Rising Prices, Shrinking Paychecks Challenge Bakery

A worker sweeps up around the few scattered tables and chairs in Elim's bakery in New London as customers put in their lunch orders for a Cuban sandwich or a dish of tamales and toasted bread. Some add a cup of bread pudding or a slice of milk cake for dessert.

Isabel Castillo, a native of Guatemala, and her husband, Solomon, work seven days a week in their Bank Street eatery, baking sweet bread and cheese sticks and making quesadillas and tacos.

They are struggling, and like other small businesses, have seen wholesale costs rise and customers with less money to spend.

Three months ago they started offering 99-cent breakfast sandwiches and a smaller $3.95 lunch sandwich. The ovens get turned on early in the morning and the day's baking is done by 11 a.m., to save on gas. They buy only products they need immediately. They'd like to hire more help, but can't.

"If things get worse, we'll have to think of other things to do," says Castillo, speaking through a translator. "For now we are just surviving."

A bag of bread flour that in 2006 cost $17 is now $52. Semolina flour went from $21 a bag to $73.

"All the prices have gone up; sugar, cheese, meat, oil, vegetables," says Castillo, who opened the bakery three years ago.

Michael Ortiz of Norwich, who took a job as a driver for American Ambulance after he and 11 coworkers were laid off from a radio station in Farmington, often stops in the bakery for a to-go lunch. He has a new house with a mortgage payment and a new baby, and he appreciates the low prices.

Marina Rodriguez of New London, who cleans offices at Mohegan Sun Casino, stops in the bakery daily for a loaf of bread.

She says, through a translator, "It's a way to keep some sort of comfort."

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