Julian Ramírez started out at the age of 14 as a shop boy at a busy bakery in Colonia Guerrero in 1959, then a bustling blue-collar neighborhood, easily connected to downtown by streetcar.
Back then, at La Antigua del Guerrero, he learned the business: wiping windows, sweeping up and eventually making deliveries on his bike. One nibble at a time, he picked up the art of cake- and bread-making from the shop’s master bakers. Those trade secrets would serve him over the next 63 years and beyond as they pass on to his kids and theirs.
Many of Mexico’s classic bakeries like the Guerrero operation fell one by one with the introduction of mass-produced bread, tearing at a staple of communities across the capital. Meanwhile, the city filled beyond capacity in waves of migration from the countryside, accompanied by overcrowding, driving the rich further out from the city center and leaving behind older neighborhoods that became increasingly prone to poverty and crime.
Despite the desire to own his own bakery, Ramírez had the good business sense to open instead a tortillería – growing slowly from the ultra-low overhead and perpetual demand.
Through the 70s and early 80s one tortilla shop became three, and Ramírez’s mind began to entertain thoughts of his own pastry shop once again. That opportunity came in the form of a silver lining to a terrible tragedy.
On September 19, 1985, an 8.0 earthquake toppled much of the city center, reducing landmarks to rubble, killing thousands and wiping out countless businesses. According to Ramírez, a few days later, he was walking through Colonia Doctores, just south of the Centro, looking out upon an apocalyptic scene, “The streets were all closed, rubble was all over the streets.”
Walking on Niños Heroes, within sight of the total destruction of the Televisa media company’s former headquarters, a key economic engine in the area, Ramírez saw a shaken-but-standing building with a hand-drawn “For Sale” sign up against the storefront of a bakery.
“The owners had to sell after the earthquake,” he said. “I only got it because it was so cheap. The place was tiny. That’s why I called it ‘La Miniatura.’”
Fortunately, the kitchen was intact and included a number of brick ovens.
Ramírez took advantage of the sudden drop in local competition to quickly get the business up and running, opening its doors in 1986 and gaining popularity after handing out free miniature samples to passersby.
The name took on a life of its own, and within a few years, Ramírez brought in pastry chefs to teach his crew how to make miniature versions of the multi-tiered mega-cakes there were far beyond the means of his customer base. The mini-cakes, which run roughly 40 to 250 pesos (US$2 to $12), now line walls in all four locations.
Ramírez takes a shark-like attitude to his business’s survival, and over the years began to add items to attract customers both seasonally and year-round. One of its biggest holiday hits is the pan de muerto con arandano – Day of the Dead bread filled with nata (double cream) and cranberry filling (with fresh cranberries) – spurring long lines of customers in late October and early November. A single serving comes in a little pricey at 20 pesos ($1); however, just one goes a long way towards killing Halloween candy cravings.
The general selection of pastries and cookies is largely broader and better in quality than at most bakeries in the area and has played a big part in generating the bakery’s following beyond the specialty items. Ramírez added that he has cultivated out-of-town regulars from Guadalajara, Toluca and beyond who use La Miniatura as their go-to bakery in town.
Ever seeking new clientele, the bakery now serves sandwiches, all on fresh-baked bread and with truly decent ingredients that belie the price. There are also banana-leaf wrapped, Oaxacan-style tamales, as well as a line of garden salads – tuna or chicken with panela cheese or ham and goat cheese. These items are filling and go quickly through the day.
Having gotten to know the Centro over 16 years, we have seen few places that so quickly have become and for so long have been a staple despite the numerous other options in short walking distance.
For Ramírez, it’s all about loving and respecting what you do. “The secret in anything is loving it and being dedicated, not like these other guys that just want to get done for the day and go off and rest or have fun,” he said. “This is my fun.”