Regina Estrada welcomes us into her home and her family legacy.
By Georgia Valles. Photos courtesy of Regina Estrada.
On Joe’s Bakery’s only off day, Regina Estrada and her mother, Rose Ann Maciel, sat in Estrada’s home, accompanied by her dogs. Estrada and her mother are all smiles, excited to talk about the family business that has seen three Avilas at the helm. “It’s all about family,” Maciel says.
Joe’s Bakery has served Austin for more than 54 years, and it all started with Joe Avila’s dreams of creating good food with a great community.
“The beginning of the story is not our story,” Estrada says. “It’s my grandparents’ and [my mom’s]parents’.”
Estrada recounts the business’ origins in 1962. “You know, having the opportunity to start a business, I think it was something really special back then,” says Estrada. Avila, along with his wife and Estrada’s grandmother, Paula, started the business, and Joe’s Bakery has been providing Austin with great food and community since. Joe, baker and owner of the restaurant’s namesake, had about a fourth-grade education, and Paula, who had about a sixth-grade education, is a businesswoman.
Joe’s dream started in his parents’ store, La Oriental Grocery & Bakery in East Austin. Once the family business moved a few doors down and was in Joe’s hands, he created the authentic Tex-Mex/Mexican bakery and restaurant Austinites know and love today.
“I have always said Joe’s Bakery is my grandfather’s boyhood dream,” Estrada emphasizes. “But over the years, it has been how we have supported that dream. My grandmother supported and fulfilled that childhood dream. My aunt, mother and myself have also come in and carried it on. It’s really important to recognize it was his passion.”
Paula had always been a pillar of support to Joe’s dream and eventually took a more active role in the bakery, bringing in her sisters and her granddaughter to help carry out the legacy. As business owners, they did not focus on baking but did bring in family recipes to share with the community. “We are not bakers,” Estrada explains when speaking on how other family members have come in to support the business. Maciel; her sister, Carolina; and Estrada manage the family business today.
“I knew this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Estrada says. “I knew that I would never get an opportunity to work with my mother, my aunt or my grandmother. Twenty years later, I’m still here. It’s been a learning experience. There’ve been some really great highs and lows, but there have been some really great accomplishments that we’ve been able to make memories together as a family.”
The restaurant has seen many generations come in and out. There is an overwhelming sense of hospitality within the walls of the restaurant, and each employee is there to welcome you into their humble community. Joe’s Bakery is a business that continues to be authentic to its core values, and these values have been the hallmark of their continued success.
“It is a team effort,” Estrada explains. “I think it’s one of the things that sets us apart. Since the beginning, we’ve never asked our employees to do something we wouldn’t do ourselves. What sets us apart is how we are still very involved in day-to-day operations.”
Ask any customer coming into Joe’s and they will tell you how welcoming every person is. “Our employees are part of our Joe’s Bakery family,” Estrada continues. “We spend a lot of time with them more than our own families.”
Many customers have noted seeing the same people at the bakery, and they can feel those core family values when they walk through the door. Even as owner, Estrada is out on the floor nearly every day, making sure everyone feels welcomed.
“From the beginning, hard work has always been the driving force,” says Estrada. “We have always done our best to run the business and provide our employees with authenticity.”
As multiple generations of women running the business, they have faced some difficult times, but have come out stronger because of it. As a result of Joe’s passing in 2010, the bakery became a woman-owned business, which comes with its own challenges. For many years—sometimes even now—people came in to speak to “the male in charge.” “They didn’t want to deal with women,” Maciel says. It was a struggle she, Paula and Estrada—the actual frontwomen of Joe’s Bakery—constantly came up against as they continued to run the business. Nevermind having to contend with the constant threat of gentrification around East Austin.
Estrada advises women working in small businesses to “prioritize what is important to you and your life.” For her, that is being a mother and treating people the way you want to be treated. “I am a mother first,” says Estrada. “My priority is being a mother, and I run the business second.”
Their dedication to the “Golden Rule” is the foundation of their community work. They provide pastries and gift cards for schools observing National Teacher Appreciation Week, use their storefront as a safe place for youth to promote their organizations to the community and, most importantly, Estrada explains, “We have provided cultural representation for our Mexican-American roots, embracing our Tex-Mex culture and sharing it with the world.”
As a business dedicated to its community, during the peak of COVID-19, the restaurant doubled as a general store, selling toilet paper and other essentials. In addition, the business has been home to voter registration stations in front of the restaurant and in past years has given discounts to customers wearing “I Voted” stickers.
“Unfortunate incidents happen that you can never prepare for because there are so many outside factors,” Estrada explains. “There are so many types of disasters that small businesses are presented with; you really have to be the jack of all trades.”
Despite the hardships the Avila family has faced since opening, the business continues to thrive. In February, The James Beard Foundation awarded Joe’s Bakery the title of “American Classic.” The Foundation describes this honor as a distinction for “locally owned restaurants that have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community.” The legacy of Joe Avila lives not only within the restaurant, but within Austin’s Latin American community and all those who have encountered the humble family business.
“I’m really proud of what we’ve been able to do,” Estrada explains. “You know, every time we have this opportunity to share our story and are able to recognize and celebrate what we’ve been able to maintain and accomplish is a part of our family history, this is going to be what we share with our family. This is our legacy.”