Carlos Pereira talks about bread the way composers discuss symphonies and playwrights critique a show.
Just like a concerto is more than simply notes on the page and a play is more than the lines in a script, Pereira knows a memorable loaf of bread is more than a good recipe.
The 38-year-old owner of Bon Breads appreciates a good loaf with all five senses, discovering beauty in simplicity and pointing out subtle accents with a brief whiff or tiny nibble.
Asked about his favorite bread of the hundreds of different types his bakery produces for a multitude of Las Vegas restaurants and casinos, including MGM Resorts properties, Pereira grabs a simple baguette off the rack and launches into a passionate treatise on taste and texture.
“The baguette is a simple bread, but if it’s made well you’ll find it has a very complex flavor,” Pereira says.
He digs his thumb into the crust of the baguette, making a quarter-sized indentation. He listens over the hum of the bakery’s constant, 24/7 buzz of activity for just the right crunch.
“See, you have that nice crust? And inside, it’s nice and soft. It’s very special.”
It is here, in his large bakery on Hacienda Avenue just west of Interstate 215, that Pereira is most at home.
“This is where he is happiest. He loves having his hands on the dough,” said his wife, Kathia, as she watched Carlos lean over a round loaf, making final preparations before sliding it into an oven.
When the Pereiras first started, they had an 1,100-square-foot bakery in the middle of a collection of strip clubs on Industrial Road. Carlos did all the work, often sleeping at the bakery, and produced about 100 loaves of bread per week. Today, their facility is 27,000 square feet, and, with approximately 150 employees working around the clock, Bon Breads produces between 50,000 and 70,000 loaves per day.
Gov. Brian Sandoval toured their bakery in March. A few weeks later when addressing a group of Hispanic small-business owners in Las Vegas, Sandoval brought up Bon Breads as an example of a Nevada business that was growing and pointing to better economic times.
“(Carlos Pereira) told me their story of how they came from Peru, and he baked at Caesars. He saw an opportunity to open his own business a little over 10 years ago,” the governor said. “He will soon grow, starting this fall, to 40,000 square feet.”
Becoming the artisan bread provider to casinos from Mandalay Bay to the Stratosphere and restaurants helmed by Wolfgang Puck, Julian Serrano and other famed chefs was not always Carlos’ plan, and it certainly was not what his family or wife expected. In the end, no one could break the hold baking had on him.
He came to Las Vegas from Lima, Peru, when he was 19 to study hotel management at UNLV. A few years earlier, the Peruvian government had approved casinos, and he planned to return to his home and become a casino manager.
Meanwhile, to make extra cash, he got a job at Universal Bakery driving delivery trucks and learning the basics of baking.
Carlos and Kathia had known each other as teenagers. They stayed in touch while Carlos studied at UNLV, and Kathia became a dentist and journalist back in Peru. Then, when they were both 23, Kathia she came to Las Vegas with her aunt for a visit, where she reunited with Carlos. Five days later he proposed.
“I had always wanted to date her,” he said. “So when she came here and things went well, I figured what do I have to lose?”
Against her parents’ wishes, Kathia moved to Las Vegas and married him a few months later.
“My mom told me I was crazy and that they wouldn’t take me back if it didn’t work out,” she said. “Now, they adore Carlos.”
Later, after failing to find openings for casino management positions, Carlos responded to an ad he saw for an artisan baker at Caesars Palace. John Hui, executive pastry chef at Caesars at the time, called him in and asked if he knew anything about artisan baking. Carlos did not.
“I told him the truth, and he said if no one else came in that he’d consider me and he gave me his number. Well, I must have called him 40 times over the next couple weeks,” Carlos recalled.
Hui called him back to his office finally and told him that he couldn’t find any qualified bakers in Las Vegas. So, given Carlos’ persistence, Hui offered to pay for him to take a crash course in artisan baking at the San Francisco Baking Institute.
Instruction at the institute was “brutal,” Carlos said. If a student was not passionate about baking, his teacher would snap his will like a stale breadstick.
“I spent eight hours a day with the head instructor,” he said. “They are all French instructors, and they are very committed. They talk about respecting the bread, respecting the ingredients, respecting the dough and the procedures.
“I thought they were a little bit crazy at first, but little by little I got the passion from them. (The instructor) would scream and yell. He would throw your bread away in front of you if you did a bad job. But I knew what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.”
The founder of the institute, Michel Suas, who is one of Carlos’ mentors now but was not his original instructor, said he remembered Carlos having a particularly stern instructor.
“No one from Caesars but Carlos would put up with the guy,” Suas said from San Francisco. “But Carlos was very devoted and determined. The guy would scream when he did anything wrong and hit him with a little wooden paddle for taking the bread out of the oven. Carlos put up with all of it.”
Both Carlos and Kathia come from “privileged” families in Lima, Kathia said. Their parents are college-educated professionals who stressed the importance of education. Being a baker was not something educated people do in Peru, and when Carlos announced he was switching career paths, neither their parents nor Kathia liked the decision.
“In the Peruvian culture being a baker is for the illiterate,” she said. “If you can’t do anything else, you become a baker.”
Carlos’ mind was made up, though.
“Nothing could move Carlos from the decision, so I supported him,” she said. “And it was the best decision because he wakes up happy every day.”
Carlos took over baking for Caesars and flourished. It was 1998, and Mandalay Bay was getting set to open the following year. The new mega resort tried to poach Carlos from Caesar’s with a pay increase, and he was set to accept until he went to Hui.
“Basically, I told him, ‘If you are going to challenge yourself, why go off to the same level of job at a different hotel? You won’t learn anything new, so why don’t you stay here longer, learn more and open a bakery of your own?’” Hui said.
Carlos accepted the challenge, and the Pereiras opened their bakery six months later, on April 1, 1999.
Kathia was not particularly passionate about dentistry, and she decided to switch paths. She began attending Boyd Law School in 2000, thinking it would serve the business. She entered law school with one child and finished after three years with three children. After receiving her law degree, she worked part-time as an immigration lawyer and as Bon Breads’ bookkeeper.
Neither Carlos nor Kathia were getting much sleep in Bon Breads’ early years.
“The bakery business is not easy,” said Rafael Gonzalez, the owner of Universal Bakery who gave Carlos his first job in Las Vegas. “It’s not as easy as everyone thinks it is. You work long, bad hours. When everyone is partying and having a good time, you are working your butt off to make it. ... The mark-up isn’t that big, and you won’t get rich overnight. You have to have perseverance.”
The Pereiras knew little about running a business in the United States and had no credit. Word of mouth served as their marketing, and they poured everything they earned from the rapidly expanding business back into the bakery. They also got help from their friends.
Suas said he stopped by Carlos’ first bakery after a trade show in Las Vegas. Carlos was so enthusiastic to show Suas what he was doing and discuss baking that Suas missed his flight back to California.
Gonzalez distributed and sold the Pereiras’ breads for them when they first started, helping them get established.
“Carlos always wanted to learn more,” Gonzalez said. “He had a drive to excel and to work hard. So, I helped him when he opened his business because, of course, he didn’t have quite the experience in that department, distribution and sales.”
Carlos believes in his training and his own recipes. He shuns hiring trained bakers for entry-level employees who start at the bottom as janitors. That way he can identify the hard workers and move them up through the ranks, training them in his techniques.
He said Bon Breads could make bread with fewer people, but that would require mechanizing more of the process and sacrificing quality, something he is unwilling to do.
When the Pereiras open their new, 45,000-square-foot facility near Decatur and I-215 at the end of the year, they hope to gradually increase production, adding 50 new employees in the first year, for a total of 200, and adding an additional 100 over the next five years. The Pereiras take pride in the fact they did not lay off any workers during the recession, and they take pains to expand slowly and not put the business in jeopardy.
Eight months ago Bon Breads opened its first retail shop in Town Square, and a second is under construction near Hualapai Way and Desert Inn Road.
In Carlos’ office, the bookshelf is full of manuals on baking and pastry. Every year he visits schools to stay up on the latest techniques, or he travels to other countries to sample breads.
“Carlos has the drive,” Hui said from his new post as head pastry chef at Pebble Beach Resorts. “He always wanted to learn more and succeed. He was not someone who came to work just for the paycheck. He went beyond that and took more of an interest in what he was doing. He was always learning more on his own, reading books and magazines. I’m very proud of Carlos and what he has achieved.”
Kathia, too, never stops moving. Pregnant with their fourth child, she still serves as the company accountant and does pro bono legal work. She talks about going back to school in the future for a master’s of business administration.
These days Carlos is more conductor than soloist, making sure each step of the process is done the way he likes and each loaf leaves the oven just right. What were once 20-hour days are now 12- or 14-hour days. A few years ago, the Pereiras started taking regular vacations.
Carlos coordinates with chefs around the city so he has the right breads for when the seasons and menus change.
“Every chef in town wants their own special and unique dinner roll,” he said with a hint of exasperation.
Many employees have been with Bon Breads for more than a decade, and even though some leave, he is not concerned with someone copying any of his 700 recipes.
“The recipe is only one part of the bread,” he said. “Others won’t have the dedication to use the best ingredients or to sacrifice speed for quality. It’s about what you put into it.”