Don Guerra, who has earned a reputation as one of the most celebrated bakers in the nation, is up for a James Beard Award next month.
Guerra, founder and owner of Barrio Grains and Barrio Bread, has come a long way since baking bread out of his garage in 2009. Besides a planned expansion of his midtown bakery, Guerra has launched two projects with the celebrated team behind El Charro.
This is the third time Guerra has been nominated for a James Beard Award, the “Oscars of food.”
“There is something to this three, three is my lucky number,” said Guerra who was previously nominated for a Beard Award in 2019 and 2020. Guerra is up against four other contenders in the outstanding baker category. The winner will be announced on June 13 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
“I am super pumped for this,” said Guerra. “It’s exciting. I love this thing because I love to see energy in our community.”
Guerra is up for the award based on his Natural Love and Bread, which uses local grains and an ancient French sourdough technique without sugars or oils. The result is deliciously fluffy and hearty loaves that sell out at his shop in Broadway Village at the corner of Country Club Road and Broadway Blvd.
Guerra and his bread have been celebrated in national publications, with The New York Times calling him “a leader of the local-grain movement in Tucson” who “challenges others to reimagine craft baking with an eye towards Latino and Indiginous roots.”
As he wants to find his ingredients within 100 miles of Tucson, Guerra’s need for local grains has helped Southern Arizona growers develop a market for locally grown grain. He recruits farmers to plant grain through a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant under the Sustainable Agricultural Research Education (SARE) program.
By seeking local ingredients, Guerra says he’s proud to support a local and greener economy.
“I am most passionate about the work I do, connecting people and being a part of a community,” Guerra said. “My genetic makeup is this bread.”
Guerra, 51, has been making this style of bread for roughly three decades.
After graduating high school in Phoenix, he got an academic scholarship for the University of Arizona. He was the first in his family to go to college and described himself as a kinesthetic visual learner, so attending traditional university courses was challenging at times and he ended up dropping out, although he says that his self-development at the university was helpful for his future.
Guerra started baking bread professionally when he was just 20 years old, landing a job at Boulders Resort in Scottsdale in the early ’90s. Guerra got an itch to learn about making European-style bread. He spent hours in the library searching for books on bread and baking.
Guerra eventually found Arizona Bread in Scottsdale and helped build a bakery for a family that wanted to incorporate European style bread. While assisting with this project, he enrolled in Paradise Valley’s Community College’s one-year intensive business program. Guerra would wake early in the morning to attend his classes, then would bake bread all throughout the night on four hours of sleep.
After he graduated from the business program, he moved to Flagstaff to start a bakery with a business plan that he wrote when he was 23 years old. By the time he was 27, Guerra was the owner of two bakeries with 40 employees in two states, Arizona and Oregon. He ended up selling both bakeries because he was overwhelmed running two businesses at such a young age.
Guerra moved back to Tucson in 2001. He missed the sunsets, sunny weather, and, most importantly, the people. He had a vision for a new bakery in Tucson.
But when Guerra moved back here, he took a detour from baking. He went back to the UA to study teaching. His wife was a teacher, so he thought he would give it a try. He went to work for the Tucson Unified School District in 2002. It was one of the best things he could have done, he says. Working as a teacher made him realize that he really wanted to be a baker.
In 2009, Guerra left his teaching job and founded Barrio Bread in his garage. He was making about 900 loaves of bread a week using an Italian deck oven.
“Everyone thought it was this crazy idea, but I am a dreamer,” Guerra says. “What you can think of and dream up, I want to live as a reality.”
The business took off. Soon he had his Broadway Village storefront (which he’s looking to expand in the near future.) The bread on the bakery’s shelves sold out regularly and before long, he was supplying it to local restaurants.
He recently joined forces with the Flores family that runs Tucson’s El Charro restaurants for two projects: Barrio Charro, which features “tortamano” sandwiches, as well as The Monica, a new downtown venture.
Carlotta Flores, the owner and executive chef at El Charro Café, had a simple answer when asked when she wanted to go into business with Guerra: “Why not Don?”
Carlotta Flores says Guerra shares her love of giving back to the community. “He is not only a master at what he does, but a gentleman.”
Guerra anticipates more side projects and is increasingly eager to work with other people.
“I’m usually one step ahead,” he says. “I get on that wave just right and I ride it.”
While many restaurateurs struggled during the pandemic, Guerra says it actually helped his business. Nine months before COVID hit, Guerra had video modules up and running on his website for people to learn about how to make Natural Love and Bread.
With a shortage of bread on store shelves at the beginning of pandemic, those lessons were embraced by Tucsonans who were mostly stuck at home, so they had time to experiment with baking. He had hundreds of thousands of pounds of flour to share with the community.
Guerra is a big supporter of hyper-localism and simply prepared foods with fewer ingredients. The pandemic and, more recently, problems with supply chains have put a focus on locally prepared alternatives.
Guerra has also found time to spread the gospel of his bread-making techniques. He’s given talks around the world in Mexico, Taiwan, Poland and elsewhere on his baking process and lessons he’s learned about cultivating local grains.
Guerra says that his biggest goal is to leave a legacy of grain growing and food production with local grains in Tucson with the hope that people embrace those techniques long into the future.
“It’s important to be a knowledge keeper, but also give other people knowledge and share it forward,” he says.
Guerra says hard work and passion started his journey, but it’s the support of the Tucson community that has brought him success. “I was the creator of it,” he says, “but it has to live on its own.”
While the last five years has been a whirlwind, Guerra expects the next five will be even bigger.
“I have this beautiful career,” he says. “I had no idea what happened. It was all bread.”
Listen to Don Guerra talk about his path to success on The Prickly Pair, a new Tucson Weekly podcast featuring conversations about food in Southern Arizona hosted by Tucson Weekly staff reporters Nicole Feltman and Alexandra Pere. Find it on the usual podcast platforms as well at TucsonWeekly.com.
Follow Don Guerra on Instagram @barriobaker. Visit Barrio Bread’s website at barriobread.com to get more information on Guerra’s bread and grain.