Noe Valley Voice July-August 1998

Church Street Says Goodbye to Star Bakery

By Karen Topakian

This spring Noe Valley lost another "star" in its constellation of oldtime family businesses -- Star Bakery, at the corner of Church and 29th streets.

Best known for its Irish soda bread, Star Bakery opened in 1899, and for almost 100 years proudly served the neighbors and parishioners of St. Paul's Church.

The most recent owner, Laura Catapano, closed the bakery's doors in April after running the business for only 27 months. She explained that she had intended to upgrade the kitchen to make Star Bakery a full-service operation. However, she couldn't justify the expense, which she estimated at $250,000. Meanwhile, she had acquired another bakery, located on Van Ness Avenue.

Catapano also cited the lack of parking on Church Street. "Since we had lost parking in front from the Muni ramps, we had less than half the business," she said. "It's not the kind of location that gets a lot of foot traffic."

Whatever the reasons, Star Bakery was failing. And on May 6, the San Francisco Sheriff's Office evicted Catapano from the Church Street location.

The next day, neighbors were dismayed to see empty tables and chairs behind a bolted door and a sign reading, "Star Bakery Moved to Van Ness."

"I was very disappointed with Star Bakery's closing. It's a big loss for the neighborhood," said Tom Maravilla, co-owner of nearby Mikeytom Market. "It's also very frustrating. One of the things we loved about this neighborhood when we opened our store [in 1993] was its sense of history, with businesses that had been here since the turn of the century.

"It's a shame that a bakery that's been around for ninety to a hundred years could fall by the wayside in two years."

Maravilla said he hoped a new tenant would come in and revive the original spirit of Star Bakery. "Our little neighborhood needs a good bakery. What we need is an owner who can bring in lots of new energy but who will keep the history and tradition of the place," he said.

Clare Tamony, a 76-year-old Valley Street resident and an employee at Star Bakery for 12 years, remembers that spirit well.

"I have nothing but good memories about Star Bakery," said Tamony, who worked at the shop from 1975 to 1987. "The same people came in every day -- mostly business people running to catch the streetcar. I knew what they wanted, and I would put the donut on the counter."

Her other regulars were the "church ladies" who'd stop by after mass at St. Paul's. "Everyone was family. If they let me know when their birthdays were, we would celebrate with wreath cakes. We all looked forward to St. Patrick's Day, too. We'd have the soda bread, and people playing music day and night."

Tamony said many older people in the neighborhood must be feeling sad, now that the bakery's gone. "The senior citizens used to say, 'I don't know what I would do if I couldn't come in here every afternoon and have coffee.' It was their only reason to get out."

Eugene Rauscher, the current owner of the building and an owner/manager of Star Bakery for many years, might appreciate hearing those sentiments. And he probably has many stories of his own to tell. But he has been ill recently, so his wife, Eloise Rauscher, offered to be his spokesperson.

She pointed out that until it closed, Star Bakery was the oldest, continually operating bakery in San Francisco. "The Martins" were among the early owners, she said. An old black-and-white photo still hangs on Star Bakery's wall showing Mr. and Mrs. Martin in 1924, holding their youngest daughter, Rose. Rose Martin went on to become a nun at St. Paul's Church across the street.

Eloise Rauscher said the Martins sold the business and bakery to Carl Reichman, who sold the bakery to Eugene Rauscher in 1945. Reichman later sold the entire property to Rauscher.

Since the '60s, the bakery (not the building) has passed through many hands. It went to Charles Walker, who sold it to Richard Kurtz, who left it to Roland Wenger, who finally sold it to Laura Catapano in early 1996.

Like Tamony, Eloise Rauscher worked at the bakery for over a decade, from 1948 to 1958. She too knew all her customers by name. "I had a lot of customers from St. Paul's Church and from the school," recalled Rauscher. "It was an Irish neighborhood then. Now there are many different ethnic groups living in Noe Valley, but the bakery has stayed the same."

Rauscher said she still has the recipe for soda bread which she and her husband used when they owned the popular bakery.

She agrees with Maravilla that 1701 Church is a great spot for a bakery and she plans to keep it as such. "I think it will be a bakery. There are a lot of interested parties and several strong contenders," Rauscher said.

She said she and her husband, who live in Marin, have no plans to sell the building and that they hope to see the space occupied some time in the next month.

When asked whether one of the contenders would be Starbucks, she replied emphatically, "No Starbucks!"

Starbucks might have a "star" in it, but it couldn't possibly have the staying power of a Star Bakery.