Saturday, late afternoon, Jackson Heights. In the shadows of the 7, the elevated train that runs along Roosevelt Ave., sunlight is already giving way to street light; music spills from passing cars and lively watering holes; a few men and women hurry along on neglected errands.
More than a few step into La Gran Via Bakery, lured by a show-stopping array of cakes and a long line of display cases filled with individually portioned pastries. At the back counter, Betsy Leites is poised, pastry bag in hand, over a bright white tres leches cake rimmed with strawberries and peaches. She squeezes out a cursive “Feliz Cumpleaños.”
Betsy’s been decorating cakes since before the age of 12, she says. With her brother, Royd Leyva, Betsy is a third-generation owner of La Gran Via, which opened in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, in 1978 and expanded to Jackson Heights, Queens, this past January. Nowadays, cake design and decoration is a major component of the bakery’s business, whether simply expressed in a last-minute inscription or elaborated, as a custom confection, based on photos, sketches, or “whatever the customer has here,” Betsy adds, tapping her temple.
The roots of the family business, however, are evident in the keep-warm case of beef, cheese and guava pastelitos; in a strong, sweet cortadito, a full dose of caffeine in a four-ounce cup; and in a sandwich of ham, cheese and plentiful roast pork, pressed and warmed between pan Cubano.
Armando and Addy Leyva, Betsy’s paternal grandparents, once lived in Holguín, in the Oriente Province of eastern Cuba. Their son, also named Armando, was born several years before the 1959 Cuban Revolution. In 1967, they left the island on one of the Freedom Flights that ultimately transported hundreds of thousands of Cubans to the United States. After a sojourn in Manhattan’s Washington Heights neighborhood, the family settled into a three-story building in Sunset Park. The elder Leyvas moved onto the top floor (and still live there!), while the recently married Armando Jr. and Loreley Leyva set up house just below (so that an eventual, even younger generation wouldn’t disturb their grandparents by running around overhead).
On the ground floor, in 1978, the Leyva family founded La Gran Via. Betsy was born in 1980, and her younger brother, Royd, in 1984; although not quite literally born into the family business, they spent their earliest days just upstairs.
“There never was a big Cuban population in Sunset Park,” Betsy recalls. The neighborhood was once filled with Spanish speakers from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, and then from Mexico. More recently, they’ve been joined by immigrants from Central America, and by English speakers pushing south from Park Slope in search of cheaper rents.
In Jackson Heights, Betsy continues, the customers are more likely to come from Colombia, Ecuador and Uruguay. She’s also met “more Cubans than I ever found in Sunset Park.” Though without exception they wished the bakery well, many lamented that La Gran Via expanded only this year to Queens, where Cuban culture has maintained a tenuous toehold. That expansion required a full-on family effort, Betsy observes, noting that she and Royd are grateful for their parents’ help in cake decoration and delivery: “We took them out of retirement.”
Because of its proximity to two hospitals, many factories (smaller but perhaps more numerous than in decades past), and uncounted fleets of car services, the Brooklyn location of La Gran Via operates 24 hours a day. (Queens hours are 8:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m.) That enables Royd, who manages production, to schedule round-the-clock preparation of dozens of items that fill the displays in Sunset Park, where all the food is prepared, and in Jackson Heights, which receives freshly prepared breads and confections multiple times each day.
Round-the-clock service is also handy for the Brooklyn customer who craves a medianoche, a sweeter variant of the Cuban sandwich, at the actual stroke of midnight. “We brine the pork two days,” Betsy notes, and “roast it for six hours,” before pressing it with ham and cheese on pan dulce. Betsy observes that, although the original bakery has six stools, most customers eat and drink while standing, and straddling a stool, as if they were too busy to settle in.
Partly as a consequence of those eating habits, the newer, larger Queens location was designed without seating. It’s provisioned instead with tall, standing-height tables, each near an electrical outlet, so mobile devices as well as their owners can be recharged. At twilight, during the time it took to wolf down a full-flavored Cuban sandwich, knock back a cortadito and savor a masa real – guava paste clamped between layers of dense, rich cake — the arrangement was perfectly comfortable.
After one more last-minute cake inscription – this one, a “Happy Birthday” – Betsy is ready to shut the doors for the evening, and head home. She’ll be driving from Jackson Heights to Long Island, where she lives with her husband and young daughter. She no longer climbs the stairs each night in Sunset Park – but Betsy is closer to the family business than ever.