Story written by Sara Knight | Photos by Jean-Pierre Bakery
It’s a winter morning in the mountains. An icy, north wind cuts through downtown Durango. The sun is not quite shining on the sidewalks of Main Street as visitors eagerly search for a cozy haven. Suddenly, the heavenly scent of homemade gingerbread floats by with a warm embrace, guiding those from the cold to the northwest corner of Main Avenue and College Drive.
There they will find Jean-Pierre Bleger (pronounced “Bleh-zhay”) welcoming visitors from near and far to settle in at his “French French Bakery”, nestled right in the heart of Durango.
The experience begins before you ever even set foot inside the door. The light filtering through a yellow awning surrounds the entry with a welcoming glow as the aroma of fresh coffee and baked pastries linger in the air. Peek through the windows lining the storefront and glimpse an intimate world on the other size.
When entering this wonderland for the senses, with it’s perfectly golden crusts and possibilities, glance up as you cross the threshold and you’ll see the remains of an
“I fell in love with this piece of equipment,” Jean-Pierre explained with his usual twinkling eye. “It was actually in the back of the building and we had this idea to put it in the front and make an entrance, a different look.”
Just inside the old elevator entryway, guests are transported away from a cold and wintry Colorado, right into the heart of France. Polished hardwood floors lead eager feet further inside, where original brick walls are exposed along with classic hardwood details, accented by an eclectic array of decorations. Everything is warm, from the colors of the walls to the heat from fireplace.
Though it feels timeless, this bakery was established at its current location in 2002.
“The building was built in 1881, the same year as the creation of Durango,” Jean-Pierre explained, going on to describe its evolution from slaughterhouse to meat market to grocery store, which it remained from 1920 to 1970.
“Wahler Grocery,” he specified, then smiled as he recalled that “every year I have some older guys or ladies who come to visit downtown and say ‘I used to work there when I was a teenager.’”
After five decades as Wahler Grocery, the building on the corner became a souvenir shop called the Galloping Goose, which it remained until 2002 when Jean-Pierre and his wife Rebecca purchased the building.
“My job when I was a little boy was to bring the wood in every day from one place to the other, usually with a full wheelbarrow,” Jean-Pierre said, explaining that his father used a wood-fired oven. Around this time he also got to help out with a little of the baking too, starting with the small, individual rum cakes called “baba au rhum.”
After being raised in a bakery, Jean-Pierre attended a well-known baking school in Paris where he earned a diploma, though he’ll joke that he didn’t learn much there. It was only natural then that when he came to the United States in 1969 he would open up a bakery of his own.
Jean-Pierre spent the next couple of decades owning and managing wholesale bakeries in Houston and Beaumont, Texas. By the early 1990’s he had married and started a family, and he and his wife decided it was time to slow down. The quiet, little mountain town had charmed the couple and so they moved to Durango in 1991 with their two sons Jerome and Adam.
“One of the fundamental reasons we moved here was that we were familiar with Durango,” Jean-Pierre said. “We used to come and visit and vacation here.” Rebecca’s family had owned a ranch out in Grandview, around the area where Mercy Hospital now stands.
For a little over a decade, Jean-Pierre continued with the business model he had been so successful with in Texas, managing a wholesale operation in Durango. They sold bread and baguettes to the restaurants around town.
Then in June 2002 the Missionary Ridge fire filled the town with smoke and fear.
“The national press were basically sending the message ‘Durango is on fire. Durango is burning’,” Jean-Pierre explained. “All of the Grandmothers and mothers wouldn’t come with their children to a burning town.”
The consequences were dire for several downtown businesses including the Galloping Goose, that little souvenir shop on the corner. Jean-Pierre had been bargaining with the owner over the price of the building for a while, and finally, with a huge inventory and suddenly no customers, the owner agreed to sell.
With the new building, came a new chapter in the baking business for the Blegers.
“We bought this building downtown and we decided that wholesale was too much. We concentrated from having 100 customers to suddenly we had only one, which was ourselves.”
“Everything we sell, we make, whether it’s a pastry or bread. We also have a light restaurant-type French cuisine, and a good collection of wine.” – Jean-Pierre
They completely renovated the 120-year-old building, adding a kitchen and transforming the space into the timeless escape it is today. With only themselves to please, the family made it their own.
“Everything we sell, we make, whether it’s a pastry or bread,” Jean-Pierre said, describing the fare. “We also have a light restaurant-type French cuisine, and a good collection of wine.” He also added with his ever-present smile that while liquor is not their strength, they can certainly provide a good lemon drop or margarita if so desired.
Jean-Pierre does not spend nearly as much time baking these days. He explained his role as that of a judge. “My job is to say ‘Yes’ or ‘No’. Because every bakery item that we make, we make by hand. There is never one loaf of bread that looks like another loaf. They are always different.” It’s his job to make sure that only the best make it into display cases and into the hands and hearts of their customers.
So whether you’re seeking the perfect fruit cake to present at Christmas dinner, a fresh-out-of-the-oven breakfast to share around the table, or maybe just a little respite from the winter wind, slip into Jean-Pierre’s French French Bakery on the corner, and lose yourself for a moment in a world of handmade pastries and French cuisine with a perfectly poured glass of wine or a warm cup of coffee. If you’re lucky, the man who made it all happen might even be playing a tune on the piano in the corner.