Reprinted from the Tampa Bay Times, July 11, 2013.
The man in the boot cast covering his broken left foot still smiles, and it’s a smile as fresh as the Cuban bread he bakes.
In Moreno Bakery, the Brandon shop Jose Moreno shares with his wife, Susan, the Cuban-born baker refuses to skip a step in the five-hour traditional process of crafting Cuban bread, with two stages of rest and growth. The painstaking method doesn’t even account for the time it takes to harvest and wash palmetto leaves he uses as “veins” to provide a natural break in the bread.
“I love doing this,” Moreno said. “I love to bake. It’s the only thing I know. I’m not even good at cutting my grass.”
Such passion from Jose and Susan helped the bakery at 906 W Robertson St. blossom from a small operation to a Brandon destination that draws hundreds each day.
His smile, despite the broken foot, reflects his appreciation because he knows others have more difficult struggles, whether it is the person with two broken limbs he sees in the orthopedic waiting room or the people he left behind in communist Cuba.
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For Moreno, baking Cuban bread serves as a metaphor for the life he began as a youth in Cuba. The process of learning the craft began then and he eventually rose to own his shop in the United States.
His grandfather owned the Golden Eagle Bakery, the only one around his Cuban neighborhood, and his mom took care of payroll for the company. In sixth grade, he began stopping by the bakery after school to play with the dough.
By the time he was 12, he made Cuban bread.
In 1993, Moreno escaped Cuba. He boarded a motor boat with eight friends and two children in hopes of reaching his aunt in the United States. After a week at sea, the boat ran out of gas near the Bahamas where the U.S. Coast Guard found them and brought them to safety in America.
Had it been a year later, Moreno most likely would have been returned to Cuba under the U.S.-Cuba Migration Accord that went into effect in 1994. It allowed only Cuban refugees who reached U.S. shores to seek permanent residence.
“No matter how hard it was, somebody else has it worse,” Moreno said.
Moreno eventually landed in Tampa and got a job working at La Segunda Central Bakery in Ybor City. While there, he met Susan, who worked as a client manager for Bank of America. They eventually married in 2000 and moved to Valrico in 2002. He became a naturalized citizen in 2004.
They opened the bakery on Robertson Street in 2008, and watched the business grow from about a dozen customers a day to more than 300 now and 700 on Christmas Eve.
The need for a larger location became apparent, but they didn’t want the move to hinder their customers’ routines. After scouting locations for nearly two years and considering satellite operations in places like Riverview and New Tampa, the Morenos will move about 500 feet to 737 W. Brandon Blvd. near Wing House in a 10,000-square-foot building. They aim to close the old bakery July 20 and reopen in the new spot Aug. 5.
“We don’t have enough space to fulfill orders,” Susan said. “When I see a customer eating a sandwich in their car, I knock on their window and say thank you. They made us want to do it.”
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Moreno Bakery customers appreciate the planned expansion. Teresa Boully has been stopping in most weekday mornings during her morning commute for more than two years to enjoy a cup of café con leche.
“When I walked into Moreno’s for the first time, I was like ‘Oh my gosh, it’s a mini La Segunda in Brandon,’ ” Boully said. “It meant a lot to me. When I first heard they were moving, I thought it was not going to be convenient.”
With two entrances, seven bakery cases (instead of four), room for 50 dine-in seats (currently there are none) and three cash registers (instead of one), the bakery will be able to provide faster, better service. Fellow local business owner Ziad Kazbour appreciates the changes.
Kazbour, who owns a few local restaurants along with his brothers, has turned to the Moreno Bakery for special occasions like weddings, birthdays and most recently when his son, Tarek, graduated from Strawberry Crest High School. He ordered a cake with the school logo, as well as the University of Tampa logo, where Tarek will attend this fall.
“They do a fine job,” said Kazbour, a customer for more than four years. “I never hear, ‘Hey, we can’t do that.’ They cater to your needs and that’s how to build a business and get repeat business.”
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Five years ago, the current, tight layout made sense when there was one person working.
Now there are 29 employees, including the Morenos. They put in eight to nine hours a day and are working overtime to finalize the expansion.
Steve Ward, 52, has been baking for 35 years and has worked for the Morenos for five years. He is excited to have a kitchen, because currently there is none, and more work space that he won’t have to share with three others.
“I have a passion for baking and Jose has a passion for baking,” Ward said as he prepared a coconut macaroon mix that would become 160 macaroons for sale 90 minutes later. “For me, it’s like baking for a family member or someone I love.”
Other upgrades customers can expect to see include expanded drink selections, a new soup and sandwich station and a larger standalone coffee station.
Behind the scenes will feature a full kitchen, a new six-burner stove and a 300-square-foot walk-in freezer.
Susan also is excited to finally have a corner office where she can conduct wedding consultations, pay bills, process payroll, order inventory, and expand the catering and wholesale side of the business.
“We are a real, old-fashioned bakery, not a cupcake place,” Susan said.
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While other Tampa bakeries such as La Segunda have become known for supplying Cuban bread to businesses nationwide, Moreno Bakery has simpler aspirations with Cuban bread and a Cuban-American at the heart of the bakery.
“My goal is to give the Brandon people the best bakery around,” Jose said. “When people say thank you, it makes my day.”