If you’ve ever walked by a Mexican bakery, or panaderia, chances are that conchas have caught your eye. Conchas are sweet bread rolls covered in rainbow-bright sugar shells, etched into intricate, beautiful designs inspired by their namesake, seashells. They are one of the most popular pan dulces, or sweet breads, in Mexico, bought by the dozen and eaten for breakfast with coffee and chocolate, and a staple at virtually every bakery in the country.
Conchas are also among the top sellers at Don Paco Lopez Panaderia in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, which has been serving this ethnically diverse neighborhood warm pastries, milky-sweet coffees, and steamed tamales for nearly 25 years. “Everybody loves them,” says owner Miguel Lopez, who opened the bakery with his family in 1990. “Even our non-Mexican customers—once they try conchas, they come back for more.”
Lopez’s family is originally from Acatlán, in the state of Puebla. His grandfather ran a bakery in their hometown, which Miguel’s father, Fernando—nicknamed “Don Paco”—started working in at the age of six. Growing up, Miguel and his siblings lent a hand in the family business, but the bakery operation came to a temporary halt when Don Paco immigrated to New York in 1972. Don Paco worked in a variety of bakeries and restaurants, as did Miguel when he arrived in 1980. Miguel’s mother worked in the garment district, and his sister was a maid. Things weren’t always easy—Don Paco worked the overnight shift at an Italian bakery, traveling across Brooklyn in the wee hours, and he was frequently mugged in rougher neighborhoods.
In 1990, the Lopez family came together with a plan to open a bakery of their own in Sunset Park, which has a large Latino population. During a naming brainstorm, Miguel’s sister insisted they call it “Don Paco Lopez,” because the name is associated with good bread in Mexico. “For the first eight months, we didn’t know anything,” Miguel says. “My dad”—who lived in the apartment upstairs—“made bread, and I sold it to grocers and the people who made door-to-door deliveries.” His mother suggested they set up the tiny bakery the way it’s done in Mexico, where customers pick their own pastries from an open display, piling colorful breads and cakes onto individual metal platters with tongs.
The bakery proved a success, and a few years later, the family took over the second adjacent storefront and combined the two, so that one side of the shop sells sweet baked goods and coffee; the other savories like tamales and tortas. There are other Mexican bakeries in the area, but Miguel says it’s his family’s commitment to quality that sets Don Paco Lopez apart. He tells a story about suggesting a cost-saving measure years ago that involved using cheaper ingredients, to which Don Paco replied, “Sure, but if you do, then you’ll need to change the name of the bakery, because I won’t be associated with frozen eggs.”
Over the years, Don Paco Lopez has become a beloved fixture in the neighborhood, with many customers literally growing up with the shop, which is across the street from a public school. “Last year a guy came in to personally invite my sister to his wedding,” Miguel says. “He’d been coming in here since he was five years old.” And it’s still a family affair: Miguel is in charge of management for the original location and their second outpost in Harlem; his brother-in-law handles production; his mother wakes up at 5 a.m. to brew the coffee every morning; and his father, who still lives upstairs at age 84, can be seen in the kitchen almost daily, poking at doughs and taste-testing for quality assurance.
And about those doughs: Despite their complicated designs, making conchas is fairly streamlined process. The sweet bread dough itself is a mixture of flour, sugar, salt, yeast, eggs, and water, that the bakery starts combining every morning around 6 a.m. (they will, over the course of a single day, produce over 2,000 sweet breads). The dough is shaped into large blobs and left to proof for five to ten minutes, then each of the blobs is divided into 36 softball-sized balls and left to rest again for another few minutes. Most of Don Paco Lopez’s employees have been working at the bakery for over a decade, so they move lightning fast, slicing and rolling dozens of sheet trays in mere minutes.
Once the balls are arranged on giant sheet trays, a creamy paste made of sugar, flour, and vegetable shortening is pressed gently on top of each ball, like a baseball cap. The bakery has a dozen kinds of small metal molds, each with a different pattern, that are pressed on top of the paste, leaving the surfaces etched with beautiful curved designs resembling flowers, spirals, and seashells, among other things. The tops are dusted with more sugar—sometimes colored with cocoa powder or reddish sprinkles—and the rolls are sent to the hulking deck oven, where they’ll bake for about 40 minutes before emerging with beautifully burnished, sparkling-sugar crusts and soft, puffy interiors.
From there, it’s a very short journey to the display case at the front of the shop, where conchas are piled high on gleaming platters. They go quickly, as few people buy just one. Miguel’s mother works the register, speaking rapid-fire Spanish to her many regulars, and doling out hot coffees in paper cups with efficiency and a warm smile.
“I remember waking up at 4 a.m. to come downstairs and prep while my baby daughters slept under the countertops,” says Miguel, wistfully. Now his girls are in college; they work in the shop occasionally during breaks between semesters, but he’s not sure if they’ll want to take over the family business any time soon. Looking around while his white-haired father walks slowly into the kitchen, Miguel smiles. “I don’t know what will happen in the future, but this bakery really is my family’s home.”