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Jake Tortorice, Jr: Guardian of Tradition

Rao's Bakery Assorted Pasteries

Rao’s Bakery, Beaumont, Texas.

“I can’t believe I own Rao’s Bakery,” says Texan Jake Tortorice, Jr., grinning like a kid. He’s standing in the bakery’s original Calder Avenue location where the iconic Rao’s Bakery was born in 1941 in the little southeastern Beaumont, Texas.

This morning, like every morning, the place is hopping with locals, including several city police officers, who line up for freshly-made donuts, croissants, breakfast burritos, several kinds of bread, Rao’s original cinnamon rolls, and more.

Rao's Bakery Owner, Jake Tortorice

Jake Tortorice, Jr., is all smiles because he’s got his dream job — owning the historic Rao’s Bakery. Shown with his traditional Madi Gras King Cakes.

Tortorice’s amazement at his good fortune stems partly from the fact that, when he was a little boy, he vividly remembers his dad bringing him to Rao’s. “It’s been here for so long,” says the native Beaumonter, the pride showing in his voice. “We’re going to be celebrating 70 years this year and Rao’s hasn’t changed. We still use Johnny Rao’s original recipes and do things the old fashioned way.”

And that dedication to doing things right shows in the growth of the company – now up to five locations, including three stores in Beaumont and one each in Spring and Nederland, Texas.

One of Tortorice’s secrets of success is that he insists Rao’s use local ingredients, with no additives, no mixes, and no frozen products. Instead, just like it has for decades, Rao’s bakers make everything fresh, every day. They also offer some unique items like kolaches, a Czech bread-wrapped sausage, using locally made Zummo sausage. During Mardi Gras, they bake King Cakes, a wreath-shaped cinnamon-roll dough filled with cream cheese, jelly, or cinnamon and butter that’s glazed and painted with vibrant greens and purples.

Rao's Bakery Gelato

Freshly made Italian ice cream (gelato) is one of the things Jake Tortorice has brought from his Sicilian background to Rao’s Bakery.

He’s also brought in some interesting new items that honor his second generation Sicilian heritage. Using recipes passed down from his grandmother, Tortorice has introduced sandwiches (on their freshly-made bread), such as egg olive, pimento cheddar, and Sicilian tuna; Sicilian-inspired sweets like cannoli, pannacotta, and prontoparffait; and a large selection of gelato handmade with ingredients imported from Torino, Italy.

Perhaps most importantly, Tortorice is focused on his customers. “It’s all about the people,” he says. “The best thing for me is serving all these people every day. They’re all individual personalities.”

Dough with filling at Rao's Bakery

A Rao’s baker rolls out dough (left) for the King traditional Madi Gras King Cakes. Then he slathers on the filling, in this case, cinnamon, sugar, and butter.

Rao’s is such a well-known center of the community that it’s become ground-zero for what’s happening in town. “My favorite thing is getting to listen to what’s going on,” he says, chuckling. “All the best gossip comes here first. The City Manager stops by at least once a week — just to keep on top of what’s going on.”

Tortorice’s people focus isn’t just on his current grown up customers. He’s committed to developing customers for tomorrow too. Every summer, Tortorice offers Rao’s Bake Camp, a nonprofit baking experience for 300 kids. It gives children hands-on experience in making cakes and cookies. “On cake day, each kid makes and takes home three cakes; on cookie day, they leave here with six dozen cookies,” he says proudly. “I don’t care what it costs. The only number I count during Bake Camp is how many kids had a great time.”

Read our review of Rao’s Bakery, Beaumont, Texas.

 



Bobbie Hasselbring, RFT Editor

RFT co-founder Bobbie Hasselbring has been a travel junkie her entire life. An award-winning writer and editor for more than 25 years and author of the regional food-travel bestsellers, The Chocolate Lover’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest and The Chocolate Lover’s Guide Cookbook, Bobbie is editor-in-chief at realfoodtraveler.com.