It’s 6 a.m. on a Tuesday morning, a time when most of Buford Highway’s hundreds of restaurants will be shuttered for another few hours. But Panaderia del Valle, located just north of the Buford Highway Farmers Market, is buzzing with customers, mostly workers grabbing coffee and breakfast before an early shift.
Owners Graciano and Guadalupe Barrera run the bakery and the adjoining Tortas Factory del D.F. with their son, Oscar, and oldest of three daughters, Laura. The couple already is busy in the panaderia’s kitchen with their other staff: Graciano preps meats and salsas, while Guadalupe is cranking out fresh bolillo rolls—eight-inch, almond-shaped rolls similar to baguettes—for tortas.
“She’s really shy,” Oscar says, gesturing to his mother. (She nods.) “But people just gravitate towards her.”
She places a large circle of dough—just flour, salt, water, yeast—under a divider, which cuts the circle into fist-sized clumps. On a metal countertop, she takes one ivory-colored blob and rolls it between her fingers to soften it. She then shapes the dough by flattening it against the countertop, gently pinching the ends to create the bolillo’s distinctive football shape or keeping a rounder shape to make teleras, which are also used for tortas. The bakery is stocked twice daily with fresh bread; Laura runs the Tortas Factory kitchen during the afternoons and evenings, and Oscar typically crafts more than a dozen different types of pan dulces (sweet pastries) with another team member at the bakery.
Looking for better work opportunities, the Barrera family immigrated to the U.S. in the early ’90s from Mexico—Guadalupe grew up in Mexico City, formerly known as Distrito Federal, the namesake of the D.F. in the Tortas Factory name. They settled just off Buford Highway in Chamblee when its Hispanic population was still relatively small, and Graciano worked for years in different jobs: Cheesecake Factory, construction, carpet installation.
“My parents years ago used to wake up super early to go to work,” Oscar says, “and the only option was McDonald’s or QuikTrip.”
Seeing a need for more early-morning options along Buford Highway and tired of working for others, Graciano and Guadalupe opened Panaderia del Valle in 2006. Graciano had an uncle who ran a bakery back home in Guerrero, an agricultural state in Mexico; he got his uncle’s recipes and, with Guadalupe, started experimenting to perfect them through trial and error.
Today, Guadalupe’s hands shape the dough gracefully in smooth, sure motions, muscle memory from tens of thousands of repetitions. She places 12 uncooked rolls on each tray—about 140 in total, though it “depends on the day,” she says.
Until about a decade ago, she had dreams of going back home to Mexico City; she missed her family, whom she hadn’t seen in years, and felt isolated. “There’s a saying we used to have,” Oscar says: “No somos ni allá ni acá.” (We are neither there nor here.) When the feelings weighed Guadalupe down, back when Oscar was a child, he remembers how she’d take him downtown on MARTA, the trains reminding her of the clamor of Mexico City.
But time helped the family adjust, and now, she feels more at home in Atlanta and plans to retire here, she says. She puts the trays of dough balls in the industrial-size oven, where they’ll bake for a couple of hours before becoming the crusty cradles for meat, nopales, and eggs at the bakery and at Tortas Factory. Many of the bolillos also will be used for the panaderia’s most popular breakfast option: the humble torta de tamal—a tamale jammed inside the roll, making a hot, convenient, and comfortingly carb-loaded meal ubiquitous in Mexico City. “A lot of people are ready to go to work, so they’re like, ‘just stick [the tamale] in there!’” says Oscar.
In 2017, when a spa next door to the bakery closed, the Barreras acted on the popularity of their tortas and decided to open Tortas Factory. Like the bakery, the restaurant is a family affair: “We all created our menu; my older sister set up the point-of-sale system,” Oscar says. His dad drew the logo on a receipt, and Oscar completed it. “We didn’t know anything about Photoshop, but we figured it out.”
At 7 a.m., the line at the panaderia is starting to wrap around the back of the store, and the lights flicker on inside Tortas Factory as it officially opens. Oscar grins when he thinks about how much he hated working at the bakery in high school. “Having your dad as a boss is . . . not the [best] deal,” he says. But he started appreciating it more and more, coming back to work at the panaderia after college to help keep the place alive. “A lot of families, they split up once the kids go to college,” he says. “We’ve been able to stick together, and I get to see my mom every day.”
Panaderia del Valle and Tortas Factory del D.F., 5781 Buford Highway, Doraville, 770-986-5090 and 770-452-8470
This article appears in our October 2019 issue.