Alex Santiago walked into 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.
Admittedly, he didn’t understand the company’s special nature at first, but he quickly came to realize just how much the neighborhood concept is part of South Florida’s culture. The learning process was as personal as it gets. Going back through baby pictures, he discovered the cake at his christening and baptism was from Vicky Bakery.
“I was born in 1975. This company's been around since 1972, and it's been doing amazing products ever since,” Santiago says. “Because I married the youngest daughter, I was the last one to come into the family. I'm still the rookie. I’ve only been here 28 years. I’m still in awe by all the knowledge and just the things that the family does.”
Vicky’s board of directors includes six members of the family: 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 on top of the marketing department, and Fernando and Carmen run training and operations.
Santiago rose to CEO because of his military background, where he learned many of his management and discipline skills. And he knows his role. The restaurateur isn’t as talented at engineering cakes as his some of his family members, so he’s taken it upon himself to bring what Vicky Bakery has done for the past five decades and create a bridge to the next generation. And a big part of that is selecting the right franchisees to grow with.
Founders: Antonio and Gelasia Cao
Year Started: 1972
Annual Sales: Roughly $42 million systemwide
Total Units: 20
“The American dream is that ability to start from nothing, pick yourself up by your bootstraps, and make something in your lifetime,” Santiago says. “And that's what my in-laws did. It's a sense of pride to be able to say that through franchising we are finding partners and investors that can go out there and take our concept because of the way it's been set up. It’s become, in our limited experience, a very profitable business for those that decide to sign up with us.”
The growth will be meticulous. Vicky Bakery doesn’t want to open 100 stores, or even 50. It started 2022 with 17 locations and hopes to end next year with roughly 35. Currently, all of the concept’s locations are along Florida’s Southeast Coast, from Homestead to Boca Raton. 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 began with one store in 1972, which was actually Antonio and Gelasia’s third try, with the first two attempts burning down. The second outlet didn’t open until 1984 and the third came in the early 1990s as Santiago entered the business. Point being, Vicky Bakery thinks very deeply about growth before proceeding. The ongoing expansion phase, while the biggest in company 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 scratch baking. So instead of having four production facilities and eight locations, the group worked on placing all production into one venue. They purchased 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 latter half of 2021. The brand sold its first store to the public at the start of this year.
“That's how long it took to get here,” Santiago says. “I don’t want you to think that this is something that we just created overnight.”
The sweet spot for Vicky Bakery is 2,500 square feet, but it’s dipped to as low as 1,700 square feet and bumped to as high as 3,000-,3,500 square feet. The chain prefers neighborhood positioning that’s easily accessible for morning, afternoon, and evening dayparts. Before the chain fully rolled out its franchising program, it made sure to create a store flow that allowed for as many tickets as possible per hour.
Vicky Bakery averages between $15-$30 in ticket size and 5 to 7 minutes in throughput time. Santiago says the company comes from a tradition of quick pickup; there’s tables in bakeries now, but that’s a relatively new feature.
“We feel we've developed what is a good system, but we're constantly looking at the data, looking at numbers,” Santiago says. “We’re very data-centric when it comes to the efficiencies of our system, so it doesn't mean that we're not going to continue to tweak it. We also listen to our partners when they have suggestions—what is working, what isn't working.”
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 working to open a unit at St. Thomas University, as well. The CEO says the footprint not only introduces Vicky Bakery to younger customers, but it also attracts transplants from all over the country.
“We're very family-friendly,” Santiago says. “So parents bring their kids all the time, grandparents bring their grandchildren all the time. We're very active on social media as well. Our philanthropy allows us to reach out across generations and do things with other people, not to mention the family’s so big that we have 21 kids that are out there. Through their social media and their social webs, that's how we're trying to outreach to the next generation.”
In addition to franchises, the family will continue to open locations because the passion still remains. When describing Vicky’s legacy, Santiago remembers from 2008 when a woman walked in, practically fell to her knees, and began crying. He and his wife expressed concern, and the woman eventually told them her mother passed away a few years earlier and that she had just lost her dad. The wave of smells and the look of the store reminded her of childhood.
That’s how hard the nostalgia hits. Vicky Bakery only wants to create more of those cherished memories.
“It was sad, but at the same time there was a moment of us being able to say we're really part of the fabric of something here,” Santiago says. “We are into people's lives in a way that there's really no other business that can say that except food—where everybody eats, everybody gets involved, everybody has a favorite restaurant, bakery. And what we see with the bakery is while you might go to one or two restaurants a week, we become a real tradition.”