Carolina Garcia's LeoNora Gourmet Bakery

Who she is: Carolina Garcia just couldn’t find a proper baguette when she moved to DC. So the native of Colombia—who was trained as an economist and previously worked as an international relations specialist—took the matter into her own hands. Literally.

What she does: She began baking bread and pastries for herself, her friends, her husband. And the crusty, flaky, melt-in-your-mouth morsels were such a hit that Garcia decided to open a bakery in Arlington.

Why she does it: In 2011, LeoNora Gourmet Bakery opened its doors—and bread fans from around the DC region have since been flocking in for french bread, brioche, challah, croissants, madeleines, cakes, and tartalettes.

We recently had the opportunity to stop into the bakery for a fresh chocolate croissant and a chat with Garcia, whose bakery is named in honor of her mother, Leonor, and her aunt, Nora. Scroll down for more.

Interview by Hope Katz Gibbs
Photos by Erika Dimmler

Tell us a little more about why you decided to go from a corporate job as an economist to a food entrepreneur.

Carolina Garcia: I started LeoNora Gourmet Bakery because I have a real passion for food, and a true love for cooking and baking. My culinary training began during my childhood where my mother and aunt were always encouraging me to try new recipes. With their guidance (and a little bit of courage!), I decided to put my culinary passions to work in the business world.

Where did the interesting name for the bakery come from?

Carolina Garcia: My bakery is actually named to honor both of them. My mother is Leonor, and my aunt is Nora. Hence the name, LeoNora.

What is your favorite goody to bake?

Carolina Garcia: I love baking everything! However, the most challenging food to bake is the baguette. Every time that a loaf is perfect, I know it as soon as it comes out of the oven. It gives me an amazing feeling of success.

How did you learn to bake such delicious morsels?

Carolina Garcia: I lived in France for two years, which was magical. When my husband I moved to Northern Virginia for his job, I searched and searched, but could not find the quality of bread that I enjoyed so much in Paris. I started baking my own breads, and this inspired me to learn more about breads and the chemistry involved in the process.

You moved back to France for a while to do this, right?

Carolina Garcia: I did. I figured that if I was going to do it right, I should learn to make baguettes, cakes, and pastries from the masters. So I returned to France and studied under the award-winning Parisian baker, Arnaud del Montel, who in 2007 won the award for the Best Baguette in Paris.

Since then, I have been working with my breads and pastries to improve their flavor, to make them healthier, or just simply make them look better. It is a story that started more than 20 years ago, and today, it is finally taking shape.

Indeed. You have gotten some great reviews, including one saying, “LeoNora’s is a little pocket of Paris, where the smell of baking bread greets you at the door.” You officially opened last December. How has business been going?

Carolina Garcia: Business has been going great, and I really can’t complain. Of course, as with any small business, there are ups and downs. But so far I’m happy with the results. What makes me happiest is to know that the people in the area support local businesses, and they have given us a lot of encouragement and great ideas. When the going gets tough, that inspires me to keep moving forward.

We like to offer advice to others with a big idea, some money to invest, and determination to get their business off the ground. So if you were advising other wanna-be bakers and retailers, what would you tell them? How difficult is it to get a bakery off the ground?

Carolina Garcia: On the day that I decided to start this business, I put an inspirational magnet on my fridge that says: “Shoot for the Moon; even if you miss you will land among the stars.” This is what I have been doing, and it’s comforting to know that if there’s a magnet with this sentiment then I’m not alone.

After all, starting a business is difficult. Every day, you have to face new challenges. But the feeling of success is unique and worth all the work that you have to put into it.

For others hoping to open a bakery, my advice would be to follow your dreams—and have a good business plan under your arm. After all, it is not enough to simply dream about something. You need to have your numbers and strategy clear so you know where you want to go and where you want to be in some years.

I got tremendous support from local organizations such as SCORE, and Arlington Economic Development. But you have to ask questions and find good people inside the government organizations to help guide you. That’s the key.

What has been the most frustrating thing about starting a small business?

Carolina Garcia: Paperwork. There is a TON of it. Being from Colombia, I’m actually impressed by how many forms, applications, fees, taxes, and reviews I have had to do before being able to open LeoNora.

It takes a lot of time, actually. And it’s confusing, frustrating, and complicated. As I was going through this process, I kept thinking that there had to be a better way for Arlington County to be sure all of its businesses are compliant and on the up-and-up.

If the set-up process could have been streamlined, I’d have been able to use my time creating a good strategy and great products. In the end, I think that would have served the County, and especially my customers, that much more.

What is the most exiting thing? And what is your favorite moment so far?

Carolina Garcia: The most exciting thing is to know that you are capable of doing what you set your mind to. I am reassured to know that hard work pays off, and that things done with love make a difference.

My favorite moments since opening the doors of LeoNora come every time that someone leaves the bakery with a smile on his or her face.

*You actually were pregnant during the build-out phase of the business. So now you have two babies! How are you balancing entrepreneurship and motherhood?

Carolina Garcia: It is not easy, and I’m still trying to figure out the balance between working at the bakery and taking care of my new baby.

Fortunately I have a great team that is in charge of the daily production. I have focused on the strategic part of the business, but of course every time I have a chance I go to the bakery to bake some baguettes, breads, and pastries.

So what do you think—can women have it all?

Carolina Garcia: Absolutely! Women can have it all—and more! We just need to trust ourselves and go for it. I truly believe in the philosophy behind the magnet on my frig: “Shoot for the Moon; even if you miss you will land among the stars.”

We can’t thank you enough for taking the time to talk with Be Inkandescent magazine, and for bringing this wonderful taste of Paris to the DC area. We wish you much success!

1108 N. Irving Street, Arlington, VA
703 300-2572

French baguette, $2.50
Belgian chocolate croissant, $2.50
Cinnamon bun, $3.50
12-inch raspberry tart, $40
10-inch spinach Gruyere quiche, $30
Signature LeoNora baguette, $5

Tuesday – Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 7 p.m.
Saturday, 8:30 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m.