Raul Porto, owner of Porto’s Bakery & Cafe in Los Angeles, traces his family bakery’s biggest move to 2003 when they expanded their Glendale location to include a cafe and coffee bar.

“That was the moment that, all of a sudden, sales blew up,” Porto told attendees of special RPIA Group session Sunday during the International Baking Industry Exposition (IBIE). “Our food business doubled, and our pastry increased 20%, and that was a larger part of the business. The mixing of bakery and food was the biggest thing we ever did.”

And “automation allows us to grow,” he added, noting they now produce the bakery’s famous potato balls at their central commissary for 5 cents apiece, compared with 50 cents apiece before by hand. Further, they recently installed a bun and roll line from WP Bakery Group and operate a line of 140-quart Hobart continuous mixers with a depositor on the end of the line, just for automated sponge cake production.

“One of the reasons we have automated so much is to keep our prices low. We try to keep the lowest prices we possibly can,” Porto said. “We look at anything and everything we can think of to save costs. Our pastries are so inexpensive that people come out loaded with many bags. Our customers are actually marketing for us.”

Today, Porto’s Bakery & Café operates five locations in Los Angeles (with a sixth scheduled for 2021) and serves more than 10 million customers a year, making it arguably the largest retail bakery in the country. The operation has 1,600 employees. Yelp reported that last year Porto’s Buena Park location (opened in 2017) was the most photographed store in America, beating out the fountains at The Bellagio in Las Vegas.

In the early years (Porto’s opened its first store in 1975), the bakeries were 3,000 square feet. The newest locations are at least 21,000 square feet, and Buena Park is 28,000 square feet. In addition, they operate a 57,000 square foot commissary, which Porto said is already pushing capacity.

“Your size gives you tremendous advantages,” Porto said. “The bigger the stores, the more exposure you get.”

During the 2003 expansion into food, Porto recalled that monthly sales leveled out to the point there was little change from summer to winter. August became one of the busiest for sales. From there, everything turned golden.

“The last two stores we opened have had incredible success since day one,” he said. “We have a nation where food is becoming more and more important. I don’t think there’s been a better time to be in our business. People are searching for unique and independent stores. The demand for great products is out there. That’s why price and quality are really important.”