Serious Eats: Sweets
Meet & Eat: Betty Porto, Co-Owner of Porto's Cuban Bakery in Downey, California
In November of this year, a Porto's Bakery opened in the sleepy suburb of Downey, CA. The new 15,000-square foot branch of the beloved Southern California institution serves 5,000 people a day. It's a far cry from the bakery's humble beginnings.
The Porto family has really lived the American dream. In 1961, Raul and Rosa Porto requested to leave Cuba, wanting to escape communism and raise their three children in the United States. It took ten years before the family was allowed to leave. During that time, Rosa was laid off as a home economics teacher and Raul was sent away to work in a labor camp, where he earned only eight dollars a month. To make ends meet, Rosa began baking and (illegally) selling cakes to neighbors out of her small kitchen.
When the time finally came to make the move to the U.S., Rosa Porto quickly found that her reputation as an excellent baker had preceded her. She actually found her first customer while still at the airport on her first day in this country.
As soon as the family arrived in Los Angeles, Rosa began making cakes for families in the neighborhood who she'd known when still in Cuba. Raul urged Rosa to get a "real job," but she refused, preferring to be her own boss. Soon, Rosa had so many orders that she was running out of room in the kitchen and began storing cakes on her children's beds. Rosa's business soon outgrew her home, and then several small bakery spaces. She opened Porto's Cuban Bakery in Glendale nearly 40 years ago, and expanded to a second location in Burbank in 2005. 2010 brought the third branch to Downey.
Raul Sr. and Rosa are now retired and the family business is in the hands of their three children: Betty, Raul Jr., and Margarita. On a recent trip to the Downey bakery, I chatted with Betty about the best part of growing up in a bakery, what's special about Porto's, and the family's plans for the future.
What are your fondest memories of growing up around your mother's bakeries?
We would have to work at the bakery after school when we were just kids, but it didn't feel like work. It was actually really fun and a beautiful way to grow up. We washed dishes, we learned her recipes, we learned how to decorate cakes. My mom would even make dinner for us at the bakery and we were allowed to invite friends over to eat with us. She trusted us a lot when we were young. Sometimes we would burn cakes and hide them from her or have egg fights when she wasn't around, but it was all in good fun.
Do you think your mom ever thought that her first little bakery would turn into this beloved Southern California institution?
You know, I don't think my parents thought that far ahead. They brought us here so we would have a better life and they opened the bakery so that my siblings and I could go to college. All of us graduated with different degrees, but we all came back to work at the bakery. Growing up, my parents didn't have a life. They worked their butts off every single day so that we could have a life. We wouldn't be anything without my parent's hard work in the early days of the bakery.
What keeps people coming back to Porto's?
I'd say it's three things: our ethics, our pricing, and our consistency. We have a passion for what we do, a love for our customers and our food and that comes across. We don't cut corners; we buy the best of the best. For example, we buy our chocolate from Belgium because we believe they have the best chocolate. Everything is made in-house, from scratch, just like your grandmother would make it. Everything is fresh and competitively priced. We're cooking and baking around the clock. We still use my mom's recipes; the same ones from 40 years ago.
Speaking of your mom's recipes: tell me about her famous potato balls. They have a fanatical following!
You know, we have so many beautiful, upscale desserts here. Beautiful cakes, decadent chocolate mousse. We have soups and sandwiches, but day after day the most popular items in each of our locations are the things my mom made from day one. Simple, humble Cuban food: her potato balls, meat pies, empanadas, and croquettes. We've been doing them the same way for years. If it ain't broke ...
What do you love most about your job?
It may sound silly, but I feel like what we do is bigger than food. We put down roots in communities. It's important that we give back however we can and show that we're grateful that we've been so welcomed into the community. We're building loyalty. We don't advertise in newspapers, that's so impersonal. We get to know the people coming into our bakeries. Unlike other jobs, this one gives instant gratification. People come up to me every day and tell me how much they love the food. They tell me that my mom made their parent's wedding cake and now we're making theirs. Our bakery has become a tradition in families and there's something magical about that.
Growing up around all of this food, did you learn to love cooking?
I love to eat more than I love to cook. We put out about six new recipes every year and we test the recipes for three months. Can you imagine that? I'm trying to watch how many sweets I eat and every day I'm confronted with another pastry.
Will you be opening any more branches of the bakery? Would you ever consider going out of state?
We might open two more, so five would be the absolute limit. I think once you surpass five, you no longer have a tight grip on your business, and you can't really maintain the same type of quality control over your food. As far as going of state, why would we do that? To me, that sounds like fleeing or running away. This is our home and we're not McDonalds, looking to open a location everywhere for profit. It's not about the money.