The labels first catch the fancy. In this city, where natural food stores outnumber McDonald's, even buying bread can become a complex decision. Faced with burgeoning shelves piled high with virtuous-looking loaves, one is overwhelmed -- despairing, even -- of choosing the best among them.

Then you see a picture of a rabbit tugging a giant carrot onto a streetcar. It's the label on People's Bakery Carrot Scallion Bread. And there's the teddy bear squeezing a slice of bread in an apple cider press. People's Bakery Apple Cider Bread.

Carrots, scallions and apple cider may sound like odd ingredients for morning toast. But one bite will dispel any doubts. The whimsical labels are more than comic relief. What they say is what you taste, and plenty of people in San Francisco think it's great.

The People's Bakery is a 15-member collective that makes some of the most tasty loaves this side of the Rockies with some of the most unusal ingredients ever plopped into a bread pan.

There are nearly two dozen types of People's Bakery Breads, ranging from light breads such as Corn Rye and Triticale Sunflower to denser, sweeter loaves such as Lemon Sesame Date and Hazel's Prune Nut Bread. Each has a unique flavor and aroma that attests to the People's Bakery step-by-step homespun way of bread-baking.

"Most store-brand breads are pumped full of air and chock-full of chemicals," asserts Jim Emmons, 32, one of the original collective members. "They are made from giant bags of pre-mixed batter that's dumped into giant machines. The machines spit out loaves untouched by human hands. Someone just pushes a button."

In contrast, Cooks at the People's Bakery make every loaf from scratch in a tiny kitchen where collective members turn out about 500 loaves each day. Three or four different types of bread are baked every day in addition to Honey Whole Wheat, a People's Bakery staple made daily.

And of course, all ingredients are pure and whole. "We use lemons in our Lemon Sesame Bread, not lemon flavoring," says Emmons. "And we buy our lemons from the farmers who grow them. We buy our apple cider from people who have apple orchards and we buy our honey from people who keep bees."

Another collective member, Katy Marsh, 22, adds, "Natural foods require a lot of attention. But we think the results are worth it."

So do local bread-lovers, who watch for the People's Bakery yellow pickup truck to make its daily climb up the hills of San Francisco to deliver hand-wrapped loaves of fresh-baked bread to natural food stores and small groceries.

Hardcore bread buffs don't wait for the truck. They want to be there when the bread comes out of the oven. Californians from as far away as Santa Cruz flock to the People's Bakery on the day their favorite is to be baked. Some call ahead to reserve as many as 10 loaves. One woman drives in from Marin County and dangles a quartz crystal over each week's batch of orange date loaves. Whichever loaves the crystal swings towards, she buys.

Situated in San Francisco's Hispanic Mission district, the People's Bakery's unobtrusive storefront could easily be missed if it weren't for that unmistakable aroma. Patrons sit sipping coffee and munching pastries; the walls are decked with notices for roommates, lost dogs, tarot readings and Diablo Canyon demonstrations. The comfortable clatter of busy bakers emanates from the kitchen.

Amy Beinart, 24, and Chuck Locker, 37, wheel in a tall rack stacked with oat-flake-studded Nine-Grain Bread, fresh from the oven, to be sliced, bagged and tied for delivery. But Beinart and Locker are soon back in the kitchen. It's 10:30 a.m. on a Monday and they've got to get the Orange Date Bread into the oven. They've been at it since 7 a.m. and there's still a batch of Rye Caraway to bake before they're through.

"I know this must look like something out of 'I Love Lucy,' " Beinart quips as she and Locker upend a three-foot-tall plastic vat so that its contents -- freshly risen dough -- tumbles onto the wooden table top.

But everything in the bakery kitchen is slightly larger than life. Rolling pins are the size of sapling trees. Spices are stored in gallon jars hand-labeled nutmeg, peppermint, cloves, thyme and cinnamon. An ancient enamel-front oven with revolving shelves takes up an entire wall. The equipment size is in proportion to the recipes. Hand-written on well-thumbed index cards, each bread recipe makes 60 to 100 loaves.

Experience is not a requisite for working at the People's Bakery. It's more important that bakery members be committed to the collective process -- creating an unbiased work place for minorities and providing the public with nutritious bread at the lowest possible price. This means no one gets rich working at the People's Bakery. Bakery members only recently voted themselves a raise from $3.35 to $3.75 an hour.

But they have no boss and none of the hierarchy that dictates the pecking order in most bakeries. Everyone has a say in running the business, baking the bread, sharing the profits and bearing the losses.

Emmons, who once worked on a cinnamon roll assembly line in a supermarket bakery, says, "I may as well have been making cars. I was only allowed to do one step. Here everyone gets to make a finished product. Including women. In most bakeries, you never see women bakers. Women are either selling behind the counter or decorating cakes."

The history of the decade-old bakery echoes the history of the counter-culture. In the early '70s, San Francisco's active liberal community had fostered a network of alternative stores, all cooperative ventures that featured organic whole foods at low prices.

Although imbued with typically '60s anti-war, anti-capitalist, anti-racist ideals, most of the collectives were low on accounting skills. They constantly lost money and survived chiefly on volunteer labor.

"People were more willing to do that sort of thing back then. And it was cheaper to live in San Francisco then," recalls Kenny Eason, another long-time Bakery staffer.

One by one, the collectives eventually failed. The crumbling warehouse that housed them was sold. The last store to remain was the People's Bakery, on the verge of bankruptcy itself.

Help came from an unusual source. The Vanguard Foundation, a philanthropic organization made up of millionaires' offspring (including the heir to the Brillo soap-pad fortune), heard about the People's Bakery and came to the rescue. Vanguard pumped in enough money to get the bakery baking again and enabled the collective to rent its present building.

Business is now doing well, bakery members say, although they've had to raise prices considerably to keep pace with their costs.

"Our bread used to sell for as little as 30 cents a loaf in 1976. Now our breads retail for $1.12 to $1.54 a loaf," Emmons says.

Amazingly, the People's Bakery manages to turn out thousands of loaves of bread a week, as well as cookies, pastries, roasted nuts and granola, in a small room with hand-operated 50-year old equipment scrounged from auctions and supply house sales.

But technology will always have its limits when it comes to baking bread at the People's Bakery. "Otherwise, you're no longer a bakery -- you're a factory," Emmons says. Bakery staffers say they would prefer to start more small collective bakeries than to mushroom into ultra-modern mass production. Staying small, they believe, is the only way to turn out the loaves that have such a devoted following in San Francisco.

Here are some of their recipes for making tasty, nutritious bread. HAZEL'S PRUNE NUT BREAD (Makes 3 loaves) 7 1/2 cups whole wheat flour 3 1/4 cups white flour 1/4 cup rolled oats 2 1/2 teaspoons salt 1 1/2 cups chopped or grated coconut (unsweetened) 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg 1 cup chopped hazel nuts 1 1/2 cups liquid malt 1/2 cup molasses 1 cup chopped prunes 3 cakes yeast, or 3 packages active dry yeast 1/4 cup oil

Combine flours, oats, salt, coconut, nutmeg and nuts in a large bowl. In another bowl, combine malt, molasses, prunes and yeast to 2 1/4 cups warm water. Stir to dissolve yeast. Allow it to stand for 10 minutes while you grease three 9-by-5-inch bread pans. Stir oil into yeast mixture, and add it to dry ingredients. Mix until the dough forms a ball. Turn out on lightly floured board and knead 10 to 15 minutes. Place in oiled bowl, turning the dough so that oil coats the surface. Put bowl in oven prehated to its lowest temperature with a bowl of hot water on the bottom shelf. Turn oven off. Allow bread to rise 30 minutes or until double in size. Cut into thirds and shape. Place dough in prepared pans and let rise until dough reaches top edge of pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes. ORANGE DATE BREAD (Makes 3 loaves) 8 cups whole wheat flour 2 tablespoons soy flour 1 3/4 cup gluten flour 3 tablespoons poppy seeds 1 cup oats 1 cup dates, chopped 1 navel (seedless) orange 1 1/2 cups liquid malt 3 cakes yeast, or 3 packages active dry yeast 1/4 cup safflower oil 2 teaspoons salt

Combine flours, poppy seeds, oats and dates. In food processor or blender, grate or chop whole orange, peel and all. Combine orange with 2 cups hot water, malt and yeast. Stir to dissolve yeast. Set aside while you grease three 9-by-5-inch loaf pans. Combine dry and wet ingredients, then stir in oil and salt. Turn out onto lightly floured board and knead 10 to 15 minutes, adding flour as necessary, until dough forms a moist ball. Place in a lightly oiled bowl and turn to coat the surface of the dough with oil. Place in an oven preheated to its lowest temperature and set a pan of water on the bottom shelf. Turn oven off and allow bread to rise until double in size. Cut into thirds, form into loaves and place each in prepared pan. Let rise until dough reaches top edge of pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 50 minutes. APPLE CIDER BREAD (Makes 3 loaves) 8 cups whole wheat flour 1 3/4 cups gluten flour 1 cup sunflower seeds 2 tablespoons cinnamon 2 teaspoons salt 1/4 cup oil 2 1/2 cups apple juice, heated to lukewarm 1 cup liquid malt 3 cakes yeast, or 3 packages active dry yeast

Combine flours, seeds, cinnamon, salt and oil. In another bowl add malt to warm apple juice and stir until thoroughly blended. Then add yeast and mix until yeast dissolved. Set aside while you grease three 9-by-5-inch loaf pans. Add yeast mixture to other ingredients. Turn out onto lightly floured board and knead 10 to 15 minutes, adding flour as necessary. Place in lightly oiled bowl and turn to coat the surface of the dough with oil. Set it to rise in an oven preheated to its lowest temperature. Place a bowl of water on the bottom shelf of the oven and turn the heat off. Let rise 30 minutes or until double in size. Cut the dough in thirds, form into loaves and let rise again in prepared bread pans until dough reaches top edge of pans. Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 45 minutes. EGG CINNAMON BREAD (Makes 3 loaves) 1 1/4 cups honey 2 yeast cakes, or 2 packages active dry yeast 3 cups whole wheat flour 6 1/2 cups all-purpose white flour 2 tablespoons soy flour 2 eggs, beaten 1/4 cup butter, melted and cooled 2 teaspoons salt 2 tablespoons cinnamon 1 egg beaten wih 1 tablespoon water, for wash

Combine honey and yeast with 2 1/4 cups warm water. Set aside. Grease three 9-by-5-inch loaf pans. In a large bowl, combine flours. Beat eggs with butter, salt and cinnamon. Add to yeast mixture. Combine yeast with flours blend thoroughly. Turn out onto floured board and knead 10 to 15 minutes, adding more flour to keep the dough from sticking. Place in lightly oiled bowl, turning to coat the surface of the dough with oil, and place in an oven preheated to its lowest temperature. Place a bowl of water on the bottom shelf of the oven and turn off the heat. Allow bread to rise until double, about 30 minutes. Divide dough into thirds and place in prepared pans. Let rise again until dough reaches the top edge of pans, brush with egg wash. Bake in 350 degree oven for 40 to 45 minutes.