Editor’s note: George Izumi died on August 2, 2020 at age 99. Manzanar’s incarcerated life as a baker, small business owner and community leader in Southern California The Rafou in October 2012. Izumi’s family also graciously shared two of their Grace Pastries recipes to cook at home.
Talk to anyone who grew up in the Crenshaw neighborhood of southwest Los Angeles, and they’ll tell you how they remember the sweet aroma that once wafted from the doors of Grace Pastries.
At Grace Pastries, the cake was king; a symbolic reward that came as a result of the hard-earned post-war successes of Japanese-American communities. For every wedding, every graduation, every grand opening or birthday, and especially when a child’s birthday was celebrated, there was a special cake from Grace; a bed of pastel pinks, scalloped buttercream borders, a riot of plastic palm trees or circus clowns.
Weddings are the most superstitious celebrations. And the cake? Well, it’s like any marriage, isn’t it? I won’t say cake is human, but cake is something special.
Mary, former client of Grace Pastries
They were edible trophies for a community finally emerging from the harsh realities of World War II, and for a time it almost seemed like the bakery couldn’t keep up with all the demands.
The original store was a tiny retail space, only 50 feet deep, but the walls were neatly wallpapered and the glass display cases nearly burst with a dizzying array of buttery confections. The staff were always neatly combed and dressed in starched uniforms, ready to greet customers as soon as the doors opened. As the clientele grew exponentially, Izumi expanded to a larger location six blocks away on Jefferson and Crenshaw, right where the J Yellow Car line ended. Within a decade, Grace Pastries had the most fame of any bakery in Los Angeles and eventually had 14 outlets in greater Los Angeles County.
Among his loyal customers was Marian Manaka, who fondly remembers; “My sister and I used to live together right there on Jefferson Boulevard and used to take our two kids in a stroller past all the stores on the way to Grace, where we always had a treat. The dobash cake and oh, the teacakes!” These delightful memories are especially common among the Nisei and young Sansei, who describe a trip to Grace as “the ultimate good,” for a generation hungry for sweet memories that linger.
The founder, George Izumi, is a Nisei – born in Hollywood in 1921 and raised on farms where his father Riyozo grew commercial flowers and vegetables, as the majority of Issei did at the time. He was one of eight children, which taught him to be fiercely independent, and some of his first tasks were learning to hitch the horse to the cart and spread manure in the fields. It was a tough time in America, and the daily meals for a family of ten, let alone a powdered donut, were meager or non-existent.
“In Santa Monica, there was a municipal dump where someone threw all their nut shells, and we kids picked up the shells and ate what we could find. Dad would go fishing and bring back whole bags of bonito and mackerel, with which we would cook shoyu and sato, turn everything into gelatin, and pour over hot rice with cooked beet leaves. I’m also pretty sure my mom would pickle all the fish guts.”
Growing up in the 30s also meant picking up a day-old bag of Wonder Bread that got nice and soft in the steamer and was eaten with oleo or lard if the kids were lucky enough.
Izumi was 18 when the war broke out. The family was sent to Manzanar, where he first worked as a carpenter, but what he really wanted to learn was how to cook. He got a job in Mess Hall #16, which required getting up at 3 a.m. to light the oil stoves. But learning from the Issei men in the kitchen proved slippery: “The Issei just said, a piece of that, a scoop of that – it was always good – but they sure couldn’t tell you how to do it.”
In the end, he says he didn’t learn much since he only cut cookies. And he remembers that the mutton stew stank.
When Nisei’s draft was pieced together, George enlisted from camp, fully prepared for combat training. Once the Army learned of his cooking experience, they sent him to Cooks and Baker’s School at Fort. Meade, Maryland instead. “Learning to cook? It’s not that difficult. Everything is written step by step, you did it. Just like the army – you follow the instructions.”
When the war ended, he found work in Chicago flipping English muffins on a grill and gaining more experience baking bread, cakes and cupcakes before earning enough to return to California in 1946.
From Little Tokyo to Crenshaw (Preview)
George and Grace Izumi (née Kato) began dating in 1948 and were married in 1949 at Nishi Hongwanji Temple in Little Tokyo. The young couple founded Grace Pastry Shoppe on March 13, 1950, six months after the wedding, with a $3,500 loan from Grace’s parents. They acquired second-hand equipment and cleaned and painted the place, pulling 18-hour workdays.
On opening day they took in $25 and the next day $30, and called it lucky if they made $100 a week. They even made wedding cake deliveries in their 1942 Pontiac, with Grace in the back, holding the cake for life. She eventually retired from baking and devoted her time to raising their four children, all with auspicious “G” names: Grayson, Glenda, Garret and Genelle. Grace revealed that even the pets have “G” names, so they don’t feel left out: Gabby the mynah, the cats Gussie, Gigi and Ginny, the dog Gibo, and of course the fish were all Guppies.
According to Izumi, what really saved the bakery from mediocrity and turned it into a real business was knowing the value of improving any product. “You have to have determination to do better,” says Izumi, and for 39 years he persevered and, like the rest of the JA community, made things better than before. During this time, his reputation as a master baker grew.
It takes determination to improve it.
George Izumi of Grace Pastries
He was the only National Association of Retail Bakers to win Gold Cup awards in all 14 categories, and while most assume the popular Dobash layered cake was an invention from Hawaii, it is in makes George Izumi who created it first and brought it to the islands during baking demonstrations. “I made a traditional Dobos pie, which appealed to some Issei ladies, and with their Japanese accent, they asked for this ‘Doba-shi’ because they couldn’t pronounce the Hungarian word.”
Ultimately, these intimate stories linking strawberry pie, coffee danishes, or a cream pastry with so many personal memories, combined with Izumi’s community work, left a lasting impression. Leftover baked goods went to Maryknoll School, he donated to Centenary and Senshin Church, donated a cake every year to Nisei Week and dozens of celebrations and events in the city, and was an active fundraiser for the Yellow Brotherhood.
He also credits the sweat and tears of his staff: Richard Kojima, Managing Director; Tak Teramae, office manager; Bob Wright and Emma Englund, cake decorators; Peggy Nishima; Toggie Nakamoto; all the Sansei girls who got after-school jobs working behind the counter; Kaz Furuto, the original accountant, who would bring dinner to Grace and George so they could keep pushing into the night.
Grace Pastries was sold in 1989 and George Izumi has no complaints. Taking into account his entire history, an American life filled with contradictions, the life of a baker whose toughness and business acumen brought a touch of saltiness with sweetness, we see the essential ingredient of everything that he has done.
“How do I make the tea cakes? A simple cake. You just have to know what you’re doing, that’s all.”
Try baking Grace Pastries’ signature Danish tea cakes with this recipe, provided by George Izumi’s daughter, Genelle Izumi.