El Paisano bakery shares Mexican culture with community – The Breeze


Hugo Santiago arrives at his shop at 3 a.m. to start making bread. Typically, it takes 30 minutes to prepare it and another 30 for it to bake. The sweet smell of the loaves lingers all day as they sit on the silver racks in the store.

Three hours later, Santiago and his wife, Berenice Rodriguez, open the store. As customers come in, the bell atop the door rings, and they’re hit with the smell of the freshly baked items. 

Rodriguez and Santiago opened El Paisano Bakery in downtown Harrisonburg in October with the goal of bringing something they love to the community. The couple met each other in Mexico when they were seven years old. As children, they didn’t see themselves opening a bakery, but as they got older, they wanted to spice things up.

“My husband was working for another bakery, and he got tired of working for someone else and not getting what he was supposed to be getting for his job,” Rodriguez said. “He decided to quit the other job, and we planned for a month to open the bakery, and we started looking for places and luckily, we found this location.”

Rodriguez has been in the restaurant business since she was young. She grew up in the kitchen her family owns — a traditional Mexican restaurant called Jalisco’s. She also worked as a waitress prior to opening El Paisano, but she wanted the chance to manage her own business.

Rodriguez moved to the states from Mexico when she was nine. This was a huge change since she didn’t know any English. Although she’s more comfortable speaking Spanish, the help she provides customers — finding the right products and describing each one to them — has given her a chance to practice speaking English.

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“When we came to the states, we wanted to open something for us so our family can move forward in life,” Santiago said. 

The bakery serves Mexican-inspired desserts like Tres Leches and breads like Mexican sweet bread. Some have jam inside, while others may be topped with butter and coated in sugar. Their most popular one, La Concha, is a not-so-sweet bread with a sugary paste on top. It’s made to pair with coffee or milk.

Family plays a large role in making El Paisano function. Since the bakery is open seven days a week, Rodriguez and Santiago spend the majority of their time there. Rodriguez’s sister, Dayanna Rodriguez Zambrano, runs the store on the weekends so Rodriguez and Santiago can spend time with their children. 

“I love when people come in and they don’t know what type of breads we have,” Dayanna said. “It’s fun informing them about our culture and sharing the things I grew up with.”

Rodriguez cherishes having the ability to work with her husband. She enjoys spending time with him while watching him do something he loves. The couple has two kids who come in on weekends to watch their parents. 

“When they come here, they love watching their dad make all the breads, and they ask if they can help,” Rodriguez said. “When they grow up, they’re going to love doing this and maybe open their own business in the future.”

Not only do they have the ability to work together, but they’re also able to provide for their family. Having the bakery has allowed them to show their family and kids what they can accomplish in life.

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“We never imagined that we would have a bakery,” Rodriguez said. “Having our own bakery tells our kids that they will have something when they get older and will understand what it’s like to be a part of a family bakery.” 

Later down the road, the couple hopes to open stores in other parts in Virginia, and they want to be able to show their family in Mexico the business they’ve created.

“We want to expand to Northern Virginia, especially Manassas because of how big the area is,” Santiago said. “I want to be able to show my grandparents and parents what we have accomplished here in the States.”

Contact Talia Davis at davisty@dukes.jmu.edu. For more on the culture, arts and lifestyle of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities, follow the culture desk on Twitter @Breeze_Culture.




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