By Callan Burzynski of Jambalaya News
Jose Torres, 33, works with Vietnamese baker Trung Tran and his family at Dong Phuong Oriental Bakery. Out of this kitchen—this intercultural experience—and armed with a focus and a drive to succeed he has held since his youth, Torres now operates his own successful bakery, Dulce. Here is his story.
Born in Nicaragua, Torres moved to Kenner when he was 3 years old. Torres says he was “always in the restaurant business,” starting out as a delivery boy and making his first attempt at running a restaurant at 18. He spent several years at the University of New Orleans, but chose to leave before completing his degree so that he could focus on his restaurant. “I didn’t have the grades for a scholarship, and I didn’t have money from my parents,” Torres explains about his college experience. He funded his courses through the tip money he had saved working. “It’s the same with all the businesses I’ve opened up. I’ve come to the door with [one-dollar bills].”
In 2008, Torres joined Dong Phuong, which has been turning out baked goods for nearly 30 years, with the last 20 spent at their current location, 14207 Chef Menteur Hwy, in New Orleans East. With Torres’ assistance, Dong Phuong’s wholesale market spread to 40 states; the bakery is known locally for its French bread.
While working for Dong Phuong, Torres says, he realized that “the Hispanic market, with respect to bakeries, is under-served.” He lost no time responding to this need, launching his own career and shop, Dulce.
A separate entity operating out of the same building, Dulce was created, says its owner, “knowing what’s going on in the Hispanic community.” That is, Torres explains, the Hispanic community is undersupplied in fresh, local pastries of the sort that can be found back home, adding that he has focused on providing “quality product and a cheap price.” Dulce is now selling baked goods in four states.
“It has been a project that has gone over well with everybody.”
Torres gives credit for what he has learned to Dong Phuong. Working alongside Vietnamese staff, he says, he has been able to “expand what I know,” learning Vietnamese techniques and incorporating them with Latino ingredients.
Originally, the majority of Dong Phuong’s bakers were Vietnamese. After Hurricane Katrina, Hispanic staff came on board. Working with people from such divergent cultural backgrounds, Jose says, involves cultural exchange. “The crazy thing is when the Vietnamese try and speak to the Spanish [in Vietnamese] and they answer back in Spanish…” While foreign words may fall on deaf ears, Torres says everyone is able to communicate through hand signals, an impressive feat when dealing with products that can be ruined if recipes are not followed to a T. And Torres himself has picked up some basic Vietnamese: “That’s a plus for me.”
Torres also credits his success to his staff, and one baker in particular. “I have one of the best bakers from Mexico, Omar Villa. If it wouldn’t have been for him, Dulce wouldn’t be where it’s at.” And business is booming: Torres reports that Dulce has 4,000 bags of baked goods going out in just a week.
As someone who came from a modest background with no handouts along the way, Torres says his motto is simple: “Do one thing small or big to reach your dream, every day.” To the youth in his community, Torres says, “Just do it. Don’t make excuses. Don’t create your own obstacles. One thing every day and you’ll get to your dream.”
Torres was inspired, he says, by his late grandfather, Octavio Salinas. His abuelo “grew up dirt poor and ended up being president” of a major Nicaraguan corporation. “I do everything for him,” says Torres. He is currently engaged, to be married, and his son is a student at Rummel High School in Metairie.