One year from its 100th anniversary, Greenlee’s Bakery in San Jose is still at its original location and producing its goods the old-fashioned way: hand-shaped, freshly-made dough created from quality ingredients. It’s a laborious process that starts in the early morning hours.
“We have two bakers who go in at midnight,” co-owner Janette Geldner-Robertson told San José Spotlight. “They start by prepping the danishes and the different kinds of bread. Around three o’clock in the morning, they start doing the early orders and working on the catering. And just before we open at 5:30 a.m., we start working on the breakfast burritos, sandwiches and doughnuts.”
Emmett Greenlee founded the bakery in 1924 and his son sold it to Geldner-Robertson’s parents, Norbert and Rosalinda Geldner, in 1981. Norbert was born in Germany and worked throughout Europe as a pastry chef, while Rosalina was born in Mexico and previously owned and operated the Cambrian Bakery in San Jose.
Norbert is responsible for Greenlee’s best-seller: the brioche-like cinnamon bread. A baking tour de force, he stumbled onto a way to infuse the bread with thin, complex veins of cinnamon that evenly spread the flavor of the spice—then he finished it with a rich streusel topping.
“It was actually kind of a mistake,” Janette Geldner-Robertson said. “But he turned it into a cute little loaf, and I started doing all the farmer’s markets with that bread. People raved about it, and we worked our way up to selling in 52 markets before the pandemic.”
Greenlee’s now produces about a dozen different kinds of bread, including banana nut, chocolate marble, cinnamon raisin and lemon blueberry.
Carrying on the cinnamon theme, Greenlee’s second most popular item is a thin, flat spiral of crisp, buttery pastry called a Cinnamon Sugar Crispie, which is break-apart flakey and messy to eat—but absolutely delicious. There’s a wide variety of baked items, including large, flat chocolate chip and salted caramel cookies, chewy gingerbread snaps, fruit turnovers and feta and spinach-filled breakfast croissants.
Greenlee’s was strictly a bakery until the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, when the building was retrofitted to accommodate a cafe that serves cinnamon bread waffles and breakfast burritos—and caters another 200 or so a day to local businesses. Lunch options like hamburgers and steak or chicken sandwiches are also available, as well as salads, and they have recently added a juice bar.
“We are a small artisan bakery, but we are also a mom-and-pop store,” Janette Geldner-Robertson said. “So we try to source everything locally when we can. The stores support us by buying our bread, and we support them as vendors as well by using their produce, fresh eggs and bacon.”
One of the bakery’s biggest fans is Jose Villanueva, who comes from Redwood City once or twice a week to get cookies and cinnamon bread for his grandmother—who he said has been coming to Greenlee’s since 1965.
“I bring stuff to her,” he told San José Spotlight, “but I have to keep it on the down low because she’s 100 years old, and she really loves her sweets. But I come for the coffee and the breakfast burrito, the big combination. It’s out of this world.”
Running a bakery with the early mornings and long hours is a tough business, but Janette Geldner-Robertson sees it as a way of honoring her parents and maintaining a near 100-year tradition.
“My parents would be here at three in the morning,” she said. “They would drag us out of the house, and I would sleep on sugar sacks or go to school while they worked night and day. So the greatest gift I could give them was to promote their signature products. That is enough for me, because they put their whole lives into them.”
Contact Robert Eliason at [email protected].
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