Taking on a brand new path isn’t always easy — and this is something that Rick Jurado of Merengue Bakery and Cafe knows well. After years of working in the clothing industry, he recently acquired the Monrovia Cuban bakery and cafe last summer and now it’s better than ever. The menu is filled with delicious Cuban sandwiches and treats — and you gotta try the cakes. The Cuban cake with guava is seriously what dreams are made of.
And you’ll be able to, if you’ve entered our Merengue Bakery giftcard giveaway that’s going on right now and ends today. If you haven’t and you need some more convincing, then check out our interview with Jurado below.
What was your background before taking on ownership of Merengue Bakery?
I am a 3rd generation clothing retailer. Starting with my great-grandfather in Cuba, we were in the clothing and retail business. In 1968, when my family immigrated to the United States they briefly went into the banking industry but quickly found their way back into clothing opening their first store in Echo Park. I grew up in the clothing stores playing hide and go seek with the employees and spending every day off from school there. I never thought I would leave the clothing business, but after 20 years, at the age of 38, the challenge and drive had been lost for me so I had to make a change.
Why did you decide to go into the food business?
My son Ricky was a Junior at La Salle High School in Pasadena and was starting to look at colleges. At that point I realized that he would be away at school soon and that I was going to have a lot of time on my hands and that’s when the opportunity came up with the bakery. George, one of the past owners and a personal friend, reached out to me and presented the opportunity and I jumped at it and haven’t looked back. Since then, my son is studying Biology at Baylor University and George has stayed on board as General Manager. He brings many years of experience and has always been the face of the bakery.
What have been some of the challenges of continuing a brand that once belonged to someone else?
Definitely past experiences… good or bad. The business got a complete face lift with an updated menu, new branding and a completely new image when we relocated the current location. People were used to the old way, the old look and some weren’t too happy in the beginning because they were used to something else. Hands down, the majority of the people praise all of the changes and we are constantly hearing “how much better than before” we are. We have put an emphasis on outstanding customer service and have put together a great team of young men and women who share in our drive and passion for a quality product.
What were some of the challenges of going from the retail business to the food business? Which skills from your time in retail came in handy in the food industry?
There have been many! First and most obvious is that the two have nothing to do with each other. Outside of my own kitchen, I had limited experience in this industry so it was vital to put a team together that shared my vision. My best friend Daniel came on board the first week we opened and took over the kitchen. Since then he has taken the roll of new product development and helps me with all of the costing. As for the tools that come in handy, I would definitely have to say customer service , people management, cleanliness and organization and overall knowledge of owning and operating a successful business.
Merengue seems to draw a lot of comparisons to Porto’s. How is Merengue different and has there been an effort to differentiate yourselves from Porto’s?
We are always compared to “P’s”… Always. I think it is a compliment at times but we are different. We are not them and don’t want to be them. They have a good product in a grand scale. Merengue has a great product in a smaller scale. We have another take on a Cuban Bakery & Café.
What is your best-selling item? What is your favorite dish/food item at Merengue?
Hands down our best-selling item is our Papa Rellena. Marinated ground beef, inside fluffy mashed potatoes and then rolled in bread crumbs and fried. They’re a hit! My favorite items are the Merengue Frita, which is the Cuban version of a hamburger and our chocolate brownie… You have to try it!
A lot of celebs come by or order cakes, like Christina Milian. Which have been your favorite and why?
I am a huge L.A. Dodgers fan so definitely doing cakes for Matt Kemp and Yasiel Puig have been some of my most memorable ones.
What are some of your favorite places to eat in Southern California?
I’m pretty simple and would rather eat a home cooked meal at my mom’s whenever I can, but if I am going out, I like going to Din Tai Fung in Arcadia for dumplings, Petrillo’s in San Gabriel for pizza or Shamshuri in Glendale for Iranian food.