The secret is out
Nov./Dec. 2014 California Bountiful magazine
Story by Kate Campbell
Photos by Richard Green
Arcangeli Grocery Co. offers earthly delights, heavenly treats
More online: Recipes
The aroma of fresh-baked bread lingers like fog around Pescadero's Arcangeli Grocery Co., an Italian bakery and gourmet deli nestled in a quaint farming village on the San Mateo County coast, south of San Francisco. Visitors are often surprised to find a culinary gem in a one-stop-sign town with a population of about 650.
Mike and Ingeborg Benedetti join son Chris, who represents the fifth generation to operate Arcangeli Grocery Co.
Visit on a weekend, however, and it's clear Arcangeli Grocery is not one of California's best-kept secrets: Word has gotten out. It's not unusual for the town's main street to be jammed with vehicles—bicycle and motorcycle touring groups, as well as vintage car clubs, tourists in motor homes, farmers in pickup trucks and soccer moms in mini-vans.
Owned by descendants of Sante Arcangeli for four generations, the market brings Old World craftsmanship to bakery goods and an extensive line of specialty foods created by the family. There are more than 150 different salsas, sauces, dips, spreads, jams, preserves, honeys and toppings—all bearing the Arcangeli label. They also make a variety of original-recipe salads and sandwiches, 20 to 30 kinds of fresh sausage and a selection of fresh meats and fish.
Customers who know the bakery's routine linger around the bread racks waiting for the family's signature Italian-style artichoke garlic herb bread to come hot from the oven. In an instant, the bread gets snapped up. A while later, a new line forms. It goes on all day, said Mike Benedetti, who runs the business with his wife, Ingeborg, and son, Chris.
Gourmet items, from oils, vinegars, salsas, dressings and sauces, line the market's shelves.
"We do it the old way here," he said. "We make as much as we can using local produce from family farms along the coast and work with other small food companies in the area to produce quality products."
Through the generations
Founded in 1929, the bakery, deli, custom butcher shop and gourmet grocery—all rolled into one—has weathered 85 years of ups and downs, Benedetti said. In the early days, the Arcangeli family lived in the apartment above the store and sold staple groceries, along with meats butchered in the back. They also sold hot meals to fieldworkers who came in from nearby farms.
"We're just a small family business in the middle of nowhere," said Benedetti, great-grandson of Sante Arcangeli and co-owner of the gourmet food shop with his brother Don. "We're country Italians and proud of it."
The deli case includes locally made cheese garnished with edible flowers.
Mike and Don's brother John owns Sante Arcangeli Family Winery in Corralitos in neighboring Santa Cruz County. The winery operates a tasting room down the street from Arcangeli Grocery Co.; Don operates the market's online sales business.
The brothers say that although tourism slows down in the winter, the holiday season is a busy time for online sales. Their most popular item? Artichoke garlic herb bread, shipped partially baked so customers can enjoy it piping hot from their own ovens.
Mike Benedetti is both modest and generous, but there is one thing he won't budge on: the recipe for that bread. Ask for it and the answer is a firm, but polite, no. He credits the recipe as one of the reasons the family business survived when times were tough.
Baker Humberto Perez prepares loaves of Arcangeli Bakery's artichoke garlic herb bread.
Through the years, the family's gourmet food company hasn't done much advertising, Benedetti said, relying instead on word-of-mouth and the mutual marketing support of merchants in the close-knit community.
On a busy Saturday, the store can ring up more than 1,000 individual sales, he said, adding, "On those days we're too busy to count, but if you compare us to a supermarket, the big ones probably see more people than that in an hour."
Chris Benedetti started working there when he was about 9 years old and represents the fifth generation to help operate the store. He said he knows customers who've been coming in just to buy the bread for two and three generations.
Artichoke garlic herb bread is baked continuously throughout the day.
"For some families, our products have become part of their lives, included in their holiday traditions," he said. "We appreciate that because that's how we feel about our products. We use them at home and we enjoy them at our own family gatherings."
He said he has seen interest in the company's hand-crafted gourmet products expand as more customers make the drive over the mountain from Silicon Valley to visit the store and surrounding community. They also visit the longtime restaurants and boutiques in Pescadero.
'Working together as family'
Survival hasn't always been easy, Benedetti said, with the family's livelihood tied to those of the local farming community. In the 1920s when his grandfather arrived, Pescadero was a bigger town with two hotels and three car dealerships, along with large farms with lots of workers. The Great Depression and shortages of World War II brought the town's economy to the verge of collapse. The family nearly lost the store during those lean years.
Ed Weeks, 87, waits on a customer. Members of the Weeks family have worked at Arcangeli Grocery Co. since the 1940s. The store does a brisk business in what co-owner Mike Benedetti calls "food products you can't get anywhere else."
Sante Arcangeli died in 1934 at the age of 47, leaving three children. To make ends meet, his daughter Louise continued to cook homestyle meals for the local farmworkers, using recipes brought from the old country and adapting them to what was available from local farms.
By the 1960s, the family cooked and delivered hot meals to migrant farmworker camps, Benedetti said, "long before there were big food-service companies to do that work. Often, the workers would show up on their days off looking for a hot meal and calling for 'Louisita,'" Benedetti's grandmother Louise.
"While my great-grandmother was doing the cooking, we always had a grocery business at the same time," Chris Benedetti said. "We used to deliver groceries up and down the coast. My grandfather (Norm) used to row a boat out to the big house on Año Nuevo Island to deliver food supplies.
"Basically, our business has always depended on the success of our farming community," he continued. "Without agriculture, our business wouldn't have survived in the early days when there wasn't any tourist business or adequate transportation along the coast. Today, we still depend on local crops for many of our signature products."
Pescadero's sheltered location and early California ambiance make it a popular destination for visitors touring the San Mateo County coast.
Those include, in addition to Arcangeli breads, olallieberry jam, peachy tomato salsa, San Francisco-style cioppino and California cabernet vinaigrette, to name just a few.
Although high-tech businesses grab the spotlight when it comes to the local economy, San Mateo County farmers continue to produce nearly $150 million a year in flowering plants, nursery stock, fruits and vegetables, including artichokes, Brussels sprouts, fava beans, leeks and peas.
"Much of what we offer represents ingredients gathered from what is grown on coastal farms. We strive to create and sell products you can't get anywhere else," Mike Benedetti said. "And just like the farms around us, working together as family is how we survive and grow."
Local softball mom Michelle Terra loads up with loaves of warm bread before heading to her daughter's team party.