After finishing her favorite Cuban sandwich from Porto’s Bakery & Cafe in Downey, Monica Oviedo becomes giddy when she learns the Los Angeles institution is days away from opening in Orange County.
“I’ve already clocked how long it’s going to take me – 15 minutes,” said Oviedo, of La Habra, who’s been trekking to Porto’s bakeries in Los Angeles for 16 years.
When the long-anticipated Buena Park café opens Wednesday with actor Andy Garcia at the ribbon cutting, expect epic lines. Over its 46-year history in Los Angeles, the Cuban bakery has earned a reputation for serving addictive – and dirt cheap – sweet and savory baked goods.
Porto’s expansion to Orange County, and next year to West Covina, comes as Cuba has seized a moment in the pop culture zeitgeist.
Former President Obama reestablished diplomatic relations between the U.S. and Cuba in 2015. The death of Fidel Castro in 2016 helped accelerate the diplomatic thaw. Travel is again permitted to the once-forbidden island nation. And now Cuban Americans – and even boxes of Porto’s treats – are at the center of a Netflix reboot of “One Day at a Time.”
The TV family’s obsession with the Cuban bakery hits close to home for hard-core fans like Oviedo. She’s tried every item behind the counter – 98-cent potato balls, 80-cent cheese rolls, 99-cent croquettes. Her go-to cake? Mango mousse.
“I’ve never had a bad meal here,” the 48-year-old said.
Keeping up with demand
The scene at the three Porto’s bakeries in Glendale, Burbank and Downey can be best described as controlled chaos.
In Downey, the café’s second largest after Buena Park, employees look like Secret Service agents – armed with ear buds and walkie talkies.
Their main duty: traffic control.
As diners enter the 17,000-square-foot café, lines snake in different directions. The crowds can be intimidating, but they’re reeled in by something sweet -- the intoxicating aromas of freshly baked goods.
Betty Porto, whose mom baked cakes while living in communist Cuba in the 1960s, said front-door greeters help guests figure out where to queue.
“When people come in, the biggest complaint we get is they don’t know what to do,” Porto said.
For Kim Battle, the line tends to go quickly because the Lakewood resident said she’s always “preoccupied” with the countless choices behind the counter. By the time she orders, she hardly notices the wait.
Sitting in the Porto’s patio on a recent Wednesday, she and her daughter Shawnta are sharing a half-dozen potato balls. The original menu item is stuffed with soft mashed potatoes and seasoned ground beef.
“It’s like a shepherd’s pie in a ball,” Battle, 49, said.
Bringing Buena Park into the fold
Though fans say Porto’s is worth the wait, the family-run operation is constantly evolving to maximize efficiency.
Several years ago, the company opened a test kitchen in Commerce, where bakers tweak recipes and create new menu items. The commissary helps prevent gridlock at the three stores.
When Downey opened in 2010, the family designed it to minimize wait times. Buena Park will look similar– only bigger – at nearly 25,000 square feet. The Beach Blvd. location near Knott’s Berry Farm is a new frontier for the brand. In such a dense tourist zone, Porto expects the cafe to be one of the chain’s highest volume stores.
Like Downey, Buena Park will have four different order stations: an express lane for top selling pastries, a pre-order pick up counter, a coffee bar and a bakery line. The latter is often the longest line; it’s the only spot where you can buy any item off the vast menu – from guava strudels to tiramasu cakes and grilled sandwiches.
On peak Saturdays, up to 40 workers at the front of the house keep lines moving, tables clean and displays filled with eye-popping pastries. Behind the scenes are teams of bakers, cake designers, pastry chefs and grill cooks cranking out hundreds of scratch foods in a fast-paced environment.
Only the finest ingredients are used, Porto said. Her mother, from the very beginning, would not skimp on quality. Frosting is made with the Belgian chocolate and tarts are topped with pristine ripened fruits.
“We will never compromise,” Porto said.
With top-notch ingredients and high labor costs, how does Porto’s keep its prices so low?
Volume. The three cafes serve 4.5 million customers a year. They sell 1.5 million cheese rolls and 600,000 potato balls a month. The company uses its buying power to keep prices low. Porto, who studied law in college, said she and her siblings are tough negotiators.
But not because they seek personal profits.
“Our business comes from large families. They are not rich. We want to respect their pockets,” Porto said.
Controlling their destiny
Word of mouth recommendations have made Porto’s a household name in the greater Los Angeles area; many customers have been coming for decades.
But in recent years, the family has been caught off guard by a new legion of fans: millennials.
Right now, thanks to BuzzFeed, one of the bakery’s hottest sellers is the Milk ’N Berries cake — a twist on a classic Tres Leches but more indulgent, filled with fresh berries and iced with whipped cream. In January, BuzzFeed called it a “flavor explosion,” which triggered a host of orders.
“That sells more than anything,” Porto said.
Last year, Yelp named Porto’s bakery the best restaurant in the country based on positive reviews. Consumer demand is why they are expanding to Buena Park and West Covina – to accommodate the masses traveling to their packed Los Angeles cafes.
“We were looking for years in Orange County,” Porto said.
As they’ve grown, Porto said they’ve vowed to own their property. That allows them to control rent and parking.
In Downey, they bought the property, building the store and two-story parking structure behind the Firestone Boulevard cafe. In Burbank, parking was such a huge problem, the family bought another building nearby just so they could add 27 more spaces for guests.
In Buena Park, the family snapped up an empty 3-acre Beach Boulevard parcel made available when state redevelopment funds dried up a few years ago. The deal allowed them to build a modern restaurant and café from the ground up.
“We want to control our destiny,” Porto said.
Baking to survive
Taking charge is at the heart of the Porto family legacy.
When Fidel Castro rose to power in Cuba, Raul Sr. lost his job at a cigar distribution warehouse. He was sent to a labor camp. His wife Rosa, an office manager at the cigar company, also lost her job.
She was left to fend for herself and three children: Betty, Raul Jr., and Margarita.
Rosa, a college graduate, was raised by a strong independent mother who came to Cuba from Spain. Self sufficiency runs through her veins. In 1960, the savvy business woman launched an underground baking operation in her house just to survive.
Using her mom’s tried-and-true recipes and a Sunbeam mixer, she made yellow sponge cakes, soaked in simple syrup and rum and filled with custard. She also made meat pies (pastel de carne).
Her clients would bring her ingredients (eggs, flour, sugar) to make the cakes and pay her with government rations: pigs, chickens, rice and beans.
It was a black market barter-and-trade operation; when police came to raid houses, the tight-knit neighborhood protected Rosa, hiding cakes and baking appliances so she wouldn’t get caught. The Portos lived this way for a decade before they were all approved to relocate to the United States.
“She took a risk because it was either that or starve,” Betty Porto said.
Living the American Dream
In 1971 when the family emigrated to Los Angeles, Rosa’s reputation preceded her. Before landing, a Cuban immigrant she met on the plane placed an order.
More came knocking.
“The moment they found out she was here, they started calling,” Betty Porto, 59, said.
For five years, she ran the business out of the family’s small apartment near Echo Park. She baked day and night. Betty said she and her siblings would go to bed late because their beds doubled as makeshift cooling racks.
“She put sheets on the bed and kept flipping cakes,” Porto said.
In 1976, Rosa secured a $5,000 loan to open a 300-square-foot shop in Los Angeles at Silver Lake and Sunset Boulevard. In 1982, she relocated to Glendale. At that time, Betty had graduated from college. She and her brother, an economics major, immersed themselves in the business.
Other stores followed in Burbank and Downey.
As they grew, so did the bakery case.
Wedding and quinceañera cakes, guava pastries, chicken empanadas, potato balls, meat pies and ham croquettes are long-time staples on the menu. But over the years, Porto’s added the famed cheese rolls, sandwiches, croissants, coffee and elegant European-style cakes and pastries, including their signature Refugiado with guava and cheese.
With her three children running the business, Rosa Porto has since retired. Last year, Rosa and the bakery were honored with a lifetime achievement award by the California Restaurant Association.
At the time, she was asked about the long hours she endured, and the risks she took to keep food on the table. Betty Porto said she’ll never forget her mom’s response.
“I finished one cake and I wanted to start another,” Rosa said. “I did it because I loved it.”
• 1960: After Castro takes over in Cuba, Rosa and Raul Porto lose their jobs at a cigar distribution company. Raul Sr. is sent to a labor camp, forcing Rosa to launch an underground cake business to feed their three children: Betty, Raul Jr., and Margarita.
• 1971: The Porto family arrives in Los Angeles. Cuban immigrants know of Rosa’s reputation for baking cakes; they are her first customers. She runs a cake-making business out of her home for the next five years, specializing in wedding and quinceañera cakes. When customers ask for appetizers for parties, she develops a menu of guava pastries, chicken empanadas, potato balls and meat pies.
• 1976: Rosa opens the first shop at Sunset and Silver Lake in Los Angeles with a $5,000 loan.
• 1982: The family relocates from Los Angeles to Glendale. Their reputation begins to grow and so does the menu. Rosa’s children begin to work full time in the business.
• 2006: Burbank opens.
• 2010: Downey opens with a two-story garage dedicated for customers. The Firestone Boulevard location, a contemporary venue with four types of ordering counters, serves as a model for Buena Park.
• March 1, 2017: The Buena Park cafe, at 7640 Beach Blvd., is slated to open at 10 a.m. Actor and family friend Andy Garcia will appear at the ribbon cutting. With Buena Park located in a tourist zone, the Porto family expects it to be one of its highest volume stores. Buena Park will employ 200, bringing the company’s total workforce to 1,000.
• 2018: A fifth Porto’s is expected to open in West Covina.
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