All in the Family

Over two decades, La Estrella Bakery has earned a loyal clientele--and expansion may be around the corner

It was Oct. 31, 1986, when Antonio and Martha Franco opened La Estrella Bakery on South 12th Avenue. On their first day of business, they sold a mere $14 worth of products--a frightening prospect for a husband and wife with four children to feed.

But business got better, and now in 2007, seductive aromas permeate the air. The bakery is abuzz with customers patiently standing in line to choose among the many tempting flavored empanadas, dessert chimis, bolillos (sandwich rolls), donuts and sweet egg-bread pastries, whimsically shaped and pastel-hued. During the weekend, the line starts forming at 6 a.m., with most of the people carrying pots from home to fill with some of the 60 gallons of Chihuahua-style red menudo.

When the Francos initially migrated from Tepatitlan in the state of Jalisco, they worked for Sabino Gomez, an uncle who then owned El Rio Bakery in Barrio Hollywood. Eventually, they saved up enough money to open their own bakery, which has grown to 36 employees; some have worked there for almost 20 years, and many have been employed there for more than 10. After 21 years, both parents continue to work at La Estrella with their children. Antonio, 55, still loves to do the baking, and Martha, 54, handles the administration.

"As kids, we used to play with the dough," jokes Erica, 30. "So, of course, it's a natural extension that we're involved in the bakery."

Erica appears to be the bakery's dynamic spokesperson. She's also a pastry chef who opens the store at 4:30 a.m. a few days per week, works until 1 p.m., then goes to teach Spanish classes at either the UA or Pima Community College. If her siblings are unavailable to close the store, she'll return as needed. Despite this busy schedule, she's managed to get a master's degree in Hispanic literature from the UA and has lived and taught in Spain, soaking up the local culture.

When asked if she has a life, Erica laughs. The grueling schedule doesn't seem to affect her, but she says she's looking forward to vacationing out of the country for three weeks.

"Traveling, eating well and culinary arts are my passions," says Erica, who adds that Mariscos Chihuahua is her favorite local seafood restaurant, and Vivace is her favorite for Italian restaurant.

Sister Isabelle, 35, is married with three children and works full-time at the bakery doing the accounting. She has a business degree in finance and accounting from the UA. Sandra, 27, teaches kindergarten at Menlo Park Elementary School, but works at the bakery on weekends and in summer. She also has a degree in Mexican-American studies and a master's degree in education. Jorge, 30, the head dough man, came on board 11 years ago during a family emergency and never left.

The view from the street belies the activity within. A warm maze of rooms orchestrates the baking activities, which go beyond what the bountiful retail display cases offer. Tortillas and Mexican pastries are distributed to Safeway, Fry's and Albertsons stores in Tucson, Eloy and Green Valley, as well as Holsum Bakery in Casa Grande.

Seven days a week, 1,200 dozen corn and flour tortillas are made by a busy human assembly line composed of many hands. For certain holidays, like Cinco de Mayo, Mexican Independence Day, Christmas and New Year's Eve, the bakery will make another 900 dozen. Whole-wheat tortillas are only available at the bakery--but they're well worth the drive. They taste of rustic goodness.

Erica laments that distributors are trying to convince her to buy pre-made dough. "All our tortillas and pastry dough is made from scratch," she proudly proclaims. "Except for the dough mixer and dough cutter, everything is handmade."

What will the future bring? Erica envisions a café downtown that is somehow linked to the university, where poets can come and do readings and enjoy fresh Mexican pastries and coffee. She's already scouting locations.

La Estrella Bakery doesn't yet have a Web site, but if you do a Google search, you'll find an abundance of references. People in chat rooms and online forums reminisce about how they grew up in the neighborhood, and now that they are away at college or faraway places, they're overjoyed to receive boxes of baked favorites.

Other Web searches refer to articles and recipes hinting at a secret ingredient. But Erica is a hard cookie to crack, and no amount of persistence on my part can coax the secret ingredient out of her.

That's OK; I already know the answer: The secret ingredient is passion.