Hundreds of families found shelter at Wedgewood Elementary School in Friendswood, Tex., after Tropical Storm Harvey's floodwaters forced them out of their homes. (Zoeann Murphy,Thomas Johnson/The Washington Post)
As Hurricane Harvey approached Texas last week, the bakers at El Bolillo Bakery in Houston worked overtime, knowing people would be eager to stock up on food.
By Saturday evening, the Mexican bakery’s Wayside location, on the southeast side of the city, had sold out of just about every piece of bread it had.
“We were trying to open up late and trying to make enough bread for everybody. We knew we get absolutely slammed busy during these days,” Brian Alvarado, the manager of the bakery, told The Washington Post. “We didn’t think it was going to rain for that long and that badly.”
As the storm pummeled Houston with record rainfall Saturday, most of El Bolillo’s employees were able to leave work. Alvarado said he barely made it home before roads became impassable.
Four bakers, however, found themselves trapped inside the Wayside store, just south of Interstate 45 and north of Brays Bayou. Hemmed in by rising floodwaters, the bakers had no choice but to hunker down among El Bolillo’s ovens and its now-empty display cases.
On social media, the bakery notified people that it would be closed until further notice.
What Alvarado didn’t know was that the four bakers trapped inside the bakery would grow restless.
“They were desperate to get to their families and they couldn’t,” Alvarado said.
So they turned to what they knew best: baking.
For two days, the trapped bakers churned out hundreds of pieces of bread, filling the shelves again with bolillos (a Mexican sandwich bread), kolaches and their signature pan dulce. They watched as, at the peak of flooding, water approached the doors of the building; fortunately, it never seeped in, and the store never lost electricity, Alvarado said later.
At night, the bakers slept on the ground, on makeshift beds and a large sack of flour.
El Bolillo’s owner attempted to rescue the workers Sunday but was turned around by police, Alvarado said. On Monday morning, the owner was finally able to reach the bakery — and was shocked by what he saw.
The store’s display cases, empty on Saturday, were filled with bread again. Large containers of neatly packaged pan dulce and bolillos crowded the counters. Freshly baked bread peeked through nearly every slot of the bakery’s cooling racks.
“That’s when we took the image and they had made so much bread,” Alvarado said. “We were not expecting to come in here and see every single display case full of bread.”
The bakery posted a picture of three of the trapped bakers, amid their bounty of baked goods, to its Facebook page: “Some of our bakers got stuck at Wayside location. Finally got to them! They made all this bread to deliver to those in need.”
The post was widely shared, with praise pouring in from around the world for the bakers’ kind gesture.
“These people are as sweet as their baking. Thanks!” one Facebook user said.
A Cincinnati man who came across the bakers’ story offered to donate money to help defray the bakery’s and employees’ costs.
“Your act of humanity is what we should all aspire to be and achieve,” he wrote, according to an image of the message posted by the bakery.
“Honestly, this is one of my favorite ‘Harvey hero’ stories because it’s so very Houston,” Julia Retta, deputy chief of staff to Houston City Council member David Robinson, said on Twitter.
Alvarado said they didn’t count how many loaves they baked but said the bakery’s display cases can hold about 3,000 pieces of bread. There could have been about 1,000 more pieces of bread on the counters and cooling racks, he added. He estimated that the bakers used 4,400 pounds of flour.
“They just couldn’t handle the stress and they needed to do something, so they just made bread,” Alvarado said. “They were just thinking of everybody else, and they just started making bread for the community.”
The bread from their two-day marathon baking session was delivered to various shelters, including the George R. Brown Convention Center, and a police station nearby, Alvarado said. The four bakers who camped out at work have since been reunited with their families, he added. The bakery’s owner has set up a GoFundMe to raise money to help employees whose homes and cars were damaged because of Harvey.
El Bolillo has since reopened all three of its Houston locations — and the bakers who were trapped in the Wayside store have been busy fielding interview requests. Alvarado said all three locations will continue to set aside bread at the end of the day to distribute to those in need.
“We’re trying to take it to everywhere that we possibly can,” Alvarado said. “We don’t like to just drop it off at one location. We’re trying to help.”