Bronx’s cake boss has satisfied local sweet tooth for 64 years
It’s like a slice of childhood remembrance for many New York City Latinos; the soft yellow cake with three-layers of pineapple filling, topped with sugar icing and decorated with popular cartoon characters and edible, colored flowers siblings fought over.
Valencia Bakery, which has been baking, frosting and decorating cakes on Edgewater Road in Hunts Point since 1948, is as synonymous with cakes for the city’s Latino population as the Yankees are with baseball.
“I grew up eating these cakes since I was a little brat,” grinned Melrose resident Luis Rodriguez, 42, while buying one. “I’ve tried a lot of cakes and I think this is one of the best.”
Spanish immigrant, Jose Ripoll, opened the first Valencia Bakery on 116th St. and Lexington Ave. in Manhattan in 1948, naming it for his hometown, and bestowing a matador logo on the new business. The store quickly earned a reputation among El Barrio’s Puerto Rican residents for its familiar, savory treats.
In 1952, Ripoll moved the business to East 138th St. in Mott Haven, where the store still stands today. He opened the factory in Hunts Point that same year.
Since then, workers in the factory have been using 700 pounds of eggs, 1000 pounds of floor, and 1,500 pounds of sugar every week to make 1,500 cakes on weekends. The recipe is milk-free, except for a special-order-only Tres Leches option, but when asked what makes the cakes light and fluffy, general manager, Mike Eberly, would only say, “It’s in the mix.”
Every cake is cut by hand and contains three layers of filling, of which there are 14 options to choose from, including guava, coconut, banana and pineapple.
“Pineapple is our most popular filling. Almost half of our cakes are filled with it. It’s a Puerto Rican Mainstay,” said Eberly.
Despite its continued popularity, not everything has been sweet for Valencia.
The down economy has forced the company to scale back its operations, reducing its original factory space from 30,000 square feet in its heyday to 10,000-square-feet. In addition, the company has cut back from 30 to 20 employees.
But, Eberly, who oversees the daily operations, says he will not compromise the integrity of the cakes by cutting back on quality, even though prices have not risen in five years.
“Who do I deal with? The working class, the first people to deal with the recession and get cut,” emphasized Eberly. “We can’t raise prices in the Bronx.”
The busiest time of the year, by far, is Mother’s Day, when the factory stays open longer to prepare 4,000 cakes for the two South Bronx retail stores, and one bakery each in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
Nancy Reyes, 54, of Longwood, has been working at the factory for 22 years. She credits tradition for the bakery’s popularity.
“It was one of the only Spanish bakeries back in the day, then it passed down through generations. Grandparents, parents, and now grandchildren,” said Reyes, one of 20 South Bronx residents who work at the factory and retail stores.
Eberly said he has seen many copycats in his time managing Valencia, including bakeries with similar names trying to emulate its success. He has had to stop selling to customers who bought in bulk when he found out they were reselling cakes that had lost their freshness, potentially tarnishing the brand.
Eddie Velasquez, 55, who owns and manages the Mott Haven store, began working at Valencia when he was 19. He showed off a photo in which he is presenting a cake to pitcher Mariano Rivera after the Yankee great racked up his record 602nd save last year. Velasquez recalled that when the Puerto Rican Theatre stood next door, salsa musicians Willie Colon and Iris Chacon would order cakes from him.
He added the bakery has received phone calls from US soldiers in Iraq ordering cakes for their wives.
On a Facebook page for the Mott Haven outlet, former customers from around the country clamor for the cakes, requesting the store consider making out-of state deliveries.
On a recent weekday afternoon in the Mott Haven shop, Joan Rivera, 23, walked in with her 73-year-old grandmother, a customer of 60 years, to order a cake.
“I’ve been coming here since I was young. They make the cakes exactly how you want it,” said the granddaughter.
“The piña [pineapple] is my favorite,” added her grandmother. “Puerto Ricans love it.”
Valencia Bakery 801 Edgewater Road 718-991-6400; 499 East 138th Street 718-585-7062; http://valenciacake.com/ Open 7 days a week.