Ontario Bakery to close as owners retire after 40 years – San Bernardino Sun

Chris Fabos grew up three blocks from Ontario Bakery, where the boy liked to watch as a baker decorated cakes in the window to entice potential customers.

Fabos, however, was enticed to learn the trade, which he did over the course of nearly five years in Glendale and Upland. On March 1, 1982, at age 23, Fabos took the keys to Ontario Bakery as its new owner.

“The first day we did $213 and some change. I thought, ‘I can do better than that,’” Fabos recalls wryly. Within a year, he did.

Now 63, Chris and his wife, Kathy, are retiring almost 40 years to the day after they came in. Ontario Bakery’s last day of business will be Feb. 26.

Kathy messaged me recently to say they’d be retiring. The bakery now opens at 10 a.m. because of its COVID-era shift away from pastries toward cakes. I hadn’t known, so I show up on a whim a little before 10 on Thursday, find the door locked and peer inside in confusion. Kathy sees me and unlocks the door.

“I was just thinking of you this morning,” she says, smiling above her mask, as she leads me into the kitchen to talk to Chris, who’s chopping strawberries.

“It’s time,” Chris says simply.

Kathy Fabos talks to a customer by phone Thursday at Ontario Bakery. The shop is a favorite for birthday and wedding cakes. Fabos and her husband are retiring later this month and closing up. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

Founded in 1958, Ontario Bakery is one of a dwindling number of mom-and-pop shops making cookies, muffins, sheet cakes for birthdays and elaborate wedding cakes.

I met the couple in 2013 when a Walmart Supercenter opened a few blocks away on Mountain Avenue and I was interviewing businesses in the neighborhood. Walmart’s bakery is twice the size of their shop.

They wondered then how their bakery would be affected. Well, inevitably, they did lose business. Ditto when a Costco opened one freeway exit away.

“They don’t build a supermarket without a bakery,” Chris says. “It’s harder to operate an independent bakery. There’s only so many pieces of the pie and my pie has gotten smaller.”

Leave it to a baker to use a pie analogy.

“I’ve been through two recessions and a pandemic. I don’t think I could handle anything else,” Chris jokes.

In mid-March 2020, Chris and Kathy let their 12 employees go and did everything alone for a few weeks. So many brides canceled their weddings that the bakery was constantly writing refund checks for cakes, ultimately returning nearly $15,000. Meanwhile, the landlord still expected full rent.

“If the government hadn’t given me a PPP loan, I’d have folded,” Chris says. “I was able to catch up on rent and bring people back.”

Chris and Kathy avoided COVID-19 themselves, but a daughter got it twice and 15 months after the first bout still hasn’t regained her sense of smell. Among employees, one lost a father and another lost a son-in-law and ex-husband.

The bakery has loyal customers. Some came in during the pandemic to buy cakes, not because they really needed a cake but just to show their support, Kathy says.

While sales are down, profits are up because the shop is running on shorter hours and fewer employees. But Chris and Kathy are tired.

“It seems weird to close on a high note, but it’s better than closing because we can’t pay rent,” she admits.

Chris spends Saturdays delivering cakes for weddings. The schedule is tight.

“On a Saturday,” Chris says, “everybody wants to get married between 12 and 5.”

Recently he was carrying an enormous tiered cake into a hotel for a 700-person wedding party and had to set it down three times on his way in from the parking lot. It was a heavy cake and his knees aren’t what they used to be. It was a sign that he might be getting too old for this.

They’d expected to retire at the end of 2022 when their lease is up, unwilling to commit to five more years. But then one brother came into some money, saw that Chris was his only sibling still working and offered to pay the rent for the year to allow him to retire.

Who could pass that up? And retiring on his 40th anniversary in business is “sort of a cool thing,” Chris says. “It’s satisfying to walk away after 40.”

That said, it was hard to tell his employees, some of whom have been there for decades, that they’d soon be unemployed.

Oscar Gonzalez, an employee for 23 years, decorates a cake Thursday at Ontario Bakery. “He’s the best in the Inland Empire,” bakery owner Chris Fabos says. The bakery is closing Feb. 26 as Fabos retires. (Photo by David Allen, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

The bakery may live on in a different form. Although it was for sale for six years with no takers, a Pomona panaderia is now negotiating with the landlord. Chris approves, saying a Mexican bakery can better serve the largely Latino area.

Customers are slowly finding out about the closing via the shop’s Facebook page. Some are emotional after buying birthday cakes there since their children’s first birthday. One woman wrote that she and her husband have been married 12 years, and each year they celebrate with a small cake identical to their wedding cake.

A few are so used to buying cakes for family members’ birthdays, they’ve responded in unusual fashion: by stocking up.

“We have customers who are buying cakes for the year to freeze,” Kathy tells me. “That’s why Chris gets sad. He feels like he’s letting all these people down.”

A farewell party Feb. 27 is for former employees — dozens of high school students have worked there over the decades — and loyal customers. It’ll be a chance to reminisce and say goodbye.

Chris isn’t sure what he’ll do in retirement, but he expects to go job-hunting.

“I’ll get a part-time job as a baker somewhere,” he says. “I mean, I’ve got 45 years of experience.” He still loves the work. Running a business is what weighs on him.

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