Nearly 40 years ago in a small province outside of Manila called Cavite, a line of hungry people gathered near a modest food stall where they waited, peering through its windows and tapping on the glass, to buy pandesal, a Filipino bread traditionally eaten for breakfast.
They waited for Prescilla Tolentino, then 25, to open Gemmae Bake Shop, the first of the budding entrepreneur’s 13 locations established throughout the Philippines over the next decade.
In 1990 Prescilla had closed all but the original shop in Bacoor, Cavite, and moved to Long Beach—her older brother was already living on the westside. Three years later, she opened Gemmae Bake Shop in a strip mall at 1356 W. Willow St.
Tolentino moved to the U.S. in pursuit of a better life for her and her family, feeling that there were more opportunities here for running a business, as well as more opportunities available for her children to pursue their own dreams.
Twenty-five years later, Gemmae Bake Shop still operates out of the same location, using the same family recipes, while Tolentino, now 64, is training her 32-year-old daughter, Catherine Tolentino—who grew up in the store—to run the shop so Tolentino can soon retire.
“My mom made up the name [Gemmae] because she wanted something really unique, something that people would ask questions about,” Catherine said. “So she took her zodiac sign, which is Gemini, and her birth month, May, and she combined them together.”
Gemmae specializes in traditional Filipino foods, including pandesal, which is baked fresh every day.
Top: Joanna Della serves daing na bangus, fried fish, at Gemmae Bake Shop. Bottom: Pepper steak and rice served at Gemmae Bake Shop. Photos by Thomas R. Cordova.
“Definitely what makes us stand out is that all of our breads and pastries are handmade,” Catherine said. “You can definitely taste the difference in the finished product. A bread that’s machine-made versus a bread that’s handmade, there are certain things that humans can do that machines can’t necessarily do. We’re very conscious about that and I think our customers appreciate it.”
While pandesal is the bakery restaurant’s anchor product, it’s actually baking cakes where Tolentino’s passion lies.
“The pandesal, that’s our daily necessity in my country,” she said. “So I have to have that, it’s like a bait, and then second is the cake.”
A passion that has been passed down to her daughter who says her favorite confection to make at Gemmae is “sans rival,” a cake with a crunchy texture, made with layers of chopped cashews in meringue, and buttercream.
“The story of that cake, I believe, is originally cashews were expensive in the Philippines, so it was something that people would only eat during the holidays,” Catherine said. “I really like making our sans rival because it’s different and it’s so good I always end up snacking on it.”
Their least traditional offering perhaps is a seasonal “ube cheesecake,” combining what is considered a very American dessert with a purple sweet potato native to the Philippines.
The shop doesn’t just serve up sweets.
Traditionally, adobo is pork immersed in a stock made with vinegar, garlic, peppercorns and soy sauce, but the Tolentinos prefer making a variation called adobong puti, or white adobo, which replaces the soy sauce with sea salt.
For newcomers to Filipino cuisine, Catherine recommends trying their pork or chicken adobo, lumpia, a savory fried snack similar to an egg roll usually eaten with a sweet and sour sauce and pancit, a stir-fried noodle dish.
There’s also dinuguan, or pork soaked in pig’s blood resulting in a chunky, almost black, stew that’s not for the faint of heart. Other foods include a Filipino breakfast staple, daing na bangus, marinated and fried milkfish and pork afritada, a dish resembling menudo.
One of Catherine’s favorites is kare kare, oxtail cooked in a creamy peanut sauce and served with mixed vegetables on white rice.
“It’s just really creamy, really comforting,” she said. “And I don’t think there’s anything really like it in other cultures.”
Although the family-run eatery has survived for a quarter-century with a regular clientele the Tolentinos consider family—including their staff, most of who have been working there for a decade or more—in January Gemmae underwent an expansion and an interior makeover, and over the past couple of years has seen an 8 percent increase in sales.
Catherine says their growing popularity is a sign of the times, but she has made it a point to generate new business by reaching out to a younger crowd, as well as different nationalities.
“I think it’s that a lot more people are becoming familiar with Filipino food,” Catherine said. “And there’s been an uptick of Filipino chefs coming up and creating their own restaurants. A lot of them are in L.A.”
She referred to LASA, a Los Angeles-based pop-up-turned-restaurant owned and operated by second-generation Filipino-American brothers, which was recognized as a 2018 Food & Wine Restaurant of the Year. There’s also local Chef AC Boral who hosted Rice & Shine last year, a series of pop-ups held in partnership with local food promoter Dine LBC highlighting Filipino dishes with a contemporary twist.
There was also the inaugural Long Beach Filipino Festival in May where, when the food lines became too long, attendees migrated a half mile from Silverado Park to Gemmae to eat before returning to the event.
“It was like a second Filipino fest in here,” Catherine said.
After nearly four decades running multiple bake shops—at one point with 120 employees—Prescilla says she’s exhausted. However, Catherine, who has been learning the ins and outs of the shop’s differing departments, from cake making to crunching numbers with the goal of eventually taking on her mother’s responsibilities, jokes that Prescilla will never stop working.
“She loves this business so much,” Catherine said. “My mom is never going to retire. She’s going to roll up in here every single day as long as she has legs.”
Catherine, who was born in the Philippines but moved with her family to Long Beach when she was 2, started going back to visit her native country in 2007. Since then she’s traveled back every year because it still feels like home. After earning a degree in communications and building that career, it wasn’t until a couple years ago that she and her mom decided the future of the business would be placed in Catherine’s hands.
“I think from a very young age I sort of knew that I wanted to do this,” Catherine said. “I was maybe 7 when I started coming here and helping out in the kitchen. I would be doing the grunt work, sifting flour and cracking eggs, but I loved it and I would do it every summer, anytime I had free time after school.”
Prescilla’s advice for running a bakery is simple.
“You should know the business to be in the business,” she said. “But number one is this: love. That’s the only secret.”
Gemmae Bake Shop is located at 1356 W. Willow St.