Guns and Butter: The Story Behind Suarez Bakery

The story of one family’s journey to freedom, and what that freedom cost


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(page 2 of 3)

Castro took many things from Roberto Suarez. But he couldn’t take the happiest years of his life in Cuba. And most of all, “He could not take away my education,” he wrote.

“My time was past,” he also wrote. It was his children’s time, now. And he would make sure they got what no future despot could ever take away from them—an education.

“Education was of the utmost importance to my father,” says Carlos’s older sister, Elena.     

Roberto, a stern disciplinarian, became almost obsessed with educating his children, which put him on a collision course with his third son, Carlos. If Cuba and Castro made Roberto Suarez who he was, then through Roberto they also made Carlos Suarez who he is.

About the time they teach kids to read, in first or second grade, Carlos began having trouble. In the early 1960s little was known about dyslexia. All Roberto saw was Carlos’s dismal grades. Even after being disciplined, Carlos still didn’t improve. Holding him back a grade didn’t help.

“Leaving Cuba,” Roberto wrote in his autobiography, “meant the end of a dream.”

“I had six sisters getting straight A’s,” Carlos shakes his head, “younger brothers getting straight A’s.” Even Miguel, his identical twin, managed good grades. What was the problem with Carlos?

Roberto surmised that Carlos just wasn’t trying. The “W” words were particularly tough. Roberto would write each one on a sheet of paper and leave Carlos alone to study them. After a while, Roberto would return to test Carlos.

“I used to hear him coming down the hall,” remembers Carlos. Roberto would walk into the room and point to one of the W words. “What, where, when—they all looked the same to me,” says Carlos, “all W’s and H’s.”

Invariably, Carlos got the words wrong. Roberto understood that people have different levels of intelligence. That couldn’t be helped. But Carlos’s continued failure meant only one thing: he was lazy. That was an affront to Roberto.

The words hurt the worst. “ ‘What are you doing? … You’re not paying attention in class … You’re a loser … You’re a dummy.’ ”

Today, in the midst of all his brothers and sisters who have collected degrees, honors, and postgraduate degrees, Carlos is the only one who never went to college.

“I never thought that far ahead,” says Carlos. “I was just worried about going to school the next day and not being exposed.” Avoiding the attention of teachers and other students, Carlos went into his own, personal exile, concealing the dyslexia and becoming painfully shy for the rest of his life.

When he turned fifteen, his parents sent Carlos to Louisiana State University, where Roberto’s sister held a faculty position. She had Carlos tested. They diagnosed him as dyslexic. But giving it a name didn’t change a thing for Carlos. Nor did it change Roberto’s perspective or move him to apologize.  

Just after Carlos was diagnosed, the family moved to Charlotte, where Roberto became controller for The Charlotte Observer. Carlos enjoyed having his brothers around him at a new school, South Mecklenburg High. But he was still figuring out ways to hide the dyslexia every day. “It was weird,” Carlos remembers, “nobody to even talk to about it. Then go home and act normal like everybody else.”

Only one thing made him feel normal: soccer. A brother a year older, Tony, also fell in love with the sport. Tony was a natural. He had the height, the speed, the agility. “I had to work ten times harder than him to master things,” Carlos remembers. “Tony was just blessed.”

Soccer was Tony’s destiny. He played for the Carolina Lightnin’ and became one of the first sports figures in Charlotte to earn more than six figures. Soccer gave Tony the ability “to live his life exactly the way he wanted,” Carlos says with obvious admiration.

Carlos looked up to his older brother, but he was never jealous of Tony. Carlos was happy just to watch him play.

 

While most eighteen-year-olds have some idea what they’re going to do after high school graduation, Carlos didn’t. He says he was offered soccer scholarships at Chapel Hill and at Erskine but he didn’t think he could handle the academics.

With no immediate prospects, this would have been the perfect time for Carlos to relax and slack off. He didn’t. “I’d already partied,” he says, “I’d done all that.” Determined to find a job and prove that he wasn’t lazy, Carlos took some construction and landscaping work. “I was there on time and I worked hard. I might be stupid,” he says, dead serious, “but I’m not lazy.”

One day a waiter friend told him that they were looking for kitchen help at the Adams Mark hotel. Carlos became an apprentice to a tall Vietnamese executive pastry chef who had learned his craft from his father in France. “The hours sucked, the money sucked,” he says, “but I liked it.”

After three and a half years at the Adams Mark his chef/mentor declared him good enough to go out on his own.

“I wanted to stay,” he says. But his teacher pushed him out of the nest, recommending Carlos to a chef at the Hilton at University Place.

Carlos worked another three years at the Hilton, then for some caterers who taught him the business side of baking.

By then, Tony’s once-promising professional soccer career was over, the victim of injuries. He picked up some celebrity hosting gigs at Whispers, a nightclub behind Park Road Shopping Center. Carlos enjoyed hanging out there. Those were good times.

One night surveying the room from his perch at the bar, Carlos caught sight of a pretty blonde. Too shy to go over and start a conversation, he looked at her long enough for her to walk over to him. On February 29, 1984, Carlos married Barbara Catron. Later the same year, Carlos Jr. was born.

In 1988, Cappy Campuzano, Carlos’s grandfather and Castro’s old coach, passed away in Florida. Carlos took the death worse than the others. Ana remembers the scene after the funeral, all twelve of the Suarez kids at the table talking, drinking, and laughing—except Carlos, who sat quietly by himself. “What’s wrong?” Ana asked Carlos. “We’re not supposed to be here having a good time,” he replied.

With Campuzano’s death a cloud seemed to stall over the Suarezes. The Cuban community in Miami, where Roberto Suarez had been named the publisher of El Nuevo Herald, demanded that Roberto and others resign for being insensitive to Cuban exiles. For a time Miami police had to check Roberto’s car for explosive devices.

In 1991, an FBI sting operation in Charlotte scooped up several men in a big cocaine bust. Tony was one of them, the hapless victim doing a favor for a friend. Tony ended up serving twenty-two months in Goldsboro in a minimum-security facility.

That same year, Carlos says, “I made my move. I was thinking about opening my own place for a while,” he says. “It was just a matter of when.” Between the bank and what his father lent him, Carlos assumed $65,000 of debt.

“I wasn’t afraid,” he says. “Lots of people like the safe side of things. I just figured, ‘Go for it.’ ” Carlos bought the old Federal Bake Shop in the middle of the Park Road Shopping center. Ana, who has a finance degree, was eager to help her brother. Headstrong, he rarely followed her advice. “He could only see me as his little sister in fifth grade,” she laughs.  

The first twelve years were the hardest. Some nights the baking schedule didn’t permit him to come home. He slept on the cold floor of his little office.

Until he got the bills paid, he couldn’t hire anyone. During those grueling years, Barb, his wife, was his only help at the bakery.

“Close calls? Hell, yeah!” he says. He remembers frying doughnuts one morning when his sister waved an $1,800 utility bill that had to be paid that day. “I don’t know if I got that much in the bank!” he told her.

“Baked goods ain’t like medicine, something everyone will have to buy sooner or later,” he says. When the economy tanks it’s one of the first things people cut. As bad as it could get, a Cuban exile reminded him that it was worse elsewhere. Several years ago, Carlos hired an out-of-work baker from Cuba. The man said there were times in Cuba when they couldn’t get eggs or butter. Or they were forced to use cake flour to bake bread. When Carlos gave the man a Coke, he went to a corner of the bakery and turned his back so as not to be seen drinking it.

“Drink your Coke,” Carlos told him. “No one’s going to take it away from you. Fidel isn’t watching.”

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