Premises of bakery selling 20-cent loaf shut down by health officials

Owners play down closure as fears of commercial war grow

A line of people outside one of José Navarro's outlets in Quart de Poblet. / tcastro (EL PAÍS)

The mastermind behind the "Valencia bread wars" has lost the mother ship. On December 21, the regional health department shut down José Navarro's main bakery in Ribarroja as a "precautionary measure."

These premises baked most of the 50,000 loaves that were delivered each day to other branches in the Valencia area. Navarro's bread had become famous in the region because it was being sold at 20 cents, a quarter of the regular price at other bakeries. As a result, people were standing in line for hours to buy his cheap baguettes.

The competition had accused Navarro of selling at a loss and of starting a price war that would signal the demise of many small bakeries in Valencia.

"On Monday, January 14, the establishment remained shut," confirmed a spokesperson at the health department. No explanation was provided regarding the reasons for the closure, its duration or whether there will be any fines.

Navarro's firm is playing down the incident, saying it involves a metal door that needs to be placed between the building and the outside, as a result of the "transformation" of the premises to increase production capacity. Spokespeople said they trust the problem will be solved by next week, and that the closure will not affect delivery to company branches in Quart de Poblet, Torrent, Gandia and Vilamarxant, which serve 6,000 clients every day.

One baker in the Valencian neighborhood of Cabanyal admitted that some workers from the competition have been acting as scouts

To ensure supply, Navarro's firm has subcontracted four small bakeries in Paterna, Silla and Torrent to bake his bread while the Ribarroja headquarters remain shut.

But sources in Navarro's immediate circle said that the health department's move is just a new chapter in an ongoing commercial war. "They're coming after us," said one person, in reference to pressure from the nearly 800 traditional bakeries in Valencia province. These sources feel they are victims of a campaign and say their premises are getting an average of one inspection a week from the commerce, labor and health departments, when the industry average is one every two months.

The sector's largest interest group, Fegreppa (Federación Gremial y Empresarial de Panadería), which represents 680 traditional bakeries in Valencia, denies inciting the inspections or pressuring Navarro's flour providers.

"We didn't lodge any complaint with the Generalitat [Valencian government] to find out what conditions at Navarro's company are," says Fegreppa president Baltasar Vicente, who added he has several reports proving that it is impossible to produce bread at 20 cents per loaf.

These documents allegedly conclude that the cost of making a 190-gram loaf of bread, excluding energy and labor costs, is around 40 cents. "Not even large supermarkets can sell that cheaply," says Vicente, who would not produce the documents, alleging they are part of a report that his organization will soon present to the Generalitat.

Navarro's competitors at Quart de Poblet and Torrent have lost a fourth of their custom since the 20-cent bread went on sale, said industry sources. One baker in the Valencian neighborhood of Cabanyal admitted that some workers from the competition have been acting as scouts, checking to see whether Navarro's establishments meet all hygiene and labor standards. "Tension is running high," he said.

Meanwhile, Navarro is forging ahead with his expansion strategy. After opening a low-cost bakery in Vilamarxant, he now plans to open an average of two more each month in Valencia province, hire 200 new workers and seek providers abroad to guarantee supply.

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