Editor’s Note: Raul Porto Jr.’s family owns and operates Porto’s Bakery, the largest Cuban American bakery in the U.S. with six bakeries in Southern California, including a location in Buena Park. What follows are remarks he made in a presentation in Newport Beach hosted by Genesis Bank founder and CEO Stephen Gordon. The Business Journal’s annual list of Largest OC-Based Restaurant Chains begins on page 20.
It all started back in Cuba in the 1960s. After my grandmother petitioned the government for permission to leave the country that had fallen to communism, my parents were fired from their jobs.
There was not much room for upward mobility unless you worked for the government. You could not choose your own career; the government told you what to do.
My father, Raul Sr., was sent to a labor camp for four years while awaiting permission to leave. The Communists forced people into the camp to do what no one else in the country wanted to do.
In those four years, my mother, Rosa, was left with three kids and no job so she began making cakes out of our home and would sell them to friends and neighbors.
In Cuba during this time, it was illegal to be an entrepreneur. She could have ended up in jail. Also, you could not simply go to a supermarket and buy ingredients; everything was bartered. I remember when she made a wedding cake for a farmer in exchange for a few hundred pounds of tomatoes. When she got home, she didn’t know what to do with the tomatoes, so she made ketchup.
She’d put the ketchup into hundreds of all different types of bottles, anything she could get her hands on. She even lined the bottles up in my room. Every night, I would go to bed and wake up looking at ketchup bottles. I think back on this fondly, both at her resourcefulness and the fact that I will never look at ketchup the same way!
No Clothes on Our Backs
When we finally received permission to leave the country in the early 1970s, we flew to the Miami airport and were taken to a facility that was very similar to Ellis Island. They threw away the clothes we were wearing. We came with less than the clothes on our backs.
A church gave us secondhand clothing. We thought, “Wow, this is great, we’re in the United States!”
We flew to Southern California where we had relatives. My parents, my two sisters and I lived in a small two-bedroom duplex in the Silver Lake area. Several years later my dad wanted to buy a gas station but couldn’t because of a lack of credit. My mom tried her heart out to get a job at local bakeries, but nobody would hire her. In those days, women were not seen as bakers.
Mom started making things out of the house. With our small quarters and a single oven in our house, it would take five or six hours to bake and decorate a cake. Since most of her cake orders were for Saturdays, my mother would stay up all night on Fridays making the cakes.
Her determination to build something out of her passion for baking never got in the way of her being an incredible mom. She would finish her cakes by 3 or 4 p.m. and then go with us to our friends’ homes or to the local swimming pools with my cousins where I’ll never forget drinking my first ever Coca-Cola. It was the happiest time in my mom’s life.
No Marketing Plan
Most of our customers were fellow Cuban immigrants and Mom was gaining popularity. My parents took a risk and opened a 300-square-foot store in 1975 in a strip mall in Silver Lake. In the beginning, it was just my sisters, Beatriz and Margarita, and me helping in the bakery. Mom would drop us off at school, and then we would take a bus after school to the bakery. We worked seven days a week.
Some days, we sold only $20 to $40 worth of goods. We couldn’t afford to advertise in newspapers or radio; everything was word of mouth. We relied on what came naturally to us, treating our guests as an extension of our family.
One day, our baker left suddenly. Mom looked over at me and asked me to fill in. There were no manuals or training. I worked from age 15 to 35 as a baker in the back of the bakery, starting at 4 a.m. every day.
In 1978, we bought a 2,500-square-foot bakery in Glendale that had closed for business. At that time, we couldn’t secure a bank loan, so we put $5,000 down on a $25,000 investment and the owner of the building financed the rest. We lived modestly and never took a vacation.
People always ask me what our marketing plan was. We had no marketing plan, no business plan. None of us had any idea what we were doing. It was humbling.
My parents made sure they gave us the opportunity to attend college. We’d go to school two days a week and would work the other five days. For us, school was our days off; it gave us a chance to learn outside of the bakery walls. It took me five years to get a bachelor’s degree at California State University, Los Angeles and I’m grateful for the foundation it provided. My sisters also graduated.
In 1986, we moved across the street in Glendale. Our business just boomed. Even then, lines were out the door. All of us grew into roles of bakers, businesspersons, marketing, hiring, production, etc.
There were not many Hispanic bakeries. However, it didn’t take long for us to figure out that if we didn’t start attracting additional guests, we’d be out of a customer base.
We began making goods like mousse cakes, which is French, but we’d make it with a twist by adding mango. We hired chefs from France and Germany so we could learn and create amazing cakes, pastries and breads together.
We really took off in 2003 when we moved to a much bigger location—20,000 square feet which is the current location we remain at in Glendale.
When we opened this location, we noticed Starbucks was coming in and we knew we had to react. We took over the building next to us and started a café. Our food and beverage business went up 100%. Whoever came to the café for sandwiches or Cuban “platos” would leave with home-baked goods as well.
It was then that we realized we had to open more bakeries.
We opened our first bakery in 1975. We didn’t open our second bakery until 2003. I look back and say to myself, what the heck was I doing?
Bake at Home
Aside from our quality and passion for creating the best products, another reason I believe we are so successful is that we strive to build beautiful bakeries. The design, the atmosphere, the attention to detail all matter to us. We are relentless in our pursuit of building these spaces for every community we come to.
We’re planning for another bakery in Orange County, which we like a lot. We hope to continue to expand and bring our unique family concept of traditional baked goods, tasty café items, and amazing coffees along with the best guest service.
Three years ago, we started something called “Porto’s Bake at Home” with our iconic products that we now ship nationwide unbaked and frozen. People across the country can now order Porto’s favorites and enjoy them fresh from their own ovens. It’s like having a Porto’s Bakery in your home! The pandemic brought about an unbelievable amount of revenue. My sisters, son, nieces, nephews, and our incredible team worked tirelessly in our bakeries trying to continue to take care of our guests and maintain a sense of normalcy for our communities. Though it was a time of extreme stress, it also shined a light on what an incredible team we have.
When I graduated from high school, my biggest dream was to get a job and buy a car.
What Porto’s is today, what the team has helped build, I couldn’t have imagined in my wildest dreams.
We didn’t have a vision; we just had our family work ethic and a desire to carry on our parents’ legacy.
We didn’t invent anything. We didn’t do anything especially exceptional except work really hard to please all of our guests to the best of our ability each and every day.
We came to this incredible country as immigrants. We found something we loved and did it well.