Editor's note: This story originally appeared on Medium and is republished here with the author's permission.
“It’s in my blood, I guess,” muses Melvyn Madrazo about his most artful economic venture. “This business was always there.”
Madrazo, a successful businessman in several fields, was nearing retirement age when he decided to act on a project that had long been dear to his heart.
The retired owner of a commercial embroidery firm, who also had founded a restaurant chain, decided to open an authentic Cuban café and bakery in Downey 18 years ago.
“My grandfather and uncle had a coffee shop and made pastry,” he explains. “When I was a little boy, I remember running around the bakery and seeing my grandfather.”
Since its opening in 1999, Madrazo’s Tropicana Bakery and Cuban Café has grown from a small bakery serving traditional Cuban pastries to an enterprise with a specialty cake division, catering, and a full-service restaurant with an ambiance inspiring visions of Havana. Four of Madrazo’s five grown children are involved with the business.
A distinct menu and vibe have enabled the eatery to retain and grow its customer base even after the more widely-known Porto’s Bakery and Café opened a Downey location just a mile away in 2010.
“We’ve focused on having a boutique café,” says son Michael, “a very intimate place where people can meet, and have a social time. With us, it’s a Cuban tradition to have your coffee, have your pastries, and have a social hour where people mingle, people interact.”
The sustained popularity of the Tropicana shows that there is a big market for Cuban delicacies among the multi-ethnic population of southern California. Counter lines at Madrazo’s bakery can be long as people wait to place various orders for pastry, take-out, catering, or specialty cakes.
The atmosphere is primed by Cuban music from outdoor speakers as customers approach the back entrance from the parking lot. Inside, the staff sport straw fedoras and the signature shirt of the tropics — the guayabera.
A collaborative family effort is behind the stylish décor with its distinctly personal touches. Cuban-themed murals, conga drums, and stylized tropical posters evoke days of sun and fun. A collage of island images on one wall flank the large picture of the Havana Catedral. The photo of an infant grandson is mounted over the coffee area.
Carlos Dones not only likes the food and coffee at the Tropicana, he says that it is the kind of place that he was used to growing up in Puerto Rico.
“This is more of a family restaurant that makes me feel more comfortable here,” says Dones, a real estate agent in Pico Rivera.
Gabriel Gil, a social services consultant, likes the food. “The picadillo tastes more like home, like my mom’s.” He adds, “The spiciness makes you want to lick your fingers.”
Madrazo had been a businessman all his life when he bought a small bakery on Paramount Blvd., just south of Florence. He was retired from a large commercial firm that he had co-owned for thirty years.
The rotisserie chicken chain that he co-developed in 1990, Los Pollos, was thriving. The Downey location on Florence was the second branch to open, and his children had become involved as the chain grew. Its signature marinade reflected the influence of Madrazo’s wife Adela with its blend of Mexican seasoning and Cuban citrus-style mojo sauce.
“The kids were running Los Pollos,” he recalls, “so I thought why not go into something I always wanted.”
When Madrazo was ready to act on his dream and open a bakery, he says, “I got in touch with my aunt in Cuba and asked her for my uncle’s recipes.”
Madrazo put in large windows on the north side of the building, and expanded several times as adjacent business space became available. The restaurant area was made possible by the last expansion.
The goal of creating an authentic, if not exact, Cuban ambiance, prompted son Michael to make changes in his own life. While helping out at the bakery/café during breaks from his studies at Berkeley, he says, “I became captivated by it.” He decided against law school in favor of working at the family business.
Tropicana customers entering from the back entrance are treated to a window view into the bakery area where they can watch the elaborate decoration of the specialty cakes. In the front, small café tables are available for customers who prefer ordering coffee, pastries or light sandwiches from the counter. The restaurant area is full-service for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Pastelitos of guyava and cheese are one of their most popular bakery items, says Madrazo. Every Saturday the bakery sends a big supply of these favorites to their booth at the Downey farmers market.
One section of the bakery display case is reserved for the elegant pastries that Madrazo says reflect the French influence in the tropical isles. “We inherited these pastries,” he explains. They are very popular in Cuba, along with traditional deserts such as bread pudding.
Madrazo left his home in Cardenas, Cuba, before the 1959 revolution and before he was 20 years old. He soon set aside his original goals when he got married and became a father. He named his first-born son Glenn, after the historic space mission of John Glenn.
As a U.S. citizen, Madrazo petitioned and received permission from Washington, D.C. to visit Cuba in the 1980’s to see his family. Madrazo had not seen his family for 22 years, and he wanted his son to see his roots. .
Although Madrazo is well into his golden years, he still has the interests of a younger man. The large picture of a Harley motorcycle in the restaurant area is one of the personal decorating touches because both he and son Melvyn, Jr. own Harleys. Son Michael adds that his father converted his vehicle to three wheels so he could entice his wife into short rides around the block.
Even with sons Michael and Melvyn, J. sharing in the management of the Tropicana, Madrazo still gives regular attention to his restaurant.
He had a vision when he set out to recreate a bit of his homeland with the Tropicana, and it is the personal touch that has attracted so many fans.