An immigration audit disrupted operations at a San Diego bakery so much so that the business "had no choice but to close," the owners said Wednesday.
Customers of Con Pane Rustic Breads & Café on Dewey Road at Liberty Station were in absolute shock to learn about the sudden closure of the popular bakery known for its artisan bread, scrumptious cookies, and mouth-watering sandwiches.
The bakery, which opened 20 years ago, posted a message on its Facebook page letting patrons know that its final day in business would be Wednesday, Jan. 15.
According to the social media post, an audit by the Department of Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Immigration and Naturalization Service revealed a number of employees at the bakery were unauthorized to work in the U.S. The post said the bakery had no knowledge of this prior to the ICE audit.
"The discovery of a large number of unauthorized workers has so disrupted operations we have had no choice but to close,” the Facebook post said.
NBC 7 reached out to ICE for comment on this audit. The agency said it does not confirm audits on specific businesses or locations, but did release this statement:
“We continue to expect employers and state officials to comply with federal law, established by the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA) of 1986, which requires employers to verify the identity and work eligibility of all individuals they hire. ICE is the federal agency responsible for enforcing these laws, which were set up to protect jobs for U.S. citizens and others who are lawfully employed and to eliminate unfair competitive advantages for companies that hire an illegal workforce. ICE’s worksite enforcement investigators help combat worker exploitation, illegal wages, child labor, and other illegal practices.”
According to ICE, the agency is currently stepping up efforts to “enforce the laws that prohibit businesses from hiring illegal workers.”
Under federal law, ICE said employers must verify the eligibility of all employees and document that information via the Employment Eligibility Verification Form I-9.
A notice of inspection from the agency lets a business know that ICE is going to audit their hiring records to determine if the business is following the law.
Employers must then produce their company’s I-9 forms within three business days, ICE said. After that point, the agency conducts an inspection for compliance.
“If employers are not in compliance with the law, an I-9 inspection of their business will likely result in civil fines and could lay the groundwork for criminal prosecution, if they are knowingly violating the law,” the agency said.
ICE said its three-pronged approach to making sure workers are authorized – compliance, thorough I-9 inspections, civil fines and referrals for debarment – is meant to focus on “the criminal prosecution of employers who knowingly hire illegal workers” and “encourage compliance with the law.”
ICE said any workers found to be unauthorized during these audits are subject to administrative arrest and removal from the country.
Comments from disappointed Con Pane customers flooded social media following the bakery's big announcement. As of noon, the thread on the Facebook post had nearly 500 comments.
“You make my favorite cinnamon rolls—the best in San Diego! I’m so bummed,” one customer wrote.
“I’m so very sad about this. We treasured our times here,” another chimed in.
“OMG, I drive from Tijuana, put up with border crossing traffic all the way to Point Loma for your incredible cinnamon rolls!” wrote another patron.
At the bakery Thursday, the windows and doors were covered up with brown paper. The doors were closed.
All morning, would-be patrons walked up to the entrance, thinking they’d be having breakfast there only to learn the café was permanently closed.
Many left heartbroken and baffled, since the bakery was typically buzzing with patrons.
“I’m really surprised,” customer Oliver Selwyn told NBC 7. “They were doing a thriving business; always busy. Great products.”
“It’s a local institution,” he added. “Every morning people would go there, have their coffee, get breakfast. It’s definitely going to be mourned, I would say.”
“We pulled up hungry and ready for a lovely breakfast,” said Myra Macnofsky. “I was going to get my Point Loma Boule and it’s closed. And I can’t believe it. This is a very successful enterprise; it’s always crowded.”
“Everybody’s happy, there are lines everywhere. I’m heartbroken for everybody,” she added, wiping away tears.
Longtime customer Susan Flieder had seen chatter of the bakery’s closure online, but felt like she had to drive to the bakery Thursday to see it with her own two eyes.
“We love this place and I just wanted to see for myself if it was really true,” Flieder told NBC 7. “And, sadly, it looks like it is. Everyone is so disappointed and heartbroken; it’s really sad.”
A mini makeshift memorial could be seen near the bakery’s front door Thursday, where flowers and a card had been left behind.
The last of the fresh bread was being wheeled away from the café, set for wholesale delivery.
NBC 7 tried to contact Con Pane owner Catherine Perez Thursday, but we have not yet heard back from her.
Con Pane first opened on Rosecrans Street in 1999, then moved to its home at Liberty Station in 2010.
NBC 7 profiled the bakery more than 10 years ago, sharing the story of how owner Catherine Perez left her career as financial analyst to pursue her passion for making the perfect bread.
She accumulated enough money, wrote up a business plan, learned her craft from a master baker and set up shop.
And, over its two decades in business, the bakery saw a real rise.
The chalkboard menu included sweet treats like orange sugar buns, brioche cinnamon rolls and, of course, what the bakery is famous for: that bread. Rosemary Olive Oil, Raisin and Hazelnut, Pain au Levain and more came fresh from the ovens daily.
The bakery’s Facebook post ended with heartfelt thanks.
“We have shared stories and made dear friends and we have lost dear friends. Please know that we thank and appreciate and will miss each and every one of you.”
And lastly, a bit of sound advice.
"…always remember…eat more bread.”