This story was originally published April 22, 2009
In 1935, before Interstate 35 split Austin in half and forever changed the landscape that is now known as East Austin, Sophia and Florentino De La'O started a bakery out of their East Ninth Street house, where they made French and American-style breads. Little Joe Avila, their son, was a 6-year-old helping his stepdad deliver bread to neighbors. Fast-forward nearly 75 years. At 102, Sophia De La'O, though frail and hard of hearing but with perfect sight, sits next to her son, now 80, in Joe's Bakery & Coffee Shop on East Seventh Street, a third incarnation of that original bakery that bears more than his name.
"This is not just a place I come to work; it's my home," says Avila's daughter Rose Maciel, who worked in insurance for nearly 30 years before stepping in full time at the restaurant six years ago after her father started having health problems.
One afternoon early last month, dozens of longtime patrons, employees and friends gathered to celebrate Sophia De La'O's and Avila's birthdays, which are a month apart. Maciel and her daughter, Regina Estrada, orchestrated the party to celebrate what they've done for the community during the past seven decades. "It's been a journey for them," Maciel says.
When the De La'Os opened the bakery during the Great Depression, the area was more like pasture land; families kept chickens, pigs and cows.
Florentino De La'O would drive a truck around to deliver the breads to local businesses and homes. They called it La Oriental, a name whose origin is lost. As Avila got older, he and the neighborhood kids would help sell bread, and La Oriental became a place not just to buy baked goods but to catch up on what was going on around town. Avila's stepfather "did good coming from Mexico, with no education," says Avila, who himself had to quit school after seventh grade to start working.
When Avila was 24, he met Pauline Robles, a 15-year-old who worked for his stepdad. They fell in love and were married within a few months. A high-paying job at an oil refinery lured the new family to Port Arthur, but they moved back after Florentino De La'O got sick and closed the bakery in 1957. Joe Avila worked for another baker in town, and together with his mom and stepdad opened Sun Bakery on East Seventh Street in 1964. By 1965, the Avilas had bought the business from the De La'Os and changed the name to Joe's Bakery & Coffee Shop. Pauline Avila, with the help of Sophia De La'O and her family recipes, branched out and started serving Mexican food.
For years, Joe Avila worked 16- to 20-hour days, baking in the mornings and then running the kitchen. But in 1977, the restaurant moved two doors down to its current location, 2305 E. Seventh St., just two blocks from the house he grew up in and where his stepdad started La Oriental. He hung up his apron to manage the growing employee and customer base. A few years later, Florentino De La'O died, and Avila's daughter Carolina joined her parents in the family business.
Waitress Maggie Flores has been around longer than just about anyone in the family business. Every day for the past 38 years, Flores has arrived at Joe's at 6 a.m. to start her shift. "My customers kept me here," she says at the birthday celebration. "We're serving the third generation of people."
Toni Calvo, one of the many family members who have worked at the restaurant, says it isn't just the food that brings people back. "They take the time to meet customers, not just serve them," Calvo says.
For customers such as Charles R. Barnett, 78, it's a combination of the food and friendship that has drawn him in for 46 years. "It's going to take a heck of a hill to beat the food here," he says. Barnett has seen a lot of changes since the 1960s. "It's not like it was when I was a kid," he says, recalling a time when an African American man such as himself couldn't eat anywhere he wanted. "But here, they didn't turn anyone down (because of their race)." To this day, he walks four blocks from his home about four days a week to what he calls his second home to order menudo and caldo.
Joe Avila still comes in to bake pecan and coconut pies several days a week and to see friends like Barnett. "You don't forget a face," Avila says.
However, even with a regular customer base, keeping a restaurant alive for so many years hasn't been easy.
"My mother (Rose Maciel) carries the brunt of it now," says Estrada, whose 1-year-old daughter was the fifth generation present at the birthday party last month. "I help out as much as I can. It's a juggling act." People ask her every day if she's going to take over from her mom. The Texas State University-San Marcos graduate says she's not sure, but she embraces her role as the record-keeper for the family, collecting photos, dates and stories to keep the legacy alive. "I'm always picking his brain and my grandmother's," she says. "I pick up as much as I can while I still have them."
One of the things that makes Maciel most proud is what the restaurant has done for the community over the years. "We're always helping schools and students, donating bread or tacos," she says. "Whatever we can do to keep kids in school and reward our teachers."
For each of the generations, the restaurant has been about more than serving well-made carne guisada, menudo or pan dulce, especially for Estrada, 28, who grew up inside these memento-covered walls.
"How many people can say that they are a part of something bigger than themselves?"