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Bakery and catering business stays true to its West Tampa roots

Cake decorator Laz Perez has plied his trade at Olympia for nearly 37 years.

Luis Santana/tbt*

Cake decorator Laz Perez has plied his trade at Olympia for nearly 37 years.

The Diaz family has been perfecting its recipe for success in Tampa for almost 90 years.

A West Tampa landmark, the family bakery and catering business Olympia Catering and Events opened in Ybor City in 1924 and moved to its current location on Howard Avenue in 1951.

The business has been handed down through three generations and still bakes everything from its traditional Spanish guava pastries to specialty wedding cakes.

"It's very much a family business," said owner Darren Diaz, 44, the grandson of the original owners.

Diaz, the youngest of four children, said every member of the family worked there at some point. He remembers getting to work by 4 a.m. as a kid, ready to start the baking, and spending his nights and weekends there. His father, even though he retired, still comes in and does the occasional odd job.

And despite some changes to the business model, the company has always stayed true to its West Tampa roots.

Olympia is no longer the storefront bakery that it was, Diaz said, but it still makes all the same pastries and cakes if customers order them. And it has remained in its same location at 2201 N Howard Ave., even as the area developed a reputation for crime and drugs, Diaz said.

"It was a pretty decent working class neighborhood that I think deteriorated — like many inner city areas — to drug-infested and dangerous areas," he said. "Since the '80s, I think it has improved quite a bit. I think the area today is surprisingly nice, but it's hard to change the thoughts that people have."

The Olympia bakery was first opened as the Paloma Bakery in 1924, after Diaz' grandparents immigrated from Spain. At that time, the neighborhood was made up mostly of Spanish and Italian immigrants.

The bakery was eventually passed on to his father in the early 1970s, and the name was changed to Olympia.

A graduate of Jesuit High School, Diaz got a degree in hotel administration from Cornell University and spent some time working in the airline industry before he inherited the business in 1993.

When he took over, he shifted the business focus to the catering side. The company now runs the Olympia Cafe at the Museum of Fine Arts in St. Petersburg, and more than 50 percent of the business comes from catering and baking for social events like weddings and parties, Diaz said.

"We've evolved as the industry evolved," Diaz said. "And we have a name that is well-recognized, which was good."

He wanted to expand the business and change with times.

"The event industry to me is much more interesting," Diaz said. "It's a different kind of work."

The fact he doesn't have to come in a 4 a.m. anymore to open the store was also appealing.

"I can come in at nine or 10," he said.

Howard Avenue is not the ideal location for a retail business, Diaz admitted. Between the area's reputation for crime, the economy and the competition from other specialty bakeries and chains like Publix, Olympia had to adapt.

As a catering service, though, the location on Howard is ideal. It is central to the entire bay area, Diaz said, and Olympia serves customers as in Pinellas, Hillsborough and as far south as Sarasota.

His father considered moving the business back when the neighborhood was "rough," Diaz said, but he's glad he didn't.

Many of the customers the business serves have been coming in for 30 years.

And during its time, the bakery has made some crazy cakes, Diaz said. Divorce party cakes, Gasparilla cakes, a Gator-eating-a-Seminole cake.

"We've done so many different ones," Diaz said.

But, to the Diaz family, the bakery has always been much more than that.

"You don't know how many people come in here with brides, and they're the grandparents and we did their wedding cake," he said. "It's not just selling stuff."

Bakery and catering business stays true to its West Tampa roots 07/26/12 [Last modified: Thursday, July 26, 2012 4:38pm]
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