When Alfredo Livas and Ricardo Cervantes were little boys growing up in Monterrey, Mexico, they never ran into each other after school when they indulged in hot chocolate and pastries in the region’s many panaderias. It wasn’t until 20 years later that they met in California and memories of that afternoon ritual would metamorphosize into La Monarca Bakery, a chain of 12 bakeries celebrating their Mexican heritage.
The pair met while studying at Stanford Business School and spent nights reminiscing about the bakeries in Monterrey. The 20-somethings noticed that the Hispanic market was a woefully underserved sleeping giant.
“If you went to a Mexican neighborhood 20 years ago in L.A. or the Bay Area, there were no Starbucks or In & Out,” Livas tells L.A. Weekly, up to his elbows in conchas, cakes and orejitas in his Highland Park store. “We started comparing that to how things were in Mexico and wanted to recreate that community. We knew we wanted to do a brand that resonated with the next generation of Latinos. We looked at the demographics and how the market was changing and becoming more enculturated. People were trying to reconnect with their roots, not necessarily based on nostalgia, but based on pride and being Latino. They grew up here and were educated here, becoming professionals like doctors, lawyers and businessmen and were eager to reconnect with their heritage.”
Everybody tried to talk them out of it. “Don’t spend a lot of money on it,” contemporaries would tell them. “‘Latinos just want something cheap, they don’t want anything nice, just cheap stuff.
“People told us we were crazy,” says Livas. “When we opened our first bakery in Huntington Park, there were 12 bakeries within a mile radius of where we were, but that was a good sign for us. There was a demand there. All we ever heard was, ‘Don’t spend a lot of money.’ Our philosophy from the beginning was that’s just not true, nobody likes cheap stuff. People like the best they can afford. If I’m going to bring you a cake, I’m going to buy you the nicest I can afford for my budget. Why should Latinos get pegged for that and the rest of the world deserves something nice? So that was a little chip on our shoulders that we always had. We’re not trying to go for a place that’s upscale, just welcoming to everyone, even if you’ve never been in a panaderia before.”
After opening the first retail store in 2006, they went on to open almost a store a year, often in historically working-class Hispanic neighborhoods like Boyle Heights, Pico Rivera, East L.A., Whittier and Lincoln Heights. The brand’s focus is to build a bridge between culture in America and Mexico by protecting and preserving historic food traditions for a younger, more ingredient-forward audience.
“We were told the place was too nice, which I found insulting,” says the father of three whose wife grew up in Boyle Heights. ‘What do you mean, it’s too nice for Mexicans? Like they don’t deserve it?’ Well, when we opened, there were lines down the street. Latinos were ready for something new and updated and that store was a success from the very first day and still does well. It took us three years to build it because we had no idea what we were doing. If we knew then what we know now, we may not have signed that corner because the building had so many issues. But hey, ignorance is bliss.”
Since then, the La Monarca brand can be found in Costco, which will begin carrying wedding cookies, Albertsons and Cost Plus World Market, which will feature a hot chocolate and molinillo gift box for the holidays. All the bakery items are made from scratch, with no artificial ingredients and made mostly by hand in the Gardena commissary they bought in 2017. Costco called on Livas and Cervantes when the behemoth saw the hispanic demographic was shifting. A community proud of its heritage had more disposable income and was looking for updated products, something the partners had been preaching for 15 years.
“In L.A., people aren’t intimidated by Latino products anymore, but it’s exciting to go into other areas that aren’t as familiar and watch them get discovered and see them resonate,” says Livas, whose products can now be found in Costcos from Central California to the border, as well as Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas. “It’s about celebrating and meeting new friends. That’s the difference between a Latino bakery and other bakeries, it’s all about celebration. Everybody’s in a good mood. You come in on a Saturday or Sunday morning and you’ll see a table with grandma and generations of her whole family.”
In addition to packaged cookies, coffee, granola, honey and delicacies like guava marmalade, the stores carry seasonal items like pan de muerto starting next week, which is available through November, and hot chocolate for the holidays, as well as Rosca de Reyes for Three Kings day in January. Items can be found at their online store as well.
Named after the Monarch butterfly, La Monarca is an homage to immigration.
“There are a few things behind the significance of the monarch butterfly, after which the brand was named,” says Livas. “When we were thinking of the concept of the brand, we wanted something that makes you think pan dulce — warm, airy, light, delicate and carefree. That’s how you would describe a butterfly. Orange is the happiest color in the spectrum and we realized there weren’t any brands out there that had orange. Starbucks has its green, the purple coffee bean, we claimed orange — just like the monarch. Orange is a happy color and bakeries are happy places. That butterfly resonates with Mexicans because they fly all the way from the U.S. and migrate to a national park in Central Mexico to breed. There’s even a soccer team named after them. They are as dear to us as the American eagle is here. Migration is the story of Latinos in the US, immigrating back and forth. We donate 1% of our sales to ECOLife Conservation‘s efforts for the monarch population — not our profits, our sales.”
It started with two young guys working seven days a week, 20 hours a day and sleeping in the back office. They’d start baking at 2 in the morning, close at night and clean the place, learning the ropes as they went along. At first, it was just pastries and cakes, no seating or coffee in the beginning, everything to go. Now all stores have seating and espresso bars where you can open up your laptop and work.
“In Latino families, there’s always a party going on — baptisms, quinceanera, weddings, first communions,” says Livas. “They are traditionally big families. Going to the bakery to get a cake or a box of pastries is what you do. Every weekend. We wanted to make that connection.”
So what’s the secret to an immigrant’s success at making that connection?
“We’re very grateful to the LA community for embracing us and allowing us to share The Sweet Flavor of Mexico across our 12 stores, and now with our Mexican Cookies, Café de Olla and Mexican Chocolate at Costco, Albertsons, Vons, Pavilions and World Market stores,” says Cervantes. “Our guiding purpose at La Monarca Bakery is making life sweeter, which drives us to show up every day for our customers, our team members, our communities and our planet. To any entrepreneur, I’d suggest having a clear purpose for your organization is vital for staying focused and energized on what really matters.”
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