This one is close to my heart or I should say stomach. If you want the best baked goods and Cuban treats in southern California, you head to Porto’s Bakery & Cafe; pan con mantequilla, empanadas, refugiados, their perfect medianoche, tres leches cake to die for….
Joan Crawford won an Oscar in 1945 for her portrayal of Mildred Pierce, a Glendale mother who survived the collapse of her comfortable middle class life in the Great Depression and achieved fame and success on her skills as a homemaker — specifically, her pie-baking genius.
It’s a dark and melodramatic movie, now an HBO mini-series that started last Sunday.
But the real-life story of a Glendale mother who came to America with nothing but the clothes on her back and built a spectacularly successful business on her skills as a homemaker — specifically, her cake-baking genius — is anything but a tear-jerker.
It is an inspiring story that ought to be a movie. It can teach us all something about the simple virtues of humility, hard work, honesty, ethics and, most of all, the determination to overcome disadvantages and meet every challenge.
It is the story of Porto family, of how Rosa and Raul Porto fled Cuba in 1970 with their three small children — Beatriz, Raul Jr. and Margarita — and how the family went from selling cakes baked in their kitchen to owning one of the most successful bakeries in America, with customer lines that never seem to empty.
It is the story of what family values really mean.
Leaning back in a chair in the upstairs meeting room at Porto’s Burbank store, Raul Jr., now 50, talks about the family’s journey and how the Portos came to live the American dream.
“We’ve been blessed in business, blessed in life,” Porto says. “We were just staying alive at the beginning. It took a long time to get traction. The whole family worked hard. We still do.”
A 1966 picture at the entrance of Porto’s Burbank store gives no clue about the hardships Rosa and Raul Sr. were facing in Castro’s Cuba. It is the picture of a celebration, with the beaming young Porto children behind the most beautiful birthday cake you have ever seen, with a second cake rising in an inverted cone to be a fairy princess.
Grandma Porto already had managed to start a new life in Los Angeles by then. Rosa and Raul Sr. were about to apply to leave for family reunification, a decision that cost them their jobs and forced Rosa, a home economics teacher, to turn to baking cakes for sale to help the family survive.
The family arrived penniless in Miami and flew to Los Angeles when Raul Jr. was 10.
“I was the only kid in my class who spoke Spanish, didn’t know a word of English,” he recalls. “America, California, has changed a lot in the last 40 years. We were part of that change. We were all on a mission every day.”
His father eventually got a night-shift job at Van De Kamp’s Bakery. His mother sold cakes she baked at home and in 1975 they rented a tiny shop in Silver Lake with room for only five customers at the counter.
In 1978, they were on their way to visit friends in Glendale when they spotted a “for sale” sign on a closed bakery at 340 N. Brand Blvd. and scraped together a down payment to take over the 2,500 square-foot shop.
“We had no idea about how to run a business, knew nothing of the law. Dad hardly spoke English,” Raul recalls.
But they had great cakes and pastries and added Cuban sandwiches with room to seat 10 customers.
Everybody worked: Beatriz became known as Betty and was assigned to work sales. Margarita became Margaret and mastered cake decorating. Raul became a baker and eventually the business manager.
“Those are the same jobs we still do today. I guess our parents knew our personalities better than we did,” Raul says.
The business was growing and the kids went to Glendale Community College and on to Cal State LA while putting in a lot of hours in the store. Raul’s boyhood friend Tony Salazar came to work for them, and is still with Porto’s as vice president.
Then, everything went sour. Brand Boulevard was torn up as part of a massive downtown redevelopment project. Neighboring shops all closed. The developer wanted them out.
“We were living off the business. It was all we had. My Dad told them, “You can’t kick us out. I’ve got a four-year lease.’ It took a while, but the city finally helped us find a new store right across the street at 327 N. Brand where we’re still at today,” Raul says.
Over time, they added new items like strudel and cheesecake with the twist of adding guava to them.
“We put on our spin on a lot of products Americans knew. We were crossing over from being a Cuban bakery, something not many ethnic businesses have done.”
They bought new display cases and developed that “Porto’s look” – bright and clean and appetizing, an Americanized version of a great Cuban café.
“We took everything we had or could borrow and we bought the building. We gambled everything on it.”
The Porto family struck it rich. Business boomed in the 1990s. “We couldn’t handle all the customers we were getting. We were bursting at the seams.”
So they took over the store next door in 2003 and opened the Burbank store on Magnolia in 2006 and a store in Downey last year, each a more evolved version of the Porto vision.
“I felt early on that customers want a beautiful and clean ambience — and good food at reasonable prices,” Raul says.
“Nothing about us was ever planned. We just worked and grew with our business. We knew we had to treat our customers and employees with respect and always wanted to do something spectacular for them. That’s what our parents instilled in us.”
Rosa and Raul Sr. retired years ago and helped raised their grandchildren while Raul, Betty and Margaret ran the business. Five of the seven grandchildren now work at Porto’s, learning the business from the bottom up.
Porto’s is now a sophisticated and complex business with hundreds of employees. They travel the world to visit bakeries and learn from others. They even bring great bakers to their shops for a week or two to work with them.
“Sometimes I think how nice it would be to take it easy in some place like Santa Barbara,” Raul says, “but then I think the family is here. Family — that’s what it is all about.”