Whenever Porto’s Bakery and Cafe co-owner Betty Porto guest lectures entrepreneurial students at USC, she’s always asked the question, What were some of your biggest challenges?
The answer, as she tells it, is always the same.
“There has never been a time where we weren’t in control,” she said, speaking by phone in November after lunch with her 89-year-old dad, Raul Porto Sr. “But next time I go and lecture, I will have something to say, because never before have we had a challenge of this magnitude.”
Within three days of California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s call to shut down dine-in establishments to slow the spread of the coronavirus in March, the popular family-run Cuban bakery chain famous for its meat pies, Refugiado guava and cheese pastries, cheese rolls and guava strudel had changed its business model. Porto’s Bakery pivoted from dine-in only to online orders for in-car pickup for the first time in its 46-year history.
It also beefed up its Bake at Home service, now taking holiday orders of select frozen pastries that it ships nationwide.
“I keep telling everyone that once this COVID is all over, we will have learned so much because we faced a challenge nobody has ever faced,” said Betty Porto, vice president of community relations. She and siblings Raul Porto Jr. and Margarita Navarro run the bakery that matriarch Rosa Porto founded in 1976 after the family fled communist Cuba.
Rosa Porto died in December 2019 at age 89, leaving a legacy that now includes five locations, including Glendale, Burbank, Downey, Buena Park and West Covina, with a Northridge location slated to open in 2022.
Betty Porto spoke with SCNG about how the coronavirus has affected her family’s brick-and-mortar and shipping operations. The conversation has been edited and condensed.
Q: Why is it Porto’s Bakery has never done online orders before?
A: We didn’t have the capacity. Our bakeries do 2,000 to 5,000 transactions on a Saturday, which means we could take care of 10,000 people with no issues. And then this happened, and it hit us hard.
Q: How so?
A: We would have hundreds of people lined up during normal times, and the wait was like 45 minutes to an hour. People knew that, and they were willing to do it. But there’s no way we can do that many transactions by taking orders online and having people line up in their cars. The cities won’t allow it. And the system will shut down because it knows how many orders we can do per hour based on our ovens’ capacity.
Q: Can you describe how the in-car pick-up works?
A: You go online and purchase whatever is available. When you go to pick-up your order (at a specified time), you drive through the back and check-in. We bring the order to your car. We ask you to wear a mask because we want to keep our customers and employees safe, and the only way to do that is to have minimal contact. People now can go to their phone, order Porto’s online and have it delivered by Uber Eats and all the different food delivery sites. We’re doing that, too.
Q: Has the pandemic affected your Bake at Home service?
A: Bake at Home kept us afloat. At the very beginning when we shut down, we went from doing 260-something to 3,000 orders a day because people didn’t want to go anywhere, so they were baking at home. We shifted some of the people who were working in the bakery to the Bake at Home (facility). Now, with the holidays coming, we’re pushing Bake at Home. You can have your cheese rolls, your guava cheese, your meat pies, your potato balls. You can even have the Milk’N Berries cake we added a month ago that we’re now shipping.
Q: Has Porto had to layoff or furlough any of its employees?
A: Yes, in the beginning (there were layoffs). We gave people choices, and let me tell you, people wanted to go home because they were afraid. What’s happening now is we’re bringing people back every day. (As of this interview, 90 percent of Porto’s employees are back at work). But even as tough as things got, we continued our community outreach. We have a reputation for being very generous, and we didn’t want that to go away from one week to another. So, we had a purpose to this madness. We were doing something not only to keep the bakeries open but also to help people.
Q: During the course of the pandemic, have people’s preferences for certain menu items changed?
A: No, in fact, in order to take care of business with fewer employees, we had to streamline the menu and go back to the more popular items. We know what our No. 1 sellers are. As we learn the system better, we add more.
Q: Did Porto’s have to take any stimulus money?
A: We didn’t apply. I don’t know if it was my mom’s immigrant mentality, but she was always big on saving money for the business instead of investing it all in cars and houses. She felt like you had to hold a lot of money in case of trouble to pay employees’ salaries when the money wasn’t coming in. We’ve always saved for hard times. We have learned with this pandemic that’s exactly what you need to do.”
Q: Where does the Northridge location stand now with the pandemic?
A: It’s going ahead. Most of the plans are approved and we’ve already broke ground. So expect a bakery in 2022.
I always do a farmers market a year before I open a new location. I’m looking forward to it. I’ve done it in Downey, West Covina, Buena Park. It’s a great way to meet your future customers in the community. So when this pandemic is over, I’ll be working in the farmers’ market.
About Betty Porto
Title: Vice President of Community Relations
Organization: Porto’s Bakery and Cafe
Residence: La Cañada Flintridge
Background: Betty Porto and her family immigrated to the U.S. from Cuba in 1971 as part of the Freedom Flights resettlement program for political refugees. The family waited eight years to get out. While they waited, Rosa Porto was fired from her job and Raul Porto Sr. was taken to a labor camp. Rosa Porto made and sold cakes out of her house to support her family.
Education: She holds both a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in political science from Cal State Los Angeles and UCLA, respectively. She wanted to become a lawyer. Instead, she took on a leadership role in her family’s bakery.
For in-car pickup orders, all Porto’s Bakery and Cafe locations will be open from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 25 and 5 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 26.