Angelenos and tourists alike know that Porto’s bakery is a foodie destination and on Friday the family behind the iconic eatery announced founder Rosa Porto had died at age 89.
“It is with heavy hearts that we announce the passing of Porto’s Bakery founder and Porto family matriarch, Rosa Porto,” the Instagram post said. “She passed peacefully yesterday at the age of 89 surrounded by her loving husband and family.”
Porto emigrated from Manzanillo, Cuba a decade after Fidel Castro came into power in 1959. She’d lost her job as a manager at a cigar distributor while her husband, Raul, was sent to a labor camp. Rose was raised by an independent mother who had come to Cuba from Spain and — inspired by her mother’s self-sufficiency — launched an underground baking shop in 1960. It was forbidden for private citizens to own businesses in Cuba but neighbors loved her rum-soaked sponge cakes and protected her from being outed.
Her business thrived through the barter and trade systems where clients would bring her the ingredients to make her cakes and they’d pay her with government ration like livestock or rice and beans. When police raided houses, the neighbors hid her cakes and baking appliances so she wouldn’t get caught. The Portos continued on like this for a decade before they were all approved to relocate to the United States.
“She took a risk because it was either that or starve,” her daughter, Betty Porto told the Orange Country Register.
Rosa and Raul arrived in Los Angeles with no money but that didn’t deter her entrepreneurial spirit and she continued selling baked goods from home to neighbors and fellow Cuban immigrants while Raul worked as a janitor.
With the help of a small loan, they opened a 300-square-foot bakery on Sunset Boulevard in the then-immigrant community of Echo Park in 1976, then moved to a larger location on Brand Boulevard in Glendale in 1982. They quickly became known for selling delicious food at affordable prices with a menu that included Cubanos, cheese rolls, pasteles de carne, and their famous guava and cheese strudels (refugiados).
Rosa only used the best ingredients including fresh fruit and Belgian chocolate and that’s a tradition that continues on along with affordable prices, according to Betty.
“We will never compromise,” Betty Porto told the OC Register. “Our business comes from large families. They are not rich. We want to respect their pockets.”
The business has grown steadily and they now have five locations throughout Southern California: Glendale, Burbank, Downey, Buena Park, and West Covina. Throughout the years they’ve received local media coverage but it’s their national coverage including a stamp of approval from Buzzfeed for their Milk ‘N Berries tres leches cake and recognition by Yelp in 2016 for being the best restaurant in the country according to positive reviews. In 2016 Rosa and the bakery were honored with a lifetime achievement award by the California Restaurant Association. But it’s been their word of mouth success from locals that kept their business booming and even celebs have voiced their love for the bakery including Cuban star Andy Garcia.
“When I moved to Los Angeles in 1978, they already had a small storefront in Glendale,” Garcia said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony at their West Covina location. “Of course, as a Cuban, everybody said, ‘Oh, you’ve got to go to Porto’s.’”
In her late 60s, Rosa Porto stepped back from the business “to focus her love and passion on raising her seven grandchildren,” according to the family’s Instagram post. Margarita Navarro runs the bakeries with her siblings Betty and Raul Porto, Jr.
When asked about the long hours she worked and the risks she’d taken to build her business, Rosa’s response was proof of her love for the Cuban cuisine that is now beloved in the City of Angels in large part because of her.
“I finished one cake and I wanted to start another,” Rosa said. “I did it because I loved it.”