By RENÉE JEAN
There is a new bakery in town on West Kansas Avenue in a once-upon-a-time gas station. What you see when you drive by this new venture, however, is more than just a business to its owners. It is their American dream, and it is a little love story.
Salvador and Miriam Ramos are the owners of the Brown Sugar's Restaurant and Bakery that recently opened at 118 W. Kansas Ave. in Garden City. Salvador is the enterprising baker of the operation, while Miriam interacts with customers and ensures that work flows smoothly around him.
The two met in grade school in Puebla, Mexico, when they were just 7. However, it would be many years and many twists and turns later before the two were reunited and arrived in Garden City.
First, Miriam was sent to a new school in Puebla, while Salvador and his family moved to Mexico City. Salvador had a sister living in New Jersey who would write and call home often, telling how wonderful America was. He was 16 and full of American dreams.
"I was like, 'Oh yeah, I want to go there, I want to work, I want to drive a car," he said.
Eventually, he talked his parents into letting him go to his sister's in New Jersey, but only in the company of another sister. There is safety in numbers, his parents reasoned.
There, Salvador found the sister had made a name for herself with a tres leches cake she'd invented as a school girl. The nuns at the nearby Catholic school had taught the girls to make many things, including the traditional Mexican cake. Tres means three and leches is milk, so it is, literally, a three-milk cake.
The girls grew tired of making this cake the same way every single time, however, and one day decided to come out with something different. It was a big hit.
"There were five girls who have this recipe, and my sister, she kept hers and brought it to America," Salvador said.
In America, she would make the cake for special occasions, birthdays and the like. People would take a bite and ask her where she got it.
"When she would tell them she made the cake, they would ask her to make them one," Salvador said. "She was already famous for her cake. She had many customers before we decided to open a bakery."
As word spread, she became overwhelmed with orders, and that is when Salvador took a first, fateful step. He offered to help her in the kitchen.
Pretty soon, he was helping her start an actual bakery, which they called Alex's restaurant, bakery and grocery. It was named after a newborn baby of Salvador's sisters.
"At the time, I only knew how to make a tres leches cake," he said, "And I thought that was all we were gonna do, so I said 'OK, let's do it.' But pretty soon, we had customers coming in and asking for other cakes, too."
In the midst of this growing success, the family suffered a serious setback in their pursuit of life and happiness and the American dream.
Salvador's brother-in-law was shot and killed one night as he was tending the store. His sister was devastated. She didn't return to the store for more than a month.
Salvador decided to keep the business going.
"If we sold the business, then what? We would have to get work somewhere, so this was our dream, why not keep it going? I had been involved in the business before," he said, "but now I had to really step up."
It was then when Salvador took another fateful step. He enrolled in baking classes, first at a local bakery and then at the Philadelphia Institute of Arts. There he made an important discovery. Baking was much more than just a noble family duty. It was his passion. He loved baking, and he loved culinary arts.
Miriam, however, is the reason Salvadore is practicing his craft here in Garden City instead of New Jersey. When he first came to America, Salvadore took a job with a co-worker who was also from Puebla and had known Miriam. Through that co-worker, he learned that Miriam's sister was a prominent doctor in Mexico. One day, he called her up and boldly asked for Miriam's number. She wouldn't give it to him, but did pass his number along to Miriam. She had been studying biology at Kansas State University. Miriam wasn't at all sure about returning his call.
"He had his life, I had my life ... I was working on my degree — I didn't know if I wanted to call him," she said.
Eventually, she did return the call, but expressed misgivings about further communication. Salvadore convinced her to give things a chance, and the rest, as they say, is history. They had a Garden City wedding and started a new life together.
At first, they were going to live in New Jersey.
"But then we started thinking about our lives and what we really wanted to do," Miriam said, "and being in a big city with a lot of crime ... things happened to our family, and we were just not comfortable. We weren't feeling safe."
For a year, they tried their business in nearby Holcomb.
"We don't regret that," Miriam said. "We learned a lot from the experience."
Ultimately they decided to locate in Garden City.
"This is a good place to raise children, and to feel safe and not worry about what's going to happen to us tomorrow," Miriam said. And so Salvadore and his wife have decided to try out their family recipes here, in Garden City, where Miriam alread had been a resident.
Among the recipes Salvador has brought are the tres leches cake his sister taught him to make — available in three flavors — as well as many other specialties he has developed on his own, including the impossible chocoflan, tira misu, cookies, cinnamon twists, creme horns and other pastries and all sorts of shaped Mexican breads.
He's kept the same business model that worked in New Jersey, so there is a restaurant in his bakery, as well, offering a daily Mexican-Italian lunch buffet. Starting next week, there also will be a breakfast buffet.
The business will be open from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily, seven days a week, with fresh coffee and free wifi available all day.
"This whole thing, it really is both of our dreams, but I can see he is happy and this is his thing, this is what he loves do to do. And he is very good at it. He is creative," Miriam says.
She beams with pride when looking at her husband, who is busy in the kitchen blending up a smoothie made from fresh fruits and juices for a customer.
"A business, I think, should give you that time to be with your family," she said. "It hasn't been easy for us, but if we talk about this place, it is really our American dream."