Business remains brisk at old-timey Pitusa Bakery, despite influx of fast food chains
Mornings on 149th Street and Union Avenue in Mott Haven are busy affairs. Patrons file into Pitusa Bakery and wait on lines that often stretch the length of the store, for breakfast and coffee served up by women in blue aprons and matching visors.
The freshly-baked Cuban style bread and hot breakfast options, like omelets and home fries, attract a hodgepodge of local residents: former Bronxites returning for a taste of home, teachers from surrounding schools, construction workers and cops among them.
“Sometimes you’ll see like three, four [police] cars here,” said David Reyes, an officer at the 40th Precinct. “When it’s a nice, slow day they’ll all come here at the same time, get breakfast and head back out.”
Though Pitusa opened decades ago, one family of Ecuadorean immigrants has been churning out coffee, shakes, baked goods, sandwiches and hot breakfasts since they bought the bakery in 1995. Like clockwork, Sergio and Gloria Benitez have opened their doors at dawn, seven days a week, all year round ever since. The only time over those years when the bakery did not open daily was during a three-week spell last summer so they could gut renovate.
Gloria recalled her first day on the job, 21 years ago. She and an employee worked the counter. They made just $45 that day. Although she declined to say how much profits have grown since then, it’s clear that they have.
The husband-and-wife team has since been joined by their son Sergio Jr. and a staff of 16. On most days, Pitusa is so busy that 10 people are needed to serve customers, while six more do prep work and bake, behind the scenes.
Staff size is not the only thing that has changed over the years—so has the surrounding neighborhood. In the ’90s, the couple faced off with drug dealers who waited in front of the shop for customers to come out.
The look of the area, too, has changed. For years, Pitusa faced an empty lot that was later converted into a community garden, after it had sat vacant since the 1970s. In 2012, a Queens-based developer chose the spot to build three towers of mixed commercial and residential space, that will range up to fifteen stories high. Crossroads Plaza will comprise hundreds of rental apartments when it opens.
But as exciting opportunities for increased business have emerged, so has competition, with the arrival of fast food franchises. In the past decade, Dunkin’ Donuts, Subway, Popeyes and Little Ceasar’s have replaced the mom-and-pop shops that once dominated.
“The block used to be very different. There was a local locksmith, a Puerto Rican restaurant and other small businesses…It has been disappointing to see local stores go,” said Sergio Jr. “When Dunkin’ Donuts opened down the block, we were very nervous. As well as Subway, seeing how coffee and sandwiches are a staple in our business.”
But though Pitusa now shares the area with chains, its customer base remains rock solid.
“If you go to Dunkin’ Donuts it’s wham, bam, see you, Sam,” said Robert Crespo, the vice chair of Bronx Community Board 2, who has been a customer since Pitusa opened. “At least over here, some of the staff knows me for so many years. They say hello. They speak to you. And it’s the difference.”
The Benitez family plans on staying put. Last spring, they signed a 10-year lease to remain in their current space, where they say they will continue to rely on the time-honored formula that has gotten them to the 20-year mark: fresh food, friendly service, low prices and hard work.
On most days, father and son are out the door and on their way to Pitusa by 4 a.m. One or both are at the bakery whenever it’s open. Gloria is usually behind the counter too, although her arthritis has forced her to take on a reduced role. The family attributes the quality service and efficiency of their operation to a sense of teamwork they say stems from their close relationships with their staff.
“It’s not just a business, it’s beyond that,” said Sergio Jr., pointing out customers who have been coming to Pitusa since its humble beginnings.
“I remember seeing little kids and now they’re taller than me. Little seven-year-olds and now they’re going to college. I know their dads, their uncles,” he said. “Half the time, people don’t even need to tell me their order. I’ll just grab their coffee and bread. I have so many orders memorized.”
The Benitez’s say they have run into customers as near as Nyack and as far as Orlando, with praise for their food, requests for them to open local branches, and even hugs.
“My parents were on vacation in Florida and they were at a Home Depot. Some guy started yelling ‘Pitusa!’ at them,” said Sergio Jr. “One time, they were eating at a Peruvian place, and the cook came out,” to warmly greet them. He, too, was a former customer.
Pitusa Bakery is located at the corner of 149th Street and Union Avenue in Mott Haven, and is open Monday-Friday from 5 a.m.-9 p.m. and Saturdays from 6 a.m. – 8 p.m.