This year’s Thanksgiving seemed quieter than usual. Normally bustling, East 112th Street had a few parents pushing strollers and very little noise beyond the fall winds brushing the streets.
Most stores in the neighborhood were closed for the holiday. Halloween decorations still lingered outside some apartment and store windows, with skeletons and carved pumpkins on display for passers-by.
The lack of Thanksgiving decor was likely a reflection of the year that small businesses have had due to COVID-19, with many struggling or closing down entirely. But that hasn’t been the case for one bakery. Tres Leches Café located at 356 E. 112th St. has never been busier.
At 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving, two hours before the store’s closing time, the line outside the bakery kept growing and stretched down the block, many feet away from the café’s orange-colored storefront.
An employee, in an orange apron, stepped one foot out of the store, stretching her neck beyond the glass door to gauge how many customers were in line waiting.
“I’ve never seen a line this long before,” said Amnyll Felipe, 19, a cashier at the café, who works for her grandfather Ronaldo Felipe, the owner.
The narrow space behind the counter seemed a bit cramped for two people, but the granddaughter and grandfather team made it work. Amnyll stood by the cash register, while Ronaldo, who goes by his last name, Felipe, packaged the cakes and handed them to customers.
Even the mask Felipe wore could not hide the wide smile on his face. Two months before turning 70, he shows no sign of slowing down. He still comes to the store every day, weekends included, and plans to open a second café on Orchard Street in Lower Manhattan later this month.
“This is my life,” said Felipe. “I like to be busy.”
The success of Tres Leches Café is definitely the exception. A report from Partnership in New York City, a nonprofit that provides resources for businesses, showed that because of drastic drops in revenue since March, about one-third of the 240,000 small businesses in the city may never reopen after the pandemic. Lower-income neighborhoods like East Harlem are especially impacted.
David Nocenti, the executive director of Union Settlement, a non-profit that provides services for East Harlem residents, said in a news release that many small businesses in the neighborhood were already struggling before the pandemic and are now in more desperate need of financial assistance.
“Unlike businesses in wealthier areas, these mom-and-pop shops do not have savings or cash reserves available,” said Nocenti, in the release.
When the state issued the mandatory stay-at-home order in March, Tres Leches Café closed for two months. Demand for the cake, however, remained high. Felipe recalled while staying at home, he would receive on average of 10 calls per day from customers, asking when he’d be open and whether he offered delivery.
“When the cake is gone, people miss it more,” said Felipe, with a laugh.
When the café reopened in late April, loyal customers returned, with only one shopper allowed in the store at a given time to follow safety protocols. Customers formed a line outside, waiting up to 15 minutes depending on the time of the day.
Felipe said Thanksgiving has always been the busiest time at the café, but this year even more so.
Renny Felipe, the owner’s daughter who’s in charge of the café’s logistics and financials, said they are now selling cakes three times the amount before the pandemic.
Among the customers waiting outside on Thanksgiving was Ezra Lee, a California native who’s in the master’s program at the School of Visual Arts. Lee said he started coming to the bakery in April after the café reopened and is now a regular customer who stops by at least once a week.
“It’s a Friday treat,” said Lee. When asked how he first learned about the café, Lee pointed to his boyfriend standing next to him.
“It’s because of me,” said Daniel Boyaca, Lee’s boyfriend.
Born and raised in Colombia, Boyaca said he grew up eating tres leches cake. His parents often brought it home from a local bakery, and the dessert reminds him of his Hispanic roots.
“I really appreciate how much Felipe cares about his business,” said Boyaca. “He knows his background, and he knows how to make it.”
Felipe moved to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in 1991 when he was 41. Harboring the American dream to make life better through hard work, he started off as a building superintendent in Newark, N.J. and moved to New York City in 1992.
Felipe tried different jobs over the years, from a sales person at a 99 cents store in Washington Heights, to a parking lot attendant in Bronx, and eventually to a building superintendent in Harlem, five blocks away from his current café.
While visiting a friend, Felipe was offered a piece of tres leches cake. After tasting it, he thought to himself, “I can do better,” said Felipe.
In 2003, while still working full-time in Harlem as a building superintendent, he started baking at home with his wife Luisa Felipe, using the recipe he learned from his grandmother as a teenager. Felipe and Luisa baked cakes, tasted them and adjusted ingredients accordingly to get the flavor right. After numerous attempts, they finally developed their official tres leches cake recipe. Felipe said they often baked cakes after work, and sometimes woke up early to get extra work done.
To help sell his cakes, Felipe reached out to some friends who ran restaurants in the Bronx and started delivering cakes regularly to three of them. The good quality won Felipe more orders and motivated him to invest more into the business. Through word of mouth, he gradually built his clientele and expanded delivery services to more than 50 restaurants in New York City, Long Island and New Jersey.
As the business grew bigger, in 2009, Felipe moved his café to its current location on East 112th Street. At first, the bakery just serviced other businesses and restaurants, then he opened it up to customers for in-store purchases.
Since opening Tres Leches Café more than ten years ago, Felipe said he’s grateful for the journey.
“When you want to do something, put your mind a hundred percent to it,” he said. “You have to work hard. Nothing comes easy.”
(Tres Leches Café in East Harlem. Photo by Renny Felipe)