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Sunday, May 22, 2022

Former Olympian Jeannette Bolden-Pickens Keeps 27th Street Bakery on Track

Jeanette Bolden, the third-generation owner of 27th Street Bakery in Historic South Central, looks forward to the holiday rush each year.

The bakery specializes in sweet potato pies, and every November and December the orders flood in.

“It’s weird. I enjoy the chaos of Christmas and Thanksgiving,” said Bolden, 61. “We average three hours of sleep a night, taking orders, cooking everything. The cakes and the cobblers. Getting all of the supplies. It is mad crazy. But I like that part — the ‘it’s all on the line, let’s get it done right now.’”

Considering her background, it makes sense that Bolden thrives under pressure.
On Aug. 11, 1984, in front of a packed Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, Bolden took the baton in the second leg of the 400-meter relay of the Summer Olympics. She was competing with a stress fracture in her foot but still helped the U.S. sail across the finish line with a 15-yard victory for Olympic gold.

“I’m so happy that I’m going to every relative in L.A. tonight to show them my medal,” she told reporters afterward.

Family is still top of mind for Bolden.

She owns a majority share of 27th Street Bakery, which she co-owns with her husband, Al Pickens, and her sister, Denise Cravin-Paschal.

As chief executive, Bolden manages a team of full-time staff and contractors and that fluctuates from 6 to 17. She coordinates deliveries of the company’s pies to approximately 20 local Smart & Final, Ralphs and Albertsons locations and about 100 local restaurants, including Louisiana Famous Fried Chicken.

Bolden also oversees special projects, like securing grants that have helped sustain the business during the pandemic, including $60,000 through the Paycheck Protection Program, $2,300 from the Jewish Free Loan Association that was used to purchase a shrink-wrap machine and a $10,000 grant from Paypal to purchase a pie press machine.

“We lost 40% of our business initially at the beginning of the pandemic. It didn’t start turning around until the third quarter. The end of 2020 was good,” Bolden said. “Now things are kind of leveling off.”

The business was founded in the 1930s by Bolden’s grandparents. Before it was converted to a bakery in 1956, it was a soul food restaurant with Southern dishes made from recipes handed down to Bolden’s grandmother before she moved to California.

“It was greens, your black-eyed peas, your cornbread and pies: apple pie and peach pie, lemon meringue. I remember as a kid growing up, I loved my grandfather’s lemon meringue pie, and I would go into the mixing room, and I would stick my finger in the mixing bowl, and he would pop me on the head.”

As she got older, Bolden started working on and off at the bakery, pitching in whenever she had spare time.

“It was just a part of our DNA. You get up, you do your schooling, and you go to the bakery. You go to the bakery on Saturdays.”

By the time she was a student and standout sprinter at UCLA, her mother and brother had taken over the business, but her grandfather was still around to guide them.
“I just remember asking my mom to use the car for practice, and she would say, ‘Okay, but you have to deliver these pies,’” Bolden recalled. “I would pick up a friend on the way to track practice, and there would be pies rolling around the back of the car.”

When Bolden competed in the 1984 Olympics, she wasn’t just contending with a stress fracture, she was grieving the recent death of her grandfather.

“I had to leave training, and that was really, really hard,” she said.

But the bakery kept going, with her mom and brother taking over.

And it kept going when her mom had a stroke in 2001. At that time, Bolden was in the middle of a 20-year head coaching career at UCLA, where she would rack up three NCAA track and field team championships.
“My mother. it was hard for her to talk, and all she kept saying was, ‘Take care of the bakery. Take care of the bakery,’” Bolden said.

Then her brother suddenly died in 2002.

“The hardest thing was telling the employees who had been there 10 to 15 years. They were family,” she said. “They’re still family.”

Still, the bakery kept going, and Bolden would prove instrumental in its survival.
“I knew how to make the pies. I knew all the portions. I knew the day-to-day running. I had done the books and things like that,” she said.

But Bolden already had the coaching job.

“So, I would go to work at the bakery at night and make pies. Leave the bakery. Come home. Get a couple of hours a sleep and go to UCLA. My husband … started working there during the day to operate the bakery, and that’s how we survived until my track season came, and he had to work at night, and my cousin started working during the daytime. That’s how we managed: family and friends.”

Now Bolden is looking to the future —  and the next generation.

“We have the issue of grocery stores. People are ordering a lot more online and Instacart and things like that. I understand. But our pies aren’t available on the grocery store websites.”

Bolden says the bakery will build a new website to compete in the ecommerce age and expand its menu, with plans to add ice cream this summer.

“I have a two-year-old grandson. I want this to be around for him,” she said.

Keep reading the Black Entrepreneurs Month Special Report.

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