LOWELL — The tucked-away kitchen in Sowy’s Bakery swelters on a recent Wednesday morning in late August. The warm air smells of birthday cake and roasted pork. Spanish pours into the room from a small TV atop wire shelving, and pots and pans clank loudly as they’re being washed.
Luis Miguel Santiago Rivera ties a paper towel around his head as a sort of sweatband. Little to no breeze wafts in through a side screen door.
“I feel like I’m back in Puerto Rico,” Luis says in Spanish with a smile. “It’s hot over there, too.”
The baker’s face creases with concentration as he dumps ingredients for a pastry filling into a commercial mixer. It whirs loudly when turned on. He then grabs a handful of flour and throws it onto an island table, spreading it with his hands to cover the surface.
As he has many times over the past few months at Sowy’s Bakery, Luis is working on a fresh batch of quesitos — cream cheese pastries that are popular in Puerto Rico.
Luis, 23, is a new baker at Sowy’s who is credited with single-handedly revitalizing the longtime Lowell staple. His pastries and desserts now line the inside of the bakery’s display case. There is the palmera, a glazed puff pastry with rainbow nonpareils, brazo gitano (which translates literally to gypsy’s arm), rolled sponge cakes topped with guava filling and coconut shavings, pan de queso y guayaba (cheese and guava bread), and more.
“I like what I do,” Luis said. “I feel good. I feel like this business will prosper and will rise little by little, in God’s favor.”
Earlier this year, Luis was still living in Ponce, a city in the southern part of the island. Work grew scarce and Luis made the difficult decision to move to Lowell after a friend opened up his home to him. He wanted better opportunities for himself and his 4-year-old daughter, Lisuannette, who stayed behind in Puerto Rico with her mother.
After a short stint at Walmart, Luis decided to try to seek work at a bakery. He wanted to return to the art of pastries and breads, like the ones he made at various bakeries on the island.
Sowy’s Bakery at 474 Merrimack St. turned up in a Google search and owner Sol E. Ofarrill decided to hire the young baker after testing his skills.
Ofarrill, 67, said Luis has been un bendicion — a blessing.
“He’s taken a lot of work over for me. He’s a hard worker. He helps me with everything,” she said. “He does all the sweets. He’s done new sweets that we hadn’t offered before and people are happy in that sense.”
Last Thursday morning, Luis prepared doughnut dough in the bakery’s back kitchen. To refresh his memory, Luis examined closely one of his recipes which he keeps handwritten on worn pieces of notebook paper.
Customers filtered in and out for sandwiches and to fulfill their cravings. After eating lunch, Angelica Morales spotted the rows of glazed palmeras in the front display case.
The Lowell resident asked for one and wrapped it in a napkin so she can enjoy it right away.
“They remind me of the island,” Morales said in Spanish. “It pleases me that they have things we can’t find in supermarkets in Massachusetts. It’s great that they make all this, so you can keep a tiny piece of the island here.”
(This story originally appeared in The Lowell Sun)