For 106 years, La Segunda has been baking bread in Ybor City, a neighborhood in Tampa, Florida. This is a Cuban bakery where the loaves are cut with palmetto leaves and reach 36 inches in special ovens. Between the long traditions and myths that shape the place, the owners, spanning four generations, have never seen prices rise as much as last year.
Across the Americas, inflation has hit the food industry hard, and in the case of La Segunda, the price of wheat, which has doubled in just 12 months, has left a bruise. “It’s 30% to 40% of our production,” said Copeland Mohr, a partner in the business with his father.
The price jump increased overhead costs by nearly $40,000 a month, and More had to figure out how to raise prices, retain customers and keep the 140 employees of the three bakeries afloat.
U Tampa, last year the cost of living rose at a rate that outpaced the rest of the United States by more than 3%. Daniel Mitchell, who started working at La Segunda just six months ago as a technician, felt the pressure.
His days just dragged on. The more time he spent criss-crossing Tampa Bay as a construction contractor, the less alarming the rising cost of living seemed to his family. But after long days, he would make it home just in time to tuck his kids into bed and be gone before they could even open their eyes.
When the pandemic hit Tampa, construction stopped, so he took a second job. Then he took the third. A twelve-hour day turned into a fifteen-hour day. Mitchell soon left construction entirely to keep up with a 10% increase in rent and 7% in food along with childcare.
His wife, Sierra, who already worked at La Segunda, offered to speak to her supervisor. She kept her promise and Mitchell lived up to their faith when they hired him as a technical specialist. “Now I only have to work one place,” he said, and at his usual hours, he gets home in time to see his children before sunset.
Still, while the stress of multiple jobs and long days has subsided, the cost of living continues to rise, so the Mitchells have cut back on eating out and are paying close attention to how they spend their money . “It’s more of a necessity now, you know what I mean?” Mitchell said, “Keeping money saves you because you never know.”
Rising cost of living
The rising cost of everything in Tampa has become as common as the storms that build up in the Gulf Rim almost every day of the summer.
Across the country, the cost of rent, food, and housing rose exponentially last year. In the country, the cost of inflation fluctuated around 8% in accordance with US Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But along the Gulf of Mexico, Tampa beats the national average, often by three points. While income from tourism has increased, low wages have remained in place. Insurance rates rose as unemployment claims along with evictions and property taxes increased irresistible for many residents. According to real estate researchers, rents in this region have grown among the fastest in all of America – a jump of more than 30%.
In La Segunda, when the cost of living began to rise in 2020, Mohr and his managers agreed to raise wages. “We were ahead of the game,” he said, “and we always got every advantage.”
As with the rest of the country, restaurants have closed across the Tampa Bay area, and the turnover has spread like wildfire. At La Segunda, “We’ve raised the prices on everything,” More said. He feared losing customers, but when temperatures soared to 38 degrees Fahrenheit last month, the line of people waiting outside at Yborra and the bustling dining room at their Kennedy location reassured him.
For La Segunda, bread is the lifeblood of the business, with wholesale sales to customers across the country accounting for nearly 75% of revenue. In each shift, the bakers make between 3,000 and 5,000 loaves by hand.
“I think what we do is a dying art,” Mohr said of making so much bread by hand. “It’s just difficult. You are on your feet. It’s hot. This is manual work. It’s repetitive work.”
That’s part of why La Segunda developed a retirement program for its employees that ensured they could retire, take time off or see a doctor. Many of the bakers are older, and Mohr told them, “You guys can’t work here forever.”
At first, everyone was skeptical about it, but over time they came to the idea that wages were being delayed. And for years, Mohr and his family have helped employees secure housing or raise financing to buy housing, but now that he’s talking to his employees and managers, he said, “The housing costs are outrageous. You basically cannot live without such a salary. I think to myself, “It just doesn’t add up.” Do you know?”
Across Tampa Bay, the concentration of for-sale signs along the road, empty storefronts and people cursing at intersections told a different story, inextricably linked to the city.
“Food is the door”
North of La Segunda on Nebraska Avenue in Seminole Heights, where Nancy Hernandez’s hope to build a food pantry began in 2007.
But long before there was a physical space, she was carrying a five-liter bucket filled with water and sandwiches down the street, talking to people. By 2020, during the first wave of the pandemic, she began delivering food with a truck before she and her husband signed a lease for a physical space in 2021.
Hernandez has never seen a more pressing need than he has in the past two years. When they moved into a one-story store, Hernandez built a small church, an office, and devoted the lion’s share to storing the products. They called it Ministerio Mujeres Restauradas por Dios, or “Women’s Ministry Restored by God.”
In the blue light before the sun even hints at rising, Hernandez and her husband stock the pantry as if carefully playing Tetris to make sure everything fits in the limited refrigerators they have. They started with food because, as Hernandez said, “Food is the door.” She told how everyone in the area has seen their rent go up over the past year, but their wages have stayed the same. “You can only stretch it so much,” she said.
For some families, it starts with not being able to afford childcare, a missed day of work, or a sudden spike in rent that many have seen here. Before long, they’re cleaning out a hotel or family member’s living room, and as Hernandez explained, people who never imagined themselves in line for the food pantry suddenly show up.
There are many nonprofit organizations in Tampa Bay dedicated to helping families like Hernandez’s, and Metropolitan Ministries is among the largest. For James Dunbar, their senior director of outreach and prevention, he echoed Hernandez’s sentiments when he explained how much wider the spectrum of affected families is.
Of course, the most vulnerable families are still at risk, but he noted how families who never needed or asked for help were standing in line for food or seeking help with rent, diapers or mortgages. “Now our neighbors never asked,” he said. “It moves up the chain.”
Back on Nebraska Avenue, Nancy Hernandez shuttled back and forth between her office and the pantry while her husband went out to collect the donated food from the truck. The pantry opened Friday, but it was unclear how many more months they could afford to stay there.
In June, the landlord, who had previously been extremely flexible and understanding, told Hernandez that the rent would double in July. A place that used to cost $1,500 will now cost $3,000 a month. For now, Hernandez was focused on finding a donation spot on the way to the pantry, but as the day wore on, she wondered how long they could last here, and so she prayed.
Back at the bakery, the next shift of bakers went to work as the last customers of the day left with pastries and Cuban sandwiches. Moreover, a review of forecasted wheat prices in the coming months showed some promise as prices eased slightly. “It’s been a challenge,” he said, “but it’s just figuring out the solutions, being proactive and staying ahead of them.”
Today, he worries about the same questions as when he became his father’s partner. How do you keep up with the cost of goods while keeping customers? How do you take care of your employees while staying afloat? Last year only intensified these issues.