More Than A Taste Of Home

The Rojas family’s bakery has become a delicious haven for the Colombian community.

Jose Rojas, left, with his parents, Teresa and Ricky Rojas, at their bakery in Elizabeth.
Photo by Marc Steiner/Agency New Jersey.

When Teresa and Ricky Rojas were about to open Don Ricky’s Bakery on Morris Avenue in Elizabeth 30 years ago, they hit a major snag. They had surmounted greater difficulties, like moving with their three small children (including a 9-month-old) to a home in town from their native Cali, Colombia, in 1979, and finding a suitable space for their business. But obtaining yucca flour—the most essential ingredient for creating the traditional Colombian breads and pastries they planned to make their hallmark—proved to be a higher hurdle. At that time importers of ethnic ingredients such as yucca flour were rare. To complicate things, Teresa and Ricky spoke no English.

“My father went to Jackson Heights [New York] and looked for other Latin bakeries to ask who their importers were,” says Jose Rojas, 30, the couple’s youngest son. “Then he would put my brother or sister on the phone and have them talk to the importers in English.” Once Don Ricky’s opened, word of mouth spread through the Colombian community. The little bakery began drawing customers from all over New Jersey and New York City, most seeking the Rojases pan de yucca, a savory bread made with queso blanco (white cheese).

Don Ricky’s was the first Colombian-owned business along the avenue when it opened in 1979. The Rojas family had enjoyed a fine life in Cali (where, in addition to operating a bakery, Teresa was vice president of a coffee distributor and Ricky was a toxicology professor at Universidad de Valle). But when Teresa’s brother Augusto, who had married an American woman and settled in Elizabeth, told them a Colombian bakery would do well here and sponsored the family, they decided to emigrate. As the Colombian diaspora gained traction in the late ’80s and early ’90s—expanding the Elizabeth community specifically—the bakery provided more than a taste of home.

“She says it was like the consulate,” says Jose, translating for his mother. “People would come in without a place to stay or a job, and my mom and dad knew so many people here that they helped send the newcomers to the right places.”

These days thirteen bakeries line the avenue, but the couple’s geniality and long history here have ensured the solidity of their business. “Calidad y atencion,” answers Ricky, when asked the key to their success. The yellow-and-orange-walled space swells with customers at peak times (factory workers in the morning, the city hall crowd at lunch, locals around dinner time). Most are regulars who sit at the counter and chat in Spanish with the couple. Two glass cases tempt with pan dulce, cakes, and more. Behind the counter are corn arepas, empanadas, and a BBQ rotisserie pit.

The other Rojas children have their own success stories: Sandra, 39, graduated from Princeton and is now a florist living in Portugal; Juan, 36, graduated from New Jersey Institute of Technology and works for an American computer company in Colombia. There are six grandchildren between them. As for Jose, after becoming disenchanted with a career as a currency trader, he started his own business in 2005 in Manhattan’s Chelsea area, Big Booty Bread Co., a trendy version of his parent’s operation. Along with his pan de yucca, his red velvet cupcakes have garnered him praise and a hip clientele. Because yucca flour is naturally gluten-free, a new market has opened for the entrepreneur: “I am seeing customers who are allergic to gluten and haven’t eaten bread in years,” he says. “They are so happy to have it again.”

Though the Rojas family loves to travel (they’ve seen most of Europe), they love New Jersey for its seasons and its people, for their hometown (now Union), and their summers in Sea Isle City. Teresa, through Jose, says the family has remained a unit, even though they no longer eat dinner together every night as they did when the kids were small, even as she and Ricky worked nearly twenty-hour days. Teresa adds something else with a laugh. “And,” translates Jose, smiling, “we can all salsa dance.”

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