I used to walk by this tiny building on Long Beach Boulevard (on my way to Long Beach Creamery, of course) and stare at a sign in the window that said The Merchant was coming soon. The logo featured a bike with baguettes sticking out of a basket, but it was difficult to tell with any certainty what exactly was going to occupy this space. Weeks and then months passed — 17 months, to be more exact — before The Merchant was ready to open its doors.
Now, as I sit in the corner of this little bakery/cafe at 4121 Long Beach Blvd., baker and founder Andrea Fleytas tells me that it’s actually taken much longer for this dream to rise.
“As a kid I always loved to bake and I was always fascinated with the science behind it — measuring things out,” she said.
Just like the bread she makes, opening The Merchant took time, patience and a lot of calculation.
“You’re only allowed to be off about a gram... There is so little room for error.”
As a graduate of the Cal Maritime Academy, in Fleytas’s past life she worked on a ship — with the goal of becoming a captain — before pursuing postgraduate education.
“I was sitting in this advanced chemistry class and I was doodling,” she explained, adding that student debt and the desire to start a family weighed heavily on her at the time. “My mind starts wandering and... I decided in that very moment I was going to open up a shop.”
She ordered a barrage of cookbooks and began baking.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. “I was baking rocks. This poor guy, Mike, my now-husband (who also works with her at The Merchant), continued to eat them. And he said they were good... They weren’t good.”
Rocks became edible, and then tasty. She applied to what is now the International Culinary Center in New York City, and was accepted.
“Mike stayed home with the dogs; I rented an Airbnb for three months and just took it all in,” Fleytas said.
If on cue, jazz begins playing in the background as she explained the decor, which was partially inspired by the couple’s love of New Orleans, its charm and its music. We’re both floating in and out of the conversation — she’s mildly distracted by deliveries and I’m continuously drifting off, carried by the scent of baked goods that permeates the shop.
Particularly beguiling are The Merchant’s cinnamon rolls, one of Fleytas’s signature items. Huge, softball-sized swirls of sticky dough swathed in icing, these pastries are an indulgent breakfast over which it’s hard to feel regret. Brioche is rich and airy at the same time, and pair delightfully with a cup of the shop’s Stumptown coffee. Baguettes are perfect to take home to the family or along to a dinner party — just staring at them, it’s hard not to fantasize about slicing through the crust and enjoying bites of it alongside charcuterie and cheeses. And the chocolate chip cookies are hard to describe in any way except perfect. As a self-proclaimed cookie connoisseur, Fleytas has managed to bake childhood nostalgia into every bite.
The bread and pastry display is a work of art, immaculately arranged on trays and in baskets against a backdrop of clean white subway tile. The abundance makes it hard to believe that behind it all is just one woman.
“I bake in the evenings — I get in around 7 p.m. and I’m out of here by 5:30 a.m.” Fleytas said. “I have someone who helps to weigh out ingredients, and I do all the shaping and baking.”
Nights are long; weeks are longer. She works seven days (or nights) a week, closing the shop all day on Monday for prep work. During her baking time, the charming furniture and decor is all moved to the side and stacked to make room for carts of ingredients and cooling trays.
And the one-woman show means that when The Merchant sells out, it sells out. Usually, this happens around noon or shortly after.
“A lot of people have asked why we don’t keep the ovens running throughout the day,” Fleytas says. “We just don’t have the space (to make bread all day).”
In many ways, The Merchant is a throwback to neighborhood bakeries that make their specialty bread the old-fashioned way, and attract a local crowd of regulars daily. Fleytas obsesses over recipes, and is adamant about having her own hands in the dough every night.
“It’s chaotic, I’m covered in flour and my hair’s all messed up,” she laughed. “I’m sleepy. But every morning, when I set up my little display, I’m so proud. Because I made this. I have all these items, multiple pieces of each item. That’s one of those things — at the end of the baking, when we’re getting ready to open, we’re cleaning up and setting up the display — I’m always so proud. I don’t think I’ll ever lose that."
The bread menu is constantly changing, thanks to Fleytas’s love of experimentation. She’s currently working on madelines and vegan cookies.
“We have more plans, but we want to perfect what we have,” she added. “We don’t want to be too hasty; we’re here for the long-haul.”
She paused to take a sip from a coffee cup that contains four shots of espresso. She’s getting ready for the night of baking ahead.
“With bread-making, you have simple ingredients. And with those simple ingredients, you can make six, 10, 15 different types of bread,” she contemplated. “It all has to do with your yeast, your percentages of hydration, your flour. It just keeps going on and on. But it’s these simple ingredients that make these amazing breads. And it’s all about touch. You know when it’s ready when you touch it.”