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Baking business success

Family-owned Haitian bakery a pillar in Mattapan community

Yawu Miller
Yawu Miller is the former senior editor of the Bay State Banner. He has written for the Banner since 1988.... VIEW BIO
Baking business success
Le Foyer Baker owner Edna Etienne (2nd from right) with daughter Letzy Etienne, granddaughter Edna Etienne and daughter Sarnia Etienne.

As a Haitian immigrant working in Boston in the 1970s, Edna Etienne was determined that her children would not have to struggle as hard as she and her husband did. Then, one night in 1976, Etienne woke up in the middle of the night and nudged her husband awake.

“I said, ‘Let’s start a bakery,’” she recalls. “He said, ‘Woman, are you crazy?’”

The next morning, Etienne woke with the determination to see her project through. Two weeks later, she flew home to Port Au Prince to take courses in baking at a culinary school her sister ran. There she learned how to make cakes and bread. When she returned, she found an 800-square foot space at the corner of Morton and Corbett Streets.

Using her savings, she bought the ovens, refrigerator, trays and display cases she would need for the baker. Her husband Andre built counters.

“We never borrowed a penny,” she says. “I’m very…”

“Frugal,” her daughter Sarnia cuts in.

“I’m not frugal,” she continues.

“She’s financially conservative.”

“I’m very disciplined,” Edna says. “In whatever field you’re in, if you’re not disciplined, you’re not going to make it.”

By all accounts, Edna Etienne has made it. Her bakery, now in a building she owns at the corner of Blue Hill Avenue and Babcock streets, is a gathering spot for the Haitian and Mattapan community. Many are drawn by the bakery’s specialty — traditional Haitian flakey puff pastries filled with beef, chicken or salted fish.

At 10 a.m. on a weekday morning a line snakes from the entrance to the register as Edna Etienne, two of her three daughters and one granddaughter work in the bakery’s 8-by-10-foot office. The largest section of the brick building Etienne had built for Le Foyer is occupied by the 15 employees who are busy kneading dough and preparing pastries at neat rows of work tables covered in flour.

Getting started

In the early days, Edna Etienne put in long hours to establish her business, waking up at 3 a.m. and starting work at 4. Throughout the day, she would take breaks to bring her children lunch at the nearby St. Matthews Catholic school, then picking them up at 2 p.m. “I would bring them to the bakery to study,” she says. Afternoons and evenings, her late husband, a copy editor at the Boston Globe, would come by to help.

Her days would end between 8:30 and 9 p.m.

Although the neighborhood was a hot spot for crime in the early ’80s, with members of the Corbett Street gang amping up the gun violence in Mattapan, Etienne, who was known to give local children free pastries, says the teens left her alone.

“One night an old lady came by and said, ‘What are you doing here by yourself,’” Etienne recalls. “I said, ‘I’m not alone. My angels are with me.’”

In 1986, Etienne and Andre, who by then was full-time at the bakery, secured a loan for $59,000 to purchase the bakery’s current location and build out a 5,000 square-foot space. Eight years later, Andre died after suffering complications from a routine surgery. He had worked with Etienne up until five days before his death.

“It was the turning point for everything in our life. We learned to…” she says, her voice trailing off.

“Keep going,” adds in daughter Letzy Etienne. “We had to keep going.”

“It was at that point that the business became more than just a part of the family. It was part of the community.”

The steady stream of customers continued weekdays and on weekends, when many in the Haitian community gathered to talk about sports, current events and politics. That tradition has continued. And Le Foyer has become an important stop on the itinerary of candidates and elected officials. Mayor Martin Walsh visited the bakery earlier this month.

“Le Foyer really has become a pillar of the community in Mattapan and particularly in the Haitian community,” said state Sen. Linda Dorcena Forry. “Everyone goes to Le Foyer. There are other Haitian bakeries, but Le Foyer led the way.”

Much has changed in the Mattapan community since La Foyer first opened its doors nearly 40 years ago. The city’s Haitian community has grown from several dozen families to tens of thousands in Boston and across the state. Many come from the far reaches of New England to stock up on the patties that have continued to be a staple of the business.

And Edna Etienne is still in her office every day.

“Whatever is happening here, I have my hands in it,” she says. “The bakery is my bakery.”

And she’s happy to know it’s also very much a part of her daughters’ lives.

“I’m happy to know that if I die, things in the bakery will keep going,” she says.

Beginning July 16, Le Foyer will celebrate 40 years in business. During the celebratory week, the bakery will feature throw-back pastries that have been featured over the course of 40 years.