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Tampa tradition of baking Cuban bread with palmetto leaves at risk

For at least 30 years, one man has collected the necessary palmetto fronds. He is pondering retirement.
Palmetto leaves create the signature split on the top of baking loaves at La Segunda Central Bakery in Ybor City.
Palmetto leaves create the signature split on the top of baking loaves at La Segunda Central Bakery in Ybor City. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]
Published Jun. 23|Updated Jun. 23

TAMPA — For as far back as anyone can remember, Tampa bakers have used palmetto leaves to make Cuban bread.

And for the last three decades, the same man has traveled the state collecting the palmetto leaves needed by La Segunda Bakery, which bakes more than seven million loaves a year.

But that man, whom La Segunda employees will only identify as Danny because he wants to stay unknown, has informed the company he is contemplating retirement.

When he does, there is serious concern that no one will want to replace him. Those who have done the job say it is grueling.

“A Tampa tradition is threatened,” said Robbie Faedo, manager of Michelle Faedo’s Tampeño Cuisine, which uses La Segunda’s bread for their Cuban sandwiches.

It’s a tradition that will impact the nation, said Tony Moré, who co-owns the 107-year-old La Segunda business with locations in Ybor City, South Tampa and St. Petersburg. Around 95% of the country’s Cuban bread is made in this area, he estimates, and 98% of that is baked by La Segunda.

So, now, La Segunda and its clients are looking for help, possibly from a government body willing to allow the bakery to harvest the palmetto fronds from its land.

“Someone needs to step up,” Faedo said. “We need to make sure that Cuban bread is made the right way for generations to come.”

Yovanni Perdomo (36), middle, and Carlos Cabota (56), left, of Tampa place palmetto leaves on loaves and flip them at La Segunda Central Bakery in Ybor City.
Yovanni Perdomo (36), middle, and Carlos Cabota (56), left, of Tampa place palmetto leaves on loaves and flip them at La Segunda Central Bakery in Ybor City. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

Why palmetto leaves?

The palmetto leaves serve a purpose beyond tradition dating back to the 1800s.

Before the bread goes into the 400-degree oven, leaves are placed in the middle of the loaf. That creates the bread’s signature seam and ensures even baking, Moré said.

“It keeps that area under the leaves moist and soft,” Moré said. “So, when the gases start to release, that’s where they have to come out.”

Without that exit point, the gases could release anywhere, he said. The bread would bake “twisted up and out of shape. It will taste the same,” but be unusable for sandwiches.

There are other ways to create that seam, La Segunda master baker Steve Valdez said. String, for instance. But that creates more work because it can bake into the bread and then must be removed. The palmetto leaf rises from the dough as it cooks and sits loosely on top of the finished product.

Travis Smith, 31, of Tampa chops the stems off palmetto fronds at La Segunda Central Bakery in Ybor City.
Travis Smith, 31, of Tampa chops the stems off palmetto fronds at La Segunda Central Bakery in Ybor City. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]
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Collecting the leaves

Palmetto tree branches are called fronds, each of which is made up of divided leaves.

La Segunda provided Faedo with his first job in the baking industry. At 18, he was sent to prune palmetto fronds from the Florida wilderness with a cousin.

“It was the hardest job I have ever had,” said Faedo, 51. “You had better love the wilderness.”

Valdez, the baker, agreed. Danny, his cousin, once took him along on a trip.

“I’ll never do that again,” Valdez said.

They could use roadside palmettos, but collecting in areas with a bulk of trees is better, Faedo said. Plus, leaves exposed to exhaust are not preferable. So Danny hikes into forests teeming with snakes, alligators, bees and mosquitos.

“The first time a snake slithered over my boot, I was done,” Valdez laughed. “Don’t forget the heat.”

And then there is the constant search for new sources.

La Segunda used to acquire most of its palmetto fronds near Gunn Highway and Racetrack Road, but those forests are long gone, replaced by homes.

Valdez expects Danny to offer a locations list when he retires, but there is no telling how long those spots will remain viable. That’s why Faedo is hoping a government body helps.

“Open land to us for this,” he said. “I’ll even oversee it. Make me the director of palmetto acquisition. This is a problem. We need a solution before it is too late.”

Demond Kemp, 48, and Rogger Berrocal, 63, of Tampa separate palmetto fronds into individual leaves to be sanitized at La Segunda Central Bakery in Ybor City.
Demond Kemp, 48, and Rogger Berrocal, 63, of Tampa separate palmetto fronds into individual leaves to be sanitized at La Segunda Central Bakery in Ybor City. [ LAUREN WITTE | Times ]

By the numbers

Moré estimates that La Segunda bakes an average of 20,000 loaves of Cuban bread a day, seven days a week. A palmetto frond typically has 20 leaves. For Cuban bread, each leaf must be split into two narrower halves. Each loaf on average requires three split leaves.

So, how many palmetto fronds does La Segunda need per week?

“A lot,” Moré laughed. “He drops them off every other day.”

The Tampa Bay Times did the math. They need about 10,500 palmetto fronds a week and about 546,000 a year.

The process

The palmetto fronds are unloaded from the delivery truck and into La Segunda’s outdoor concrete container, which is equipped with sprinklers to moisten the leaves throughout the day.

A crew of four men work six days a week to sort the fronds, then strip and divide each leaf.

The leaves are brought inside, sanitized and placed on top of the dough. The dough is rolled over so the leaves press into it, rolled back so the leaves are on top, and then placed in the oven. Each loaf is then wrapped for sale with the leaf still on top.

“People expect to see that leaf,” Valdez said. “That’s how they know it’s real Cuban bread.”

Now what?

Danny hasn’t set an official retirement date, Valdez said, but says it will be sooner than later.

“He makes good money,” Valdez said. “But he is getting older. It is a lot of work.”

Perhaps, suggested Moré, who has doctorate in chemistry from Florida State University, someone can create a substitute that will “act like a palmetto leaf.”

Still, he worries alternatives could be toxic.

“They just work and look better because they are natural,” Moré said of the leaves. “Without them, it won’t be the same.”

(Note: Palmetto fronds are used to make Cuban bread. This story has been updated to clarify that point.)

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