Regular customers of Anna’s Bakery in the Camino Real Marketplace know without checking a calendar when the annual Goleta lemon festival is around the corner—they simply smell the trademark lemon meringue pies baking in the back ovens. As the only supplier of lemon pies and, more recently, lemon bars to the Chamber of Commerce booth, the bakery has a 15-year track record with what is now officially called the California Lemon Festival in Goleta.
That seductive odor will waft from the small store later this week as co-owners Lisa Boelter and Deborah Weber marshal their forces to produce 950-plus handmade confections of tart sweetness. They will accomplish this in two, very busy 12- to 14-hour days—without disrupting the normal flow of artfully decorated cakes, delectable doughnuts, cookies, tarts, muffins, fruit breads, bagels, etc.
“It’s not a two-person job,” wryly notes Boelter. Her husband and two sons assist at different stages of the pie process, as does Weber’s husband. With their two bakers, the women estimate that between eight and 10 people help in producing and delivering sweets to the chamber’s booth in Girsh Park. The bakery will also furnish around 1,200 lemon bars to the festival.
To accomplish this logistical tour de force the women have learned efficiencies without cutting quality. They have found, for example, that lemon bars can be baked in advance with no decline in tastiness until the day they are needed, says Weber.
Pies have to be handled delicately to balance taste and economies of scale. Crust dough is mixed, stretched into sheets, cut into tins, and baked ahead of time in batches of 25. The filling and meringue are prepared in 10- and 80-quart mixers and the last ingredients added to the baked shells.
Toasting the delicately swirled (or peaked, artistic skills differ) meringue with blasts from propane-fueled kitchen torches is the final touch. “It’s everyone’s favorite job,” remarks Weber.
Next, the pies are packed into boxes for transport to the festival in a truck supplied by Jordano’s Food Service. “This year, we’re including a little surprise in each pie box,” says Boelter with a grin.
The partners donate 40 to 50 of the two-pound pies for the weekend’s two pie-eating contests, but the chamber buys and resells the other 900 (and the lemon bars) to help cover its festival costs. Last year, about the same number of lemony delights were snatched by hungry locals, resulting in no leftovers.
“It’s fun in a weird kind of way,” laughs Weber. “We work very hard for two long days. But we’re a team, even if we bump into each other occasionally.” Do team members taste their products? You bet they do: “More than we should,” she admits.
“Years ago we secretly entered one of our pies in the tasting contest,” recalls Boelter. “The judges ranked us in the top third, which was fine by us. We like being part of the lemon festival.”
Weber and Boelter have co-owned Anna’s since 1990 when it was in the old Fairview Shopping Center. When Bill and Betty Sanders offered to sell Anna’s to them it was unexpected, they say. They also frankly acknowledge that, despite working together in the bakery for several years, the friends knew little about running a business and nothing about making cakes, breads, and other bakery essentials. And they had no money.
However, the Sanders saw maturity and entrepreneurial steel that the young women did not yet recognize in themselves, and took a calculated risk: They set a minimal down payment, carried the loan themselves, and mentored the novices for two years. “It was a package deal, one we couldn’t refuse,” recalls Weber.
Boelter remembers not wanting to accept the risk at first, and that her parents had reasonable doubts but were supportive. However, being boss of their own business had a powerful appeal and they took the plunge.
Looking back 20 years, they now agree they had no idea of what they were getting into and laugh about how “it seemed like a good idea at the time.” There were the inevitable unexpected costs—they had two bakeries at one point for four years, due to delays in the Fairview center remodeling —and had to cope with two recessions, rising health insurance premiums, and other hassles.
But they persevered and prospered, enough so that now they usually work four-day weeks. The bakery has expanded its lunch menu with soups, sandwiches, and a few salads, which is online. For a modest operation that depends on part-time employees to handle counter business, servers are uniformly friendly and helpful, and the lead baker has been with them for 15 years.
That says a lot about how Anna’s owners have turned lemons into lemonade.