El Bolillo bakers worked around the clock to provide bread and comfort to flood victims
Hurricanes change people. They make some people question life, but they make others reaffirm their purpose for being on Earth.
“We’re not heroes,” said Kirk Michaelis, owner of El Bolillo Bakery, with stores in Houston and Pasadena. “We’re just doing what little we can, baking bread and getting it out to those in need.”
Michaelis lives in League City, which was hit hard by Hurricane Harvey. But his home, although surrounded by floodwater during Harvey, wasn’t damaged.
What got national attention was that El Bolillo employees, unable to leave work because of flooding caused by Harvey, kept baking at two Houston stores.
“They’d clock out, take a nap, clock in and start baking again,” Michaelis said.
They baked all through the storm and supplied a growing population of flood victims with fresh baked goods.
El Bolillo bakers turned out Mexican-style bread and delivered it to shelters and charities. Almost all El Bolillo employees were affected. Some lost everything to the flooding.
Still, they worked 24/7 to keep shelves stocked for loyal customers while keeping a steady supply going out to feed those in need.
A man from Arkansas heard about what
El Bolillo was doing after Harvey and donated flour, sugar and milk for baking. Other supplies helped, too.
The story went viral. But Michaelis dismisses it, instead reflecting on two men who died when their boat hit a power line as they were helping to rescue flood victims.
“Those are the real heroes,” Michaelis said. “I really don’t want to make a big thing out of this. We were just trying to get food out to those who need it.”
In June, long before Harvey ever made an appearance, Michaelis’ excitement at his South Wayside Drive bakery in Houston was contagious as he stopped only long enough to greet each employee. On his shirt, “Si, yo soy El Bolillo” stood out in yellow as he worked his way through colorful racks of cookies, breads and cakes.
“It’s a slang term,” he said, referring to his shirt. “The bolillo is the white bread we sell. It’s also a slang term for ‘gringo,’ or ‘the white guy.’” He laughed. A throng of customers clutching large trays piled with breads and treats lined up at the cash register. Everyone smiled.
As customers enter El Bolillo bakery, their senses are hit with the smell of hot, fresh baked goods and the vibrant reds, blues and yellows of Mexican ceramics. Breads, cookies and cakes for all occasions line the walls and display cases. Murals cover the walls and ceiling.
In the kitchen, a team of bakers works flour into a variety of pan dulce, tres leches and the signature bolillos. Laughter mixes with the slap of dough hitting the wooden pastry tables and hum of convection ovens.
“I couldn’t do this without these people,” Michaelis said. “They’re the ones who do it. Some of my employees have been with me for 15 years.”
Raised in Galveston, Michaelis has been fine-tuning his operation since he began selling Mexican breads from a single display case at a doughnut shop. He has grown El Bolillo since 1998 to three locations: two in Houston and a new store in Pasadena.
A series of fortunate events led to his selling of the doughnut business and allowed him to focus on the growing demand of Mexican-style bakery goods. He visited traditional bakeries in Mexico. His head baker had contacts in the business, and they stayed in the homes of local bakers, seeing how they worked, studying the craft and sharing new recipes while refining others. These were old-school operations using traditional recipes and methods. Traditionally, breads were baked on wooden shelves in wood-fired ovens. But methods had to be revised for modern stainless steel and stack convection baking. The business grew so quickly, his father-in-law, Bud Harmon, left his insurance business to become his partner.
“We operate 24/7,” Michaelis said. “When the stores close, employees are still at work getting ready for the next day.”
He encourages employees to experiment, to innovate, but mostly to have fun at their jobs, he said. He does this by actively embracing feedback from them and allowing them to build on their strengths and interests. This might manifest as a new cookie or showing off a hidden talent for computers or cake decorating, he said.
Mariel Raston started with El Bolillo in 2013. Earlier in the summer, she was managing the books for the Airline Drive bakery. Like so many of her fellow workers, she can fill in around the store in a number of different tasks if needed. She has worked the cash register, but also has shown a talent for photography and using Photoshop for marketing and decorating cakes.
Michaelis’ daughter, Meagan, recently returned home from Nashville, where she worked in the music industry, to run El Bolillos’ social media.
“She just developed a ‘spinner cookie’ to catch on to the next latest craze,” Kirk Michaelis said. “They are flying off the shelves.”
Bryan Alvarado, one of El Bolillo’s managers, is getting a chance to use his passion for computer systems by setting up the company’s new server bank at the Pasadena store.
His League City home was surrounded by water during Harvey, but the floors stayed dry, he said.
The Michaelis family has deep roots in Galveston. Kirk Michaelis was born at St. Mary’s hospital and grew up in Galveston and attended O’Connell High School.
Michaelis feels for flood victims who lost their homes because he understands how it feels to lose everything, he said.
When he was 8 years old, a Christmas tree caught fire and left his family with nothing on Christmas Eve. He remembers how he awoke the next morning at his grandmother’s house to find a tree, a bicycle and presents brought by Galveston neighbors. He still cherishes the bicycle 50 years later.
“That is community,” Michaelis said. “And that is why.”