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Porto's: From Communist Cuba Secret to Southern California Icon

Learn more about Southern California's vibrant and diverse food scene on "The Migrant Kitchen."

In Los Angeles, Porto’s Bakery is an icon, known for their crisp potato balls, guava strudels, croquettes, thick Cuban sandwiches and grandiose cakes. The lines are impressively long, and they’ve had a steady following for nearly fifty years.

Their story is a classic immigrant narrative that begins with a woman named Rosa Porto, who baked and sold her cakes secretly in 1960s Communist Cuba where private enterprise was forbidden.

“For my mother to make a cake, she just couldn’t walk into a Smart and Final and buy those ingredients, all of them had to be bought on the black market,” says Raul Porto, Jr. their son and co-owner of Porto’s, in a video interview with the California Restaurant Association.

Rosa and Raul Porto at the original Porto's Bakery | Courtesy of Porto's
Rosa and Raul Porto at the original Porto's Bakery | Courtesy of Porto's

“Whenever the secret police would come to raid the house, we already knew they were coming and the neighbors would take the equipment we had to the backyard, so they never caught her,” Betty Porto, Rosa’s daughter and co-owner of Porto’s, says in the same video interview, “If she was caught, she would have gone to jail for twenty years, so this was not a laughing matter.”

She and her husband Raul eventually immigrated to California in the 1970s but still, she couldn’t sell her baked goods freely. 

“My dad wanted her to work and would send her off on job interviews,” Betty says. Rosa would purposely fail or miss the interviews, opting instead to bake cakes at home. She would sell the pastries to her friends and eventually made enough money to convince her husband that she had what it took to make her passion into a full-time job.

“In 1976 she opened her first shop with my dad’s blessing,” Betty says. The first Porto’s was a tiny 300-square foot bakery on Sunset Boulevard in Echo Park, where they averaged roughly 50 customers a day.

Since then, Porto’s has grown leaps and bounds. Porto’s estimates that it sells about 550,000 potato balls and 1.2 million cheese rolls per month. Its kitchen goes through 3,000 lbs of dough per hour; 30,000 lbs. of butter and 60,000 lbs. of flour per week. The bakery serves approximately 4.5 million customers per year.

Porto's cheese rolls | Courtesy of Porto's
Porto's cheese rolls | Courtesy of Porto's

Today Rosa — now 87 — is retired, though she still makes the occasional appearance in the shops where she is a living legend to over 1,200 employees. Her three children Betty, Raul Jr., and Margarita have taken over the bakery, with locations in Glendale, Burbank, Buena Park, and Downey.

Raul Jr. his uncle Rene baking | Courtesy of Porto's
Raul Jr. his uncle Rene baking | Courtesy of Porto's

But while Porto’s origin is Cuban, with their signature potato balls, empanadas, and guava-laced pastries, the appeal is universal. Lines reliably snake outside of the doors at all of their shops. Cakes are consistently commissioned ahead of time for parties and weddings.

“We have never spent a penny on advertisements,” Betty says. “Everything has been word of mouth.”

So how did this mom-and-pop bakery turn into the iconic chain it is today?

“When you’re a mom-and-pop, everything is done by you so you don’t trust anybody,” Betty says. ““The biggest thing was learning to delegate and divide and conquer.”

Born and educated in the States, when Betty and her siblings decided to expand the business, they readily took the advice of consultants and their business professors. They divided the restaurant into departments and hired managers, whose jobs are to control costs and labor. An inspector and a mystery shopper was also brought on to make sure everything is regularly up to par with health department code; managers are held up to this for their bonuses. Porto’s also has a test kitchen and four chefs whose job is to constantly dream up new pastries and savory treats such as guava cakes; lemon merengue tarts; a pulled pork barbecue sandwiches with sauce made out of a guava reduction; a Cuban-style hamburgers with patties made of half beef and half pork, with a little chorizo flavor and aioli sauce.

Dessert selections at Porto's | Courtesy of Porto's
Dessert selections at Porto's | Courtesy of Porto's
Showcase cakes | Alexander Garcia, Courtesy of Porto's
Showcase cakes | Alexander Garcia, Courtesy of Porto's
Cuban sandwich | Alexander Garcia, Courtesy of Porto's
Cuban sandwich | Alexander Garcia, Courtesy of Porto's

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One perennial challenge, however, is something that is welcomed by any business: lines — long lines. They snake and sometimes spill into the sidewalk of their branches, especially on special occasions like Mother’s Day. “It’s been a challenge forever and ever,” Betty says.

Lines going down Beach Blvd on the opening of Porto's Buena Park | Courtesy of Porto's
Lines going down Beach Blvd. during the opening of Porto's Buena Park | Courtesy of Porto's

To ease a patron’s anxiety faced with the sight, Porto’s have greeters roving the lines to direct the bakery’s patrons. This was a result of the family’s own research. "We learned how to manage the lines by working on the floor and watching the flow of customers,” says Betty, “At peak times we bring more people and we know what those times are because we track sales. We continue to watch and learn every day in order to give the customer a better experience.”

But while it was this delegation of tasks that helped Porto’s expand into the machine that it is today, Betty credits their family’s immigrant mentality for helping them obtain the capital they needed to grow.

“Immigrants save a lot of money. We didn’t have a house until 1980. We lived frugally and kept investing money into the business,” says Betty. “Even to today, we live in regular houses and drive regular cars.”

The frugality paid off.

Their largest location, in Buena Park, is a 25,000 square foot megastore. West Covina is next on their expansion radar, followed by Northridge in the near future. The entire operation is completely family-owned and operated.

Betty Porto at the Buena Park location | Clarissa Wei
Betty Porto at the Buena Park location | Clarissa Wei

“I still can’t believe what my mom has done,” Betty says. “But for her, the thing that she is most proud of is not the business. It’s us.”

And because of the Porto’s family, Cuban food has become a regular fixture into the culinary fabric of Southern California, with more locations to come. 

“The basics never goes away. My mother’s recipes are left alone,” Betty says. “People come all over the country for our food. [But] if we get rid of the potato balls, we’d have a nationwide strike.”

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