It’s as predictable as the sunrise, sunset and taxes. On any given weekday morning during the school year, a swarm of teenagers streams out of Cambridge Rindge and Latin School, shuffles across Broadway, and erupts through the doors of Broadway Marketplace. The noise level skyrockets as they beeline for the bakery department in the back.
For Laura Garcia, the market’s bakery manager, it’s the best time of day. Her “kids” have arrived.
With the tone and efficiency of a drill sergeant, she takes orders, pointing at each impatient teen as she goes. “What do you need? What do you need? And you?” It’s not hard to see why freshmen might be intimidated by her, at least initially. She is no-nonsense as she moves through the requests of dozens of hungry students. But, she also makes a point of connecting with the kids before they head off with their food in hand.
“When I give [the sandwich] back, [I say] ‘Thank you. Have a nice day, okay?’ Or then the next day, I say, ‘How was your test?’ And I listen," she said.
Her kids catch on quickly that despite her sometimes gruff tone, Laura has a big heart and a hug to match, which is why they come back, every morning of every school week, year after year, and for many, even after graduation. No wonder many have called her “Mama.”
Laura beams as she recounts some of her more memorable young customers over the years. One student had a bad stutter. He was often the first to arrive during morning break so he wouldn’t be rushed and verbally stumble.
“I always ask him, ‘How was your school’ and I stay there because he’s the first one so I have a chance to spend time with him," she said. "So one day he come over and give me like a gift thing. And I am like what is this for? ‘Laura you are the only one who talk to me. You’re the only one who care for me and the only one who ask me questions about me.’ Oh my God, my tears come out.”
Two Rindge seniors, Cela Harris and Diana Ortiz, are among this morning’s mob of customers and fans. Cela flashes a knowing wave and a smile as she rounds the corner and sees Laura. She hands over her bagel with no directions. Apparently Laura knows her order and she always gets it right.
“I’ve known her since sophomore year because my brother was friends with her," said Cela. He still stays in touch with Laura on Facebook.
“She’s so sweet,” added Diana. “She always has a smile.”
And both girls laugh about Laura’s signature bagel toss: a well-placed lob, over waiting heads, of toasty, chewy goodness, slathered with melting cream cheese, right into the hands of the hungry teen.
“She does it a lot,” Cela said, “especially when it’s busy at lunch.”
Joshua Nolan, a 2014 Rindge graduate, is one of many high school alums who goes out of his way to check in on Laura whenever he's in the neighborhood. As he stepped into the market on a recent weekday, on the way to his job in Kendall Square, he seemed almost relieved to find her tucked at the back of the bakery, moving baked goods, refilling coffee urns and juggling orders.
“I don’t know how it happened, but we started talking to each other … and we became friends,” Nolan said.
They discovered they both speak Spanish, so Laura became Nolan’s de facto “immersion program during the day.” She knew his favorite order by heart – plain bagel toasted with cream cheese.
“I never got a bad bagel, especially when Laura made it.”
After graduation, Joshua came back to the store whenever he was in town for the summer or on break. “Not even to get a bagel. Just to see her.”
Once, when he had been gone for over a year, he stopped by. “I was a little worried that she wouldn’t be here. I went there and nobody was behind the desk and I was scared. And then out she came and she recognized me and it was great," he said.
Richard Sabounjian, Broadway Marketplaces’s vice president of Operations and Human Resources, said, “She’s a huge asset. “She’s got a personality that can get away with a lot … and she does. And they love it.”
He crows about her work ethic and the fact that she is at the store every morning between 5 and 5:30 a.m., six days a week. She’s also got business smarts. The breakfast combo – sandwich and a coffee – was her brainchild and it has paid off. Laura knows how to work vendors, too. “She won’t take crap,” Sabounjian said, adding “she develops relationships and it’s all I can say because that encompasses everything.”
Broadway Marketplace is a long way from Laura’s hometown of Chihuahua, Mexico, where she left at 20. A self-described rebel, she headed north on her own, to Cambridge, with nothing but the encouragement of a friend who lived there, some pretty pictures, and hopes for better employment opportunities. She didn’t speak much English so she took what job she could find. Her first stop: the kitchen at Burger King in Central Square.
It has now been close to 30 years since Laura started her job at Broadway Marketplace, and the ever-growing, devoutly loyal customer base she has created.
With all the time she devotes to her job, the market is clearly her second home. And for those who work and visit there, she is even more obviously, family.