By Darlene Donloe
SOUTH LOS ANGELES — The 27th Street Bakery is a legendary pastry shop known for satisfying sweet tooths with its signature sweet potato pies and other tasty delights.
The iconic bakery is currently gearing up for another busy Christmas week, when, once again, they will make “so many” pies, the owners “can’t even put a number on it.”
One of L.A.’s oldest family-run businesses, it is currently owned by former Olympian Jeanette Bolden-Pickens, her husband Al, and her sister, with a history that dates back to the 1930s when Harry and Sadie Patterson, Bolden-Pickens’ grandparents from Shreveport, Louisiana, opened it up as a soul food restaurant.
“The main item in the restaurant was dessert items,” said Bolden-Pickens, who owns a majority share of the business and manages a staff of nine. “Before Tom Bradley was the mayor, the area was his beat. He used to come to the restaurant.”
Bradley was a Los Angeles police officer before becoming a city councilman and, later, mayor.
In 1956, the establishment became a specialty bakery called Mrs. Harry’s Pie Shop, named after Bolden-Pickens’ grandmother.
Later, in the 1980s, her grandfather sold the business to Bolden-Pickens’ brother and her mother, Alberta, who turned it into a pastry shop and changed the name to 27th Street Bakery because it was located at 27th Street and Central Avenue.
Today, Bolden-Pickens, her husband and her sister are third-generation owners of a bakery that is hailed as one of the most popular baked-goods shops in the city. It not only churns out its popular sweet potato pies, it also offers an impressive selection of sweets that include German chocolate cake, yellow chocolate cake, red velvet cake, coconut pineapple cake, 7-Up cake, carrot cake, sock-it-2-me cake, sweet potato creamy cheesecake and Uncle Calvin’s peach cobbler.
Bolden-Pickens said her family takes pride in making homemade baked goods.
“We realize how special homemade tastes,” she said. “People like their food to taste like mama’s home cookin’.”
Bolden-Pickens said they have worked hard to maintain the taste of the food.
“We’re using the same recipes my grandfather used,” said Bolden-Pickens, who took over the bakery in 2008. “The recipes work. It’s what the people want.
“He made the best lemon meringue, coconut meringue, peach pie and apple pie. He loved making fruit pies. When we took over, my brother and mother honed in on the sweet potato. We went more into the pecans and not the fruit pies.”
While she won’t reveal the recipe, Bolden-Pickens, 62, said they often change the potatoes they use.
“The yams in the summer are different from the yams in the fall,” said the mother of 22-year-old twins, who won a gold medal in the women’s 4-by-100 relay in the 1984 Olympics. “We get our potatoes from a couple of places. The texture, the way they feel just coming out of the ground is different. We do our best to keep the integrity the same. We have our own signature vanilla. It’s what my grandparents always used.”
Bolden-Pickens’ grandfather died in 1984 when she was training in Santa Barbara for the Olympics. She hasn’t forgotten his words of wisdom.
“He was very religious,” she said. “He would always say to me, ‘Faith.’ He always talked about it. He often spoke about keeping the family legacy and how important it was that he taught my mother and her brother about the integrity of the product.
“He said it was important to keep integrity in the community. I’m the third generation. There is a fourth, fifth, and even sixth on the way. My grandfather would be proud.”
Bolden-Pickens, who spent much of her childhood at the 27th Street Bakery, said she never felt obligated to work there.
“I don’t know that I would call it an obligation,” she said. “It was in our DNA. When we were little, someone would ask, ‘What are you doing on Saturday?’ The answer was always the same. ‘I’m going to the bakery.’”
It truly was a family business. Bolden-Pickens, who was born with asthma but ran track to “be normal,” remembers going to track practice at West Los Angeles College, while pies, out for delivery, were “rolling around in my mom’s car as we picked up kids.”
Today, Bolden-Pickens says 27th Street Bakery, which established itself as the preferred stop for baked goods, makes about 1,445 small pies, 50 large pies, and about 100 pecan and sweet potato pecan pies.
“During the holiday season, I can’t even put a number on it,” said Bolden-Pickens, a Compton native. “We do about 600 large pies a day and maybe 1,700 small ones. The holiday season changes things. I look forward to it.”
27th Street Bakery is, reportedly, one of the largest manufacturers of sweet potato pies and can be found in more than 100 mom-and-pop eateries including Mel’s Fish Shack, Woody’s, Louisiana Fried Chicken, Simply Wholesome, plus 21 grocery stores including Ralph’s, Albertsons, Smart & Final, 7-11’s and even in the Crypto.com Arena. The 27th Street Bakery also supplied food at the Super Bowl when L.A. hosted the 2022 NFL championship last February.
Keeping up with demand can be daunting at times, but Bolden-Pickens is used to hard work.
Asked whether it was harder to train for and then win an Olympic gold medal or to run a business, she paused.
“Wow, I gotta think about that,” said Bolden-Pickens, executive director and coordinator of the Jeanette Bolden Asthma and Allergy Track Clinic and a member of the Board of Directors for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation. “Actually, running a business is harder because, with the Olympics, you have that thing that you’re going for. It happens once every four years.
“After that, you either continue or move into another avenue. With business, it’s all the time. You have to deal with COVID, inflation, gas prices and wage increases. There is always something.”
Bolden-Pickens, who attended UCLA and studied sociology with the intent of becoming a social worker, is still into sports.
“I hated practice,” said Bolden-Pickens who is a member of UCLA’s 2021 Hall of Fame class. “I don’t miss that. I’m a sports fiend, though. I’m an ESPN college football and college basketball junkie. Sunday – who’s playing? This year my sister and I went to the World Athletics Championships. It was so much fun rekindling and watching track and field.”
Life is good for Bolden-Pickens, who was the head coach of the U.S. women’s track and field team at the 2008 Olympics, and an assistant track and field coach at UCLA – ultimately winning 10 Pac-10 titles during her time with the Bruins. She was also a coach at the University of Central Florida from 2013-16.
The award-winning elite athlete, who was also the first head coach in U.S. Olympic history to have won an Olympic medal as an athlete, looks to the future.
“I’m a grandmother of one with two on the way,” said Bolden-Pickens, who holds all-time collegiate bests indoors in the 50 yards and 50 meters. “I’m looking forward to embracing healthy grandkids and moving into grandmotherhood. Is that a word?”
Her goal is to one day have 27th Street Bakery pies across the country and then around the world.
“I want to keep this legacy alive,” said Bolden-Pickens, who was inducted into the U.S. Track & Field and Cross Country Coaches Association Hall of Fame. “In our community, it’s important we see businesses continue to grow. Business is good. It’s been a long, hard journey. You can’t shy away from something you pray about. You just can’t.”
27th Street Bakery is located at 2700 S. Central Ave., Los Angeles.
“Spotlight on L.A.” is a feature profiling little known places within the city. To propose a location for “Spotlight on L.A.,” send an email to email@example.com.
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.