Wally Choi and Joon Lee are the perfect example of a couple that is able to successfully work together and run a business. The pair met back in New York, where Lee was working as a pastry chef at the Waldorf Astoria. After getting married, Choi, who was originally from California, suggested that Lee bring her culinary talents to the West Coast and open a bakery with him.
“I loved working at the Waldorf,” said Lee. “Whenever a president came to the city, they would stay there. We got to meet and work with chefs from all over the world. I got to meet a lot of people and have a lot of experiences, but after living in New York for 15 years, I was ready to try something new.”
Union Bakery opened its doors in South Pasadena in 2002. The couple had negotiated a spot on Union Street in Old Pasadena, which inspired the name for their business, but that location fell through because there weren’t parking allocations. However, through a stroke of luck they found an available space at the corner of Fair Oaks Avenue and Monterey Road, where they have remained ever since. It also didn’t take long for their fresh baked goods to attract a following.
“We’re known for our laminated doughs, which include croissants and Danish pastries,” explained Choi. “We also do quiches, and we get pretty busy at lunchtime because people like our fresh bread that we use to make sandwiches with. That’s become more of our mainstay business.”
With summer upon us, stone fruits like peaches are readily available, so one can expect that an abundance of tasty treats featuring these seasonal delights will be served up at Union Bakery. Pies, in particular, are a big aspect of the couple’s business. Back in 2002, a writer from the Los Angeles Times wrote a roundup of the best Thanksgiving pies in town and included Union Bakery on that list, which brought in a stream of orders.
“During the holidays, we’re very busy making pumpkin pie,” said Lee. “We’re always busy during special occasions like Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, making cakes and pies. We also do wedding cakes and catering for special events. People like our products because they’re all handmade.”
How does a couple that has been married for 18 years continue to run a successful business? They stick to their designated roles and support one another.
“Wally is in the front, I’m in the back,” Lee pointed out. “He greets the customers, does all of the maintenance and gets the supplies.”
“We work within 20 feet of each other, but there are times when we go hours without interacting that much,” Choi chimed in. “Joon is in charge of production, all of the ingredients, the recipes and executing the product. We love being our own boss. I tell people all the time that 90 percent of stress is given to you by somebody else, and it’s usually your boss or manager. Here, people are happy to see us and we’re happy to see them. We’ve been at it so long that the business sort of runs itself.”
The business employs two to three full-time employees, depending on how busy things are. When the holidays or special occasions occur, the couple will ramp production and staff up accordingly.
It has been 18 years since Lee and Choi made the move to California from New York, and they both agree it was the right decision.
“At first, I hated the idea of moving away from New York, but now I love it here, especially South Pasadena,” said Lee. “I think we have the best weather in the world. Now when we go back to visit New York, I can’t stay there longer than four days.”
“It’s a great town, we love the people, and it’s nice to be here,” added Choi. “At the end of the day, people just like simple things done well. Nothing fancy—it’s just down to basics with good ingredients, and products that are executed well.”
Union Bakery is located at 1138 Fair Oaks Ave. Its business hours are Tues. – Sat. 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sun. 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information call (626) 403-1850.
Union Bakery Business Spotlight appeared in the print edition of the South Pasadena Review on 6.22.18.