It was 1907 and he was fourteen years old. Angry with a younger brother, Felix, for letting him take the rap for a childish prank, and furious at his abusive father, my grandfather, Ramon Diaz Alonso, and his older brother, Jose, left their home in Galicia, Spain. As he traversed the mountains of Northern Spain, young Ramon plotted his goal to reach America, but only if he could survive the trip.
He soon began to accept that he might never again see his isolated village in Galicia, which had remained unchanged for centuries. Galician’s have deep Celtic roots with Ireland and Scotland, both of which may have ‘colonized’ the area in the 3rd century BC.
Arriving at a small port near the Atlantic, the two young men negotiated for passage by working on a barge destined for Cuba. In Havana, they connected with an uncle who owned a chocolate confectionary. They became indentured apprentice in exchange for food and board. My “Abuello,” tells the story that to keep them from eating the candies, they had to whistle while they worked. After their 18-hour workdays, they were imprisoned in the bakery. Jose, the older brother, was able to leave for Tampa a few years before my grandfather finished his obligation to the employer. In 1913, Ramon was free to leave for Tampa. He was 20 years old.
Tampa’s cigar industry was in full operation at this time. To provide the community with bread and pastries, as many as twenty-one bakeries operated between Ybor City and West Tampa. Having arrived in Tampa first, Jose had established himself in one of those bakeries with a partner named Canuto. The success of these bakeries was dependent on the system used to deliver the 36-in loaves of Cuban bread. The long loaves of bread were hung from the nails hammered into the porch wall of each home. When my abuello arrived in Tampa, his first job was pushing a bread cart through the Ybor streets, in the early morning hours, delivering the crusty staple to each home.
The two brothers eventually bought into the bakery forming Los Dos Hermanos Panadero, the Two Brothers Bakery, on the corner of 21st St and 7th Ave. That location is now known as the Siboney Room at the Columbia Restaurant.
Ramon, always thrifty, saved his money, and bankers soon became his friends, especially one, Cesar Medina, who was employed at the Ybor City Bank. Diaz and Medina became such a trustworthy friendship, they decided to go into business together when Canuto’s health began to fail. Jose left the business to open his own bakery, La Paloma Bakery. Later he would move the business to West Tampa, which became the very successful Olympia Bakery.
Diaz and Medina wrote a one-page partnership agreement in 1924, and it remained unchanged for the 55 years the two men were in business together. The agreement was simple. They agreed that both shall give their entire time and attention to the partnership business. And, “…Ramon Diaz shall have charge of the manufacturing operations and his judgment shall govern in such matters.” And, “…Cesar Medina shall have charge of the advertising, selling of products and financing and his judgment shall govern in such matters.”
These two ambitious partners realized that with so many small bakeries, there was not enough business for all of them to survive. They took a gamble and changed the bakery into the more industrialized “American” pan bread. The name was changed to BAMBY, an acronym for “Best American Made Bread, Yet”. From here, these two men commenced to develop one of the most successful stories of American entrepreneurship.
The successful partnership attracted the attention of a company that wanted to establish a plant in Florida to produce Holsum Bread. But, they would need a larger facility with state of the art equipment. Diaz and Medina took another gamble. They borrowed money, a lot of money, and built a modern new plant on the corner of 22nd St and Hillsborough Ave for the production of a soft, white bread known as Holsum.
Nothing remains more in the memories of our ageing Tampa Bay residents than the annual Holsum Christmas party. Started as a marketing idea to show-off the shiny new plant, a week before Christmas, the doors were opened to thousands of citizens. As the line inched its way through the bakery, one could observe the production of Tampa’s favorite bread. At the ovens, hot baked bread, smeared with rich creamy butter was served to each visitor. Upon exiting the plant, much to the delight of the children, there was a Santa Clause giving a gift bag to each child. This coveted gift bag contained the infamous, miniature loaf of Holsum Bread.
In 1961, Continental Baking was looking to set up shop in Florida to produce their Wonder Bread. Diaz and Medina had such a superb reputation, Continental Banking negotiated to purchase their “good will” rather than compete with it. Following the sale of the business, Diaz and Medina retired from the bread business.
A true Horatio Alger story, Ramon Diaz Alonso, a little known, uneducated immigrant, who never really mastered the English language, rose from poverty to wealth through sheer determination and good works. Diaz and Medina remained business partners until my Abuello’s death in 1979. Ramon Diaz Alonso had lived 86 years.