Tropical Bakery, Little Slice of Puerto Rico on the South Side

Just for the record: the Tropical Bakery logo is NOT a cupcake. The logo is their house specialty, Tres Leches Cake.

It is a soft, spongey cake that becomes dense and moist when floating in, and absorbing, a rich, sweet sauce, and it is topped with whipped cream and a cherry. The special ingredients are heavy cream, condensed milk and “love,” Manager Tanya Melendez told me with a sly smile. This recipe, and all Tropical Bakery’s recipes, has been continually perfected in-house since Tanya’s father founded the bakery 25 years ago, and so it’s guarded closely; employees even sign a recipe non-disclosure agreement when they join the staff.

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The bakery also specializes in pastries, their polvorones (or lard cookies, Tanya explained) being a customer favorite, and hand rolled artisanal bread, “We use a mixer and stretcher and then our baker hand cuts and rolls out the dough. We keep a close eye on it, because artisanal bread is fickle and affected by weather and humidity.”

Tanya recommends their pan sobao, a sweet, doughy, soft bread perfect plain and for breakfast with coffee; pan amarillo, stuffed with guava and cheese; and pan de agua, a crusty, crunchy bread perfect for garlic bread and sandwiches.

The bakery, at 854 Bingaman Street, sits in the tip of the triangle made by two sidewalks in Reading’s south side, across from a hand-wash carwash, food truck with neon lights and beer distributor. Melendez knows it’s not the easiest location to stumble across, but tells me that her consistently delicious food, stellar customer service and warm, welcoming environment more than make up for the lack of right-out-front car-parking.

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Lucine Sihelnik, Melendez’s neighbor and the City Council representative for the bakery’s city district, often schedules her meetings there. Sihelnik laughed as she recalled one, “The person who I was meeting wanted to pick a different location because they were worried about parking. I told them to buck up, and there’s no way we were meeting somewhere other than Tropical Bakery. I needed one of Tanya’s pan amarillo rolls with the guava and I wasn’t budging.”

Tanya worked at the bakery alongside her family when it first opened, “Family labor is the only way some small businesses can survive!” she said. She later moved to Puerto Rico and worked in travel, managing at an international travel agency, and came back to Reading in 2011 to help out her father and manage the bakery.

“Where I worked, we had a budget to expense our hair and nail salon trips and dry cleaners bills. Imagine that, then coming to work at a small bakery in Reading. Very different! And then, soon after, I gave birth to my first child, Camila! It was a big transition.”

But Tanya had learned to bake when they opened up Tropical Bakery- she and her father took classes together and she’s been baking ever since- and she had plenty of management and customer-service experience from her time at the travel agency. She quickly learned to coalesce all those skills to run Tropical Bakery.

To her, customer service takes priority: she trains staff to place emphasis on remembering customer names and preferences and fixing any problems right then and there,

“A man might come in and get his sandwich then say, “Where are the eggs!?” Now, I know very well he did not ask for eggs. And if he’s Puerto Rican I KNOW he will not admit he did not ask for eggs. So I teach my staff to say, “Oh, I am sorry, I did not hear you ask for eggs. I will get those for you right now. Would you like them over easy or medium?”… It’s all about knowing the customer.”

Tanya’s eyes lit up as she told me what it was like to live in Puerto Rico as a single young adult, “There was always a place to stop after work for a snack or a drink, people were more social, even with strangers…And there always live music!…Here, you go to bars or nothing.”

So, she tries to replicate a little slice of that social connection and delicious food at the bakery, “We try to keep a sense of what it feels like to be on the island when it comes to food and conversation and people. It’s warmer emotionally- you’ll be greeted and welcomed.”

One anecdote demonstrates this warmth: each Saturday, a regular customer who has Alzheimer’s walks to the bakery with a shopping list from his wife. He sits to have a cup of coffee before staff pack up his items and send him home. One day, during a particularly harsh cold spell, he came into the bakery without a coat. The staff knew something was wrong and called his wife, who was very worried. They kept the man engaged and comfortable until he was picked up.

This is the type of business that Tanya runs.

And, she’s not only working to improve her corner of the south side, but also to improve the 18th ward of Reading, where she lives in the Wyomissing Park neighborhood. She wants to see better library access, neighborhood events, and for her neighborhood to be more walkable, advocating for safe walkable access into Schlegel Park after construction and changes to and around Lancaster Avenue.

“I want to participate in events in my own neighborhood. I don’t want to have to drive my car to a little festival. I want to walk from my home.”

Tanya was the first resident to participate in the 18th WONDER Association, a group of community stakeholders who collaborate to make the 18th ward better. She announced at their last meeting that she has spearheaded and is managing a project to help her neighbors have more access to books, by partnering with “Free Little Library,” a nonprofit organization that helps local groups set up “take a book, return a book” free book exchanges throughout their neighborhoods.

Tanya has been reaching out to individuals and businesses to secure in-kind donations for many of the needed materials. She’s excited about building the project through volunteerism and in-kind and monetary donations.

Tanya envisions a future 18th WONDER Association powered by residents and small business owners, and has been personally inviting her neighbors to join, “If more residents and small business owners don’t join in, it will just be the same-old people making the same-old decisions about our community.”

As for Tropical Bakery, Tanya is planning to expand that too – she hopes to open up a stand at one of the local indoor-and-year-round farmers’ markets. She’s proud to have kept Tropical Bakery continuing in her family for all of this time, “When my dad opened this place, he didn’t think it’d be open for twenty five years. It was a job. Now, I’m solidifying its legacy in the community.”

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Dani Motze
Dani Motze
Dani Motze lives in, writes about and rides her bike around Reading, PA. She tells the stories of the people who are rewriting the city’s narrative -- Reading's "unsung heroes."
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