Shelves filled with Portuguese breads and pastries occupy the front area of the cozy Portuguese Bakery, 2082 El Camino Real) inside the Santa Clara Town Centre. Here, the big golden loaves of cinnamon sweet bread are soft and fluffy inside. The light meringue cookies melt in the mouth. The crunchy chocolate swirl and candied fruit biscoitos (cookies similar to Italian biscotti) are perfect for dunking into tea, coffee or milk.
“My mother, sister and I took over the bakery in 2000 from the original owners, the Moreira family; they passed on their recipes to us and trained us,” said Gil Oliveira, owner of the Portuguese Bakery. “When we took over the bakery, this is what we found out from the owners: They were making the product in their garage. They had an oven in there. They started making sweet bread and giving it to the neighbors. Neighbors wanted more of their bread. In 1977, they opened their own shop on Little Main right before Lafayette Street They were in that building over there that is the Neves Fish Market. They needed more space and in the 1980s, they moved over to the space we are at now on El Camino.”
The Portuguese sweet bread is one of the bakery’s fan favorites.
“Our sweet bread is different than your usual sweet bread from other bakeries; it’s not crumbly, like some of the other Portuguese sweet breads out there,” Oliveira said. “This is more like the Hawaiian sweet bread, which came from the Portuguese people who migrated from Portugal to Hawaii to work in the fields.”
In addition to the sweet bread, the bakery still offers items the former owners made, such as lemon biscoitos and rice pudding.
Oliveira, who is Portuguese American, comes from a family of entrepreneurs. When his family took over the bakery, they added more items to the bakery’s menu.
“We created the cinnamon sweet bread where we swirl cinnamon inside the sweet bread—that has been a huge hit,” Oliveira said. “We’ve expanded the flavors of the biscoitos—the previous owners had the lemon flavor and now we have other flavors—chocolate swirl, chocolate, coconut, butter vanilla and anise. The newest one I created was the candied fruit biscoitos. We put [candies] in the butter vanilla cookie.”
According to Oliveira, the former owners made Portuguese donuts called malassadas. Unfortunately, the Portuguese Bakery had to stop producing them because the bakery didn’t have the proper equipment.
“We could never make enough profits so that we could make significant changes in the bakery, such as getting new equipment, fixing machinery and having a presentable retail atmosphere in our shop,” Oliveira said. “We’re barely making it by the skin of our teeth. We’re very cash-strapped. We’ve had to do a lot of cutting back, reorganizing and tightening our belts. We do everything by hand but we need more equipment.”
Hoping to raise funds from the community to help his bakery pull through these hard times, Oliveira is overseeing a crowdfunding campaign on his bakery’s web site (www.PortugueseBakery.com). By the beginning of October, donors should be able to give money through the web site.
“Several years ago, when the former Mervyn’s Plaza, that is now the Santa Clara Town Centre, was being renovated, we had to close down the bakery for three to four months and we barely made it out of that,” Oliveira said. “Over the last five years since my mother passed away, I’ve been struggling to communicate to people about business updates. [Managing the bakery] has been a learning process for us over the years.”