La Fiesta Bakery is closing, casualty of Valley Drive construction
LAS CRUCES - Thirty years ago, Ray and Gina Ortega had a dream to open their own bakery and share the sugary treats and other baked goods Ray first learned to make at the elbow of his mother with the people of Las Cruces.
But now that dream is coming to an end because of the Valley Drive construction project, which has aggravated motorists and driven away customers since it began in June, causing their sales to plummet.
The Ortegas, Las Cruces born and bred, are closing their beloved La Fiesta Bakery at 455 N. Valley Drive after 13 years in business, making it the first casualty of the Valley Drive mess.
“We’re done,” Gina said. “We have no customers. Why even bother to open the doors?”
Almost from the beginning of the $22.9 million project, La Fiesta has become a symbol of the distress felt by businesses up and down Valley, and now on Avenida de Mesilla too, because of the impact of the construction.
In July, access to the shopping center where La Fiesta is located was completely cut off from Valley Drive, forcing customers to navigate a circuitous route on side streets to reach the bakery. People unfamiliar with the area couldn’t figure out how to get there. Even regulars stopped coming.
Business declined 80 percent. They were forced cut the number of donuts they made each day by more than half. Even so, they were giving more food to soup kitchens than they were selling. They had to reduce the hours for two part-time employees. Rumors spread that the bakery was closing.
But they hung on because word of their difficulties spread on social media and then attracted the attention of TV and newspapers, stimulating a miraculous turnaround. People poured into the store, traffic be damned, and emptied their purses and wallets.
Sales suddenly soared. They sold out of donuts one day, returned production to pre-construction levels the next day, and sold out of them, too. They sold out of empanadas. They sold out of biscochitos and all other cookies. One regular bought $365 worth of baked goods and paid them $500 for the lot.
It was a life-affirming, good-news story. But it didn’t last.
“Unfortunately, the hype wears off,” Gina said last month.
On Wednesday, the Ortegas posted a letter to their customers on the bakery’s Facebook page announcing that La Fiesta is closing. It will remain open through next week, until their supplies run out. They hope to remain open until Saturday, Jan. 17, if they are able.
La Fiesta has been losing about $4,000 a week since the construction began. They bought a $30,000 oven last year, but they’ll still be paying for it for the next four years. They’ve had to dig into their savings to pay the bills, but almost all of that is gone.
“When you have no more savings to use, there’s nothing to do but close your doors,” Ray said. “We don’t have the money to keep on doing this.”
Once the bakery closes, Ray will begin breaking down the bakery equipment and then move it into storage. He will be unemployed. Gina will be unemployed. Their one full-time and four part-time workers will lose their jobs.
Asked on Thursday if he would consider opening another bakery, Ray replied, “It’s a possibility.” Asked again about that a few minutes later, he was more resigned. “I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t even know what’s going to happen tomorrow.”
A baker's business
La Fiesta Bakery has been in business on Valley Drive since 2006, but Ray and Gina’s efforts to operate a bakery in Las Cruces go back much further than that.
Ray, 59, has been baking since he was 4 years old. Every holiday season when he was a boy, his mother would make biscochitos, Mexican wedding cookies, brownies and other baked goods to give to family and friends as gifts. He would help, every night after dinner until bedtime, from early November until Christmas.
“That’s why I’m still here doing it,” Ray said.
The biscochitos and wedding cookies they sell at La Fiesta Bakery, in fact, are based on Ray’s mother’s recipe, though they are made with vegetable shortening not lard, like his mom used.
Ray began baking professionally in 1983 at age 23. He had gotten a job as a security guard at a new Solo grocery store, which stood where Las Cruces City Hall is today. He had gone to Mayfield High School with the bakery manager and, shortly before the store opened, he asked Ray if he wanted to be his donut maker. He jumped at the chance.
He worked his way up to baker, then bakery manager. Then in 1988, he learned that the C&R Bakery in Truth or Consequences was for sale. He and Gina decided to buy it and move the equipment to Las Cruces and open a bakery here.
They were persuaded to keep the bakery in Truth or Consequences, but then ran into landlord difficulties. The landlord wanted more rent than they could afford. They had to close it after six months. Ray went back to working at grocery stories.
The Ortegas tried again in 1997, opening the first La Fiesta Bakery on US 70 in Las Cruces. It was in a convenience store next door to the Moongate Café. It remained open for two years but again they ran into problems with their landlord and had to close.
They put their bakery equipment in storage and looked for a new space, finally finding the current building about 2005. This time it stuck.
La Fiesta built strong sales and a loyal following over the years, as evidenced by the hundreds of comments on its Facebook page on Thursday, and the steady stream of customers who came into the store.
Many had heard the news of the closing. Others had not and were shocked when they were told. Ray and Gina hugged longtime customers and thanked them for their support. Some cried.
“I feel so bad,” said one.
“I’m going to miss you guys,” said a man. “You’re my favorite place.”
“It’s an absolute damn shame what they have done here,” said a woman.
Gina herself began to tear up herself a few minutes later. But both she and Ray said they were more mad than sad. They are angry most at the city of Las Cruces, who they feel have ignored the concerns of merchants throughout the construction process.
Running for mayor
The Valley Drive reconstruction is a state project because it is a state highway, but construction crews are also replacing city utility lines under the roadway under contract to the city. The utility line replacement has caused the greatest disruptions to traffic. Unexpected discoveries underground have also stimulated delays.
“The city didn’t know their right hand from their left hand,” Ray said. “They didn’t know what was underneath the ground.”
“They should have taken a more active role,” Gina said. “They tried throwing on us that it’s a state highway. It’s a state highway, but it’s in your city.”
“We’re paying our taxes here,” Ray said. “We’re the ones putting them in office. Take care of us like we take care of them.”
Gina, 50, won’t let that anger go anytime soon. In fact, that anger has motivated her to run for mayor in November. She ran in 2015, but lost. City Councilor Greg Smith also announced this week that he’s running.
Mayor Ken Miyagishima hasn’t decided whether to seek a fourth term.
“We need a change,” Gina said. “We need somebody in there that actually cares — cares about the city, cares about people.”