There’s a relatively well-known corridor of Southwest Boulevard on Kansas City’s Westside — it’s a strip of Latin American restaurants and shops. Sandwiched in between a beauty salon and a late night Mexican eatery is a small bakery: Panaderia de las Americas.
“I want to make a bakery to have different bread from different countries of America,” owner Luis Hernandez said.
Every day in Hernandez’s tiny bakery, you can find breads from all over Latin America. Traditional Mexican sweet breads, or conchas. Sugar cookies from Guatemala. Mexican Piggy cookies, made with molasses. Sweet Salvadorian cheesecakes made with rice flour, known as ‘quesadillas.’
Despite his repertoire, Hernandez has never traveled outside of the United States, or Mexico, where he grew up. Hernandez got his start by working after school at his family’s bakery in Mexico City. After coming to the U.S., his family settled in Kansas City in 2006, and Hernandez got a job heading the baking department at a Sun Fresh grocery store.
“I hired people from different countries,” Hernandez said. “So when I put the ads [for a baker], they’d say, ‘I’m a baker from Peru, I’m from Guatemala, I’m from Cuba, I’m from Columbia.’ So we shared the recipes.”
After a few years of acquiring these recipes, he was ready to open his own bakery, where he could bring Kansas Citians breads and treats from the various regions and countries of Central America. For some, it would be exposure to new and unfamiliar flavors. For others, a taste of home.
But he didn't’ know where to start.
In 2011, Hernandez met Gerardo Martinez, who worked at the Mattie Rhodes Center, a local arts and social services center that focuses on Kansas City’s Latino community. Martinez told him about the Hispanic Economic Development Corporation (HEDC), which offered business classes geared toward Latino entrepreneurs in Kansas City.
“But I was busy working at Sun Fresh and my dad was staying home,” Hernandez said. “So my dad [took] the classes and [learned] everything to open the business.”
Pretty soon he had what he needed. With a loan from HEDC for $10,000, he set his sights on that small storefront on the Boulevard.
“This is a good place to have a Mexican bakery because there’s a lot of Mexican restaurants and stores,” Hernandez said. “So I talked to the owner, and we closed the arrangement.”
It started as a small family business in 2013 but quickly expanded. This opened the door to wholesale. The bakery now delivers fresh baked goods to nearly 30 Mexican grocery stores across the metro area every day.
“This is a bakery. We don’t make frozen bread,” Hernandez said. “We don’t package bread from the cooler. We make everything fresh and from scratch.”
Which means his bakers begin their work at 2 a.m. in the small kitchen, around a single stainless steel table, confined by baker’s racks, mixers and pans, and the heat of the oven.
Hernandez has three bakers who work in shifts, two in the early morning hours and one for the afternoon. They roll dough for sugar cookies, make designs over cheesecakes, and use pig-shaped cookie cutters when the Mexican Piggy cookies are ready to bake.
By 10 a.m., the bakers are still at it, though by the late morning hour they’ve already made the best sellers: savory Mexican bolillos stuffed with jalapenos and cream cheese, and Cuban turnovers, triangles of flaky puff pastry with a guava and cream cheese filling.
Back up front, Hernandez is wrapping up a dozen sweet breads for a regular customer — the owner of Empanada Madness, the Venezuelan shop a few doors down. He has many regulars, but people come to his bakery from all over.
“When people come from other cities to the Mexican Embassy, they come here because it's the first avenue to get out to the freeway,” Hernandez said. “And they find the bakery they say, ‘Oh we are happy to find a bakery because in [my] city they don’t have a bakery.’ It's crazy because sometimes they spend almost $40 on bread.”
The proof is under the glass cover of the cashier desk. The surface is lined with colorful bills from various Latin American countries. Looking down at the bills, Hernandez’ voice fills with a certain twinge of excitement. The bills remind him of his ultimate mission.
“My goal is to go to each country to see the bread because I know how to make it,” Hernandez said, “but I don’t really know how it tastes in the [native] countries.”
First up, Hernandez has his sights set on Cuba. But for now at least, there’s plenty of baking left to do.
Lexi Churchill is an intern for KCUR 89.3.