Sunday, April 8, 2007

The Teacake Wars


This story begins with the graveyard shift. The Coral Cafe on Magnolia is the only place in Burbank that delivers at 3am. I have eaten their mediocre food on many a desperate occasion. And I always thought it was strange that amongst their boring menu items was one star - an amazing teacake. It isn't like the southern teacakes I bake, which are giant, cake-like cookies. This one is a buttermilk sponge-cake with a glazed sugar icing, which resembles a little petit-four.

Then one day I was in Bob's Big Boy, and hey, they had the exact same teacake. I asked their supplier, and they told me it was Martino's. My friend Lisa had already recommended their location on Verdugo to me. And Lisa knows all of the best bakeries, in spite of being my skinniest friend. Luckily for me, a few months later a flower shop nearby on Victory became the new home to Martino's.


Every once in a while I stop into their shiny, clean bakery for a box of teacakes on my way home. They are much better fresh, so moist and delicious. In addition to the buttermilk, they also have blueberry, cranberry, and bran. The blueberry teacakes have a layer of blueberry filling topped with a crumbly streusel, so they are almost like a little tiny cobbler.




When I started to write this blog, I thought I would do a quick internet search and get a little background info before swooning over the teacakes in annoying detail. Martino's website turned out to be kind of confusing. It talks about how the bakery started in the Martinos' garage back in 1926, then when Campbell's Soup was going to close it down in 1994, the employees started a stock option to take over the company. Then it vaguely states, "Through all of its ups and downs it has been able to keep its recipes in tack (sic)." I'm not even going to start in on the "In tack" thing. It also mentions that Amerio Corradi is part owner.

In an article for the "Senior Bulldog News" (Of which I am sure you are all faithful readers), Herb Vincent trumpets the opening of the Martino's on Victory in 2006. It says Amerio Corradi, an employee and school chum of the Martinos' son, bought the bakery in 1948 with his partner, Vic. The business was sold to Campbells Soup's Pepperidge Farm division in 1980. Then it clearly states, "Vic and Amerio both continued on with Campbell’s as a part of the sales agreement, Vic for one year and Amerio for almost five." So that puts Amerio out the door in 1984.

The article goes on to state that Amerio opened a small bakery on Verdugo near Olive...with no mention of the name of the bakery or the date. The last reference point we have is Campbell's buying the place in 1980 and sending Amerio out the door just under five years later. In an article on the employee buyout from 1998, Amerio is quoted as an outside source. So when could he have gotten involved in the "new" Martinos? The next thing you know, the article is talking about the current location on Victory. And there is a photo of Amerio, smiling and posing out front on opening day.

The two stories were just the bakery's own self-promotion and a local fluff piece, but even they couldn't synch up? So I went over to Chowhound, where people have definite opinions, and certainly know their stuff. This is a direct quote from popular poster, UBERGEEK, "United Bakery on Flower St. in Burbank -- remember Martino's teacakes? Well, Martino's reopened on Victory different ownership and the teacakes at the "new" Martino's are disgusting -- but United Bakery bought the original recipe and they're true copies of the delicious original. Most unlikely place for a bakery in the history of history -- north of Alameda, in a disgusting warehouse section of Burbank."

Well, I don't think the "new" Martino's teacakes are "disgusting", but maybe he uses the term loosely, because the warehouse section wasn't that disgusting either. But he was definitely on to something. Here was the lead I'd been waiting for. So today I decided to head straight to the source. Keeping this blog is sure requiring a lot more investigative journalism than I had anticipated.

United Bakery is definitely in a deserted industrial area just off of the 5 freeway and Alameda, practically under a bridge. It seemed like a good place to dump a body. Other than the signs advertising pumpkin pie and a welcoming OPEN sign, I might have passed the plain building without a second glance.

It was clearly an industrial bakery with just a small front counter for walk-ins. It reminded me of the little back-alley bakeries of Chinatown. There were the infamous tea cakes - buttermilk only, pan dulces (elote conches only), hot cross buns and some pies. Definitely not the same overwhelming array of goods as in the shiny "new Martino's". What struck me the most were the faded old demo cakes lining the top edge of the walls, which took me back to the 70s when my mom used to decorate cakes.

I picked up some hot cross buns for Easter, and the tea cakes. I was marvelling at their striking similarity to the "other" teacakes. A guy passed by carrying a big tray and asked how I was doing. Walk-ins don't seem to be a common sight and he was curious. I said, "I'm confused about the difference between this place and Martinos." His voice grew tense. "Completely different."

"So you both used to work for Martino's and split to open different bakeries?"

"THEY never worked for Martino's"

"I read on the internet that the employees bought Martino's from Campbell's"

"The employees bought it and ran it straight into the ground. Straight into bankruptcy."

"So then you opened this place."

"Yeah. They came to me looking for jobs, and we trained them. We trained them and (he makes a hand gesture that can mean "off they went" but seemed to mean "they just fucked off and betrayed us.)"

"So they never had any connection to Martino's?"

"They just bought the name."

"Wait. You trained them, and taught them your trade secrets, then they left, and bought the name Martino's and opened up as Martino's?"

"Yes."

I had so many more questions, but he was seething by now. I had opened old wounds, freshened I'm sure by the shiny new bakery counter of the Martino's on Victory. It was time to grab my baked goods and beat a hasty exit.

When I got home, I was able to dredge up an article online about the employees bankrupting the original Martino's. But I still don't get the connection with Amerio. Maybe he sold them the name and poses as part of the deal. Maybe he is an original owner and it really is his place and something weird went down with United bakery. I still don't know who the guy is at United bakery. Though he intimated that he worked at the original Martino's, it was never stated explicitly. And as I said, I wore out my welcome before I got to the introductions.

I tend to root for the underdog, and I really wanted United's teacakes to blow Martino's out of the water. But they were just like Martino's, maybe just a little denser, just a little stickier. I'm not sure I have the full story here. I may need to buy some more teacakes. I may need to go deep undercover.







http://www.martinosbakery.com/index.html

http://www.wesclark.com/burbank/martinos.html

http://www.inc.com/magazine/19980901/991.html

United Bakery 727 South Flower St Burbank CA 91502

Martino's Bakery 335 North Victory Burbank 91502



4 comments:

gina & heath said...

sounds like a front for a drug cartel. be verrrrrry careful, elise.

g

Anonymous said...

http://www.inc.com/magazine/19980901/991.html

i thought LA Weekly or New Times did an in-depth on this, too

steven said...

I haven't talked to Amerio in many years, but I know that he was working at United Bakery for quite awhile after Martinos Bakery shut down. It sounds like when Amerio wanted to do his own thing and resurrect the Martinos name it caused some friction with the guys at United.

I had also heard that United had purchased the Martinos recipes from Amerio, including the tea cake recipe, but I don't know if it's true.

United and Martinos had a relationship going way back... they used to make croissants, and I believe a few other items that the old Martinos plant didn't really have the space/inclination to make

Amerio is an inspiration. The guy is somewhere in his mid eighties, is fairly wealthy, and continues to do his thing with his bakery. I guess he just loves it.

Niela said...

My grandfather, great-uncle and uncle all worked for martino's. I was bought and dumped by campbell's when my uncle was the last one of the family working there. What the guy said at United was true. My dad has gone to Martino's for those awesome teacakes that we had growing up when my grandfather brought stuff home from work during the week and for holidays. My dad said that the new Martino's is owned by one of the family members, a brother of one of original owner. That's what I know.