Lizette and Marisol Espinoza opened Pan Artesanal in 2018. Marisol, a graduate from the French Pastry School, is in charge of coming up with the bakery’s offerings, while Lizette handles the administrative part of the business.
The Día de los Muertos Treat That Draws Lines Down the Block
November 6, 2023
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For the Espinoza sisters, the time leading up to Día de los Muertos is one of the busiest seasons of the year. As co-owners of Pan Artesanal, a bakery in Logan Square that combines French techniques with Mexican traditions, they estimate that they will sell 2,500 pieces of pan de muerto just this year.
Photographer Gonzalo Guzman visited the bakery the week leading up to the holiday to see what has customers lining up down the block for a taste of their pastries.
Pan Artesanal is only open on the weekends from 8:00 am until they sell out, typically around noon each day. Customers like Maricela and her visiting family line up an hour before opening in order to ensure they get a sweet treat.
Elizabeth Ramirez dropped by the weekend before to try the bakery’s pistachio pan de muerto and had to come back for more, this time bringing her parents along. They arrived at 7:40 am and were fifteenth in line.
When Pan Artesanal first opened, Lizette Espinoza said there wasn’t anything like it in Logan Square. It was a bit of a struggle. Some customers weren’t familiar with the French offerings while others complained about the prices. “French pastries are not cheap, especially if you want quality,” said Lizette.
After a year, business improved as the bakery was featured in various newspapers and on TV. People began to appreciate both the French and Mexican pastries at the bakery, and now customers come from all over the world.
While the bakery is only open for retail on the weekends, preparation takes all week. Inventory is taken on Monday, and baking for the following weekend starts Tuesday. Each week they make about 1,200 pastries, not including the pan de muerto.
For the highest quality pastries, the Espinoza sisters import butter from France and other ingredients from Mexico.
Pan de muerto represents the body, soul, and brain of a person who has passed away, according to Lizette. It is typically flavored with orange zest, which represents the aroma of the soul. Pan Artesanal went through over 300 oranges to flavor their dough this season.
The bone shapes that decorate the pan de muerto are rolled out by hand by bakers like Maggie Ortega. Even though the repetitive motion on your hands can be tiring, according to Marisol Espinoza, there is no other way to get the shape right.
Pan Artesanal is unique in its offering of multiple flavors of pan de muerto. The Espinozas brainstorm new flavors in September, then start selling pan de muerto at the end of the month to see how customers respond. This year there are thirteen varieties, from the classic sesame seed to two new flavors, tres leches and fresas con crema (strawberries and cream).
Each pan de muerto is topped with a hand-painted face made of inedible cookie dough that hardens in the sun. The faces are ordered from Oaxaca, Mexico months in advance.
Pan Artesanal’s pan de muerto cruffin is another seasonal offering and a prime example of the bakery’s blending of French and Mexican pastries. It is still flavored with orange zest and features the design of the pan de muerto, but is made with a croissant dough.
Día de los Muertos is a time to remember loved ones who have passed away. Families build ofrendas or altars decorated with pictures, marigolds, candles, and favorite items of the deceased. Pan de muerto is often prominently featured.
While some people buy pan de muerto for their ofrendas, many were picking them up from Pan Artesanal to simply enjoy with their families. Rosa Garcia said the bakery’s version is the only one that tastes like what she had growing up. Biting into it brings back memories of her mom with her five kids sitting at the kitchen table all enjoying pan de muerto.
Since pan de muerto is a limited seasonal treat, many customers bought multiple pieces to savor. Andreina drove over from Midway to pick up nutella, pistachio, and almond varieties after hearing about the bakery on Facebook.
For others the season and treat is a way to get back in touch with their own heritage. Marco, a resident of the neighborhood, brought his daughter Angie to pick up some pan de muerto. He didn’t grow up celebrating Día de los Muertos, but wants to feel more in sync with his culture and bring awareness to his daughter.
A week’s worth of work is gone within just a few hours, but it’s worth it for the Espinoza sisters.
“Showing our tradition at the bakery with the pan de muerto, it’s actually something wonderful,” said Lizette. “That’s why we put so much love, so much time into the pan de muerto. We want when they bite into the bread for their memories to come back to life.”