents have come – his mother made macaroons last week that they’re planning to sell on Friday. Everyone who has come has helped with the molletes – small, white rolls usually eaten for breakfast. Before going into the oven, they must be shaped from the dough, patted down into fist -sized slabs. Once they’re in the oven, they’ll only take about 10 minutes to bake.
The smallest rolls, about the size of a fist, go in the oven first. They take about 15 minutes to bake. They’ll be delivered to a hotel, one of La Hogaza’s best clients, after Hector arrives around seven in the morning to slice the larger loaves once they’ve cooled. The larger loaves can take up to 40 minutes; they usually bake them last, after the molletes, and any other orders they have. When the two did their own deliveries, even shorter nights could end up lasting 10 or 12 hours – six or seven hours baking, time spent waiting for the bread to cool down so it could be sliced, packaged, and ultimately delivered.
Tonight, though, after the last round of larger loaves has come out of the oven, the kitchen gradually loses its heartbeat. The mixers are turned off, the oven is left to cool, and even Manuel’s pacing has slowed. They’re tired, but the two men don’t look like they’ve just worked a seven-hour shift that began at 11pm. “Honestly, we sleep the same as any other person, just in pieces,” Manuel says. “Two or three hours here, afterwards four there. Really, this line of work isn’t as tiring as one might think.”
The two change out of their uniforms. Most of the residual flour has disappeared from their hands, faces, and clothes. They count the loaves of bread they’ve made for the morning’s deliveries, both in good spirits. They’ll return both tomorrow and Friday night for longer shifts before the weekend. Manuel shrugs at the thought, and smiles. “I feel like the most fortunate man in the world, baking bread,” he says. •