Alex Santiago entered the Vicky Bakery business 30 years ago because he fell in love with his wife, Elizabeth, the youngest daughter of Cuban founders Antonio and Gelasia Cao.
It is true that at first he did not understand the special nature of the company, but he quickly realized how much the concept of neighborhood is part of the culture of South Florida. The learning process was as personal as it gets. Going through the photos of his baby, he discovered that her christening and baptism cake was from Vicky Bakery.
“I was born in 1975. This company has been around since 1972 and has been making amazing products ever since,” says Santiago. “Since I married the youngest daughter, I was the last to enter the family. I’m still the newbie. me‘I’ve only been here 28 years. me‘I’m still in awe of all the knowledge and things the family does.”
Vicky’s board of directors includes six family members: Santiago and Elizabeth; Pedro and Amy Cao; and Fernando and Carmen Oramas. Santiago serves as CEO, while Elizabeth oversees human resources and account management. Pedro is in charge of business development, Amy is in charge of the marketing department, and Fernando and Carmen are in charge of training and operations.
Santiago rose to CEO due to his military training, where he learned many of his management skills and discipline. And he knows the role of him. The restaurateur isn’t as talented at cake engineering as some of his family members, so he took it upon himself to bring what Vicky Bakery has done for the past five decades and create a bridge for the next generation. And a big part of that is selecting the right franchisees to grow with.
Founders: Antonio and Gelasia Cao
Start year: 1972
Annual sales: Approximately $42 million system-wide
Total units: twenty
“The American dream is that ability to start from scratch, pick yourself up and do something with your life,” says Santiago. “And that’s what my in-laws did. We are proud to say that through franchising we are finding partners and investors who can go out and take our concept because of the way it has been established. It’s‘It has become, in our limited experience, a very profitable business for those who decide to hire us.”
The growth will be minute. Vicky Bakery doesn’t want to open 100 stores, not even 50. It started in 2022 with 17 locations and expects to finish next year with about 35. Currently, all concept locations are along the southeast coast of Florida, from Homestead to Mouth Mouse. More units are scheduled for Palm Beach, Orlando and Southwest Florida. Santiago also mentioned that Vicky Bakery has been in talks with operators in Texas and Georgia.
The brand started with a store in 1972, which was actually Antonio and Gelasia’s third attempt, and the first two attempts burned down. The second outlet did not open until 1984 and the third came in the early 1990s when Santiago went into business. The point is that Vicky Bakery thinks very deeply about growth before proceeding. The ongoing expansion phase, while the largest in the company’s history, is still 14 years in the making.
When the chain opened two units in 2008, the family saw how difficult it was to duplicate home baking. So instead of having four production facilities and eight locations, the group worked to put all production in one place. They bought a distressed property at a good price during the economic downturn and built it up over the years. Now, Vicky Bakery is in the process of purchasing another 16,000 square foot facility to support further growth.
Technically speaking, Santiago’s niece became the first franchisee in the second half of 2021. The brand sold its first store to the public earlier this year.
“That’s how long it took to get here,” says Santiago. “I do not‘I don’t want you to think that this is something we just created overnight.”
The sweet spot for Vicky Bakery is 2,500 square feet, but it has shrunk down to 1,700 square feet and gone up to 3,000-3,500 square feet. The chain prefers a neighborhood positioning that is easily accessible for morning, afternoon and evening hours. Before the chain fully implemented its franchising program, it made sure to create a store flow that allowed for as many tickets per hour as possible.
Vicky Bakery averages between $15-$30 in ticket size and 5-7 minutes in processing time. Santiago says the company stems from a tradition of quick pickup; now there are tables in bakeries, but that’s a relatively new feature.
“We feel that we have developed what is a good system, but we are constantly looking at the data, looking at the numbers,” says Santiago. “We are very data-centric when it comes to the efficiency of our system, so it doesn’t mean we won’t continue to tweak it. We also listen to our partners when they have suggestions: what works, what doesn’t work”.
As for Santiago’s desire to reach the next generation, Vicky Bakery has a presence on the campus of Florida International University and the University of Miami. The company is also working to open a unit at the University of St. Thomas. The CEO says the imprint not only introduces Vicky Bakery to younger customers, but also attracts transplants from across the country.
“We are very familiar,” says Santiago. “So parents bring their kids all the time, grandparents bring their grandkids all the time. We are also very active on social media. Our philanthropy allows us to reach across generations and do things with other people, not to mention family.‘It’s so big that we have 21 kids out there. Through their social media and their social media, that’s how we’re trying to reach the next generation.”
In addition to the franchises, the family will continue to open stores because the passion still remains. Describing Vicky’s legacy, Santiago recalls that in 2008 a woman walked in, she practically fell to her knees and began to cry. He and her wife expressed her concern, and the woman finally told them that her mother had passed away a few years earlier and that she had just lost her father. The wave of smells and the look of the store reminded him of his childhood.
That’s how hard nostalgia hits. Vicky Bakery just wants to create more of those precious memories.
“It was sad, but at the same time there was a moment where we could say that we really are part of the fabric of something here,” says Santiago. “We’re into people’s lives in a way that there’s really no other business that can say that, except for food, where everyone eats, everyone gets involved, everyone has a favorite restaurant, a bakery. And what we see with the bakery is that as long as you go to one or two restaurants a week, we become a real tradition.”