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Ybor institution struggles to find people who can bake Cuban bread like it's 1915

EVE EDELHEIT | Times Cuban bread at La Segunda Central Bakery in Tampa on Thursday, February 19, 2015. The bakery's 100th anniversary is this year.
Published Mar. 22, 2018

TAMPA — The brick and mortar part was easy. This summer, the 103-year-old La Segunda Bakery — the world's largest producer of Cuban bread — will open a new store on W Kennedy Boulevard.

The hard part is finding people who can make Cuban bread the way it was done in 1915.

"No one seems to be able to do the old way today," said La Segunda co-owner Tony More, whose Spanish immigrant grandfather founded the Ybor City bakery after arriving here more than a century ago.

The "old way'' isn't easy.

It begins with the dough, which is kneaded for 15 minutes and then hand-rolled into loaves that are 3 feet long. Next come the palm leaf strips, which must be pressed just so into the top. That creates the seam that has become the La Segunda signature.

This is how Tampa's first wave of Cuban and Spanish immigrants made their Cuban bread, but it is a tradition only a few bakeries still honor.

So finding employees capable of joining the Cuban bread team at La Segunda's second location has been difficult, More said.

At least half of the 29-person bread staff at its bakery at 2512 N 15th St. comes from families with long traditions of making Latin delicacies the old-fashioned way. Many have been baking that way since they were kids.

"But we're tapped-out on family connections," said Copeland More, 37, who co-owns the bakery with his father, Tony. And culinary schools, he noted, don't train bakers in the ways of palmetto leaves.

After more than a month of searching, the More family has found just five people it thinks have the stuff to become bakers at the new location, 4001 W Kennedy Blvd.

They are now immersed in a four-week training period that teaches all of the traditional techniques. But they may not all make it. The typical graduation rate for apprentice bakers at La Segunda is about 20 percent, said plant manager Dave Dumas.

La Segunda needs at least another eight bakers, plus four more pastry chefs to be added to its current total of six. Pastry chefs must learn how to make from scratch the estimated 75 different sweet treats sold at the bakery.

Most potential employees, even those with degrees from culinary institutions, are accustomed to the process being fully automated, Dumas said.

"People come to us and say they are bakers but at past jobs they just pulled stuff from freezers and put it in an oven," Copeland More said.

At La Segunda, human hands are the primary tool for the daily baking of 1,000 pastries and 18,000 loaves of Cuban bread.

Employees also need to be able to brave difficult conditions. "There is no air conditioning, so in the summer it gets very hot,'' Copeland More said. "And you're on your feet all day."

Plus, La Segunda bakes bread around the clock and pastries for 18 hours a day, so employees are regularly asked to take turns on late-night shifts.

So why work at La Segunda?

The Copelands preach La Segunda's competitive pay, health insurance and a 401(k) with a company match.

But it's pride that has kept current master baker Tony Ali, 38, on La Segunda's Cuban bread line for 19 years.

"This is a trade," said Ali, who had little baking experience when he was first trained by the More family. "You can't just walk off the street and do this. It takes time to care for this bread.''

La Segunda, which ships its Cuban bread as far away as Alaska, does have some automation, but not much.

The ingredients needed to bake 15,000 pounds of dough a day are added by hand to two-automated mixers. And there is a machine to roll the 13,000 smaller loaves made daily.

But the dough for each large loaf is weighed by hand and the 5,000 36-inch loaves made every day are hand-rolled by the 10 employees per shift.

The most tedious step is "scoring" the bread, the process of slashing the dough so the loaf will rise as it bakes.

Most bakeries that mass produce bread quickly score with lasers or knives, Copeland More said.

La Sagunda uses palmetto leaves like the immigrants from Cuba and Spain who arrived in Tampa in the early 1900s. The doughy loaves are placed in a steam room, rise around the leaves to create the seam and are then baked.

Copeland More knows of only three other local establishments that still use palmetto leaves to score: Casino Bakery, Mauricia Faedo's and Moreno Bakery, with the founders of the latter two being former La Segunda bakers.

Switching to a more modern method would make finding employees easier, Copeland More acknowledged, but he promises La Segunda will stick with the old-fashioned way.

"For us it is a method my great grandfather brought here," he said. "The palmetto leaf was his tradition and it will remain."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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