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From a family’s garage to the hands of celebrity chefs: a Portuguese muffin’s unlikely journey

Leonor and Tiberio Lopes went from making bolos levedos in their Swansea home garage to producing the 3 Meal Muffin out of their Central Bakery plant in Tiverton, R.I.
Leonor and Tiberio Lopes went from making bolos levedos in their Swansea home garage to producing the 3 Meal Muffin out of their Central Bakery plant in Tiverton, R.I.handout

TIVERTON, R.I. — Its circumference extends beyond the palm of a hand. Yeasty and butter-scented, a Portuguese muffin, or bolo levedo, isn’t a typical muffin at all. Resembling an English muffin, but without the nooks and crannies, spongier and with a touch of sweetness, it is a beloved breakfast bread in Portugal’s Azores islands.

Family-owned and -operated Central Bakery, founded by Tiberio and Leonor Lopes, bakes some of the best bolos levedos around. This is their sole product. The couple started the business out of their Swansea home garage in 1974. Today the Lopes family produces the bread in an expansive plant in Tiverton. They’ve turned this little-known breakfast specialty — now with the moniker “The 3 Meal Muffin” — into a thriving business. Local supermarkets (Market Basket, for one) sell them, and notable chefs around the country (like Daniel Serfer in Miami) use the bread for burger and sandwich buns.

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The couple, now in their 70s, immigrated to Fall River from San Miguel in the Azores in 1967. Nostalgia for bolos levedos (translation: yeast cakes) led them to start the business. They couldn’t find the popular morning treat, which is served lightly toasted and slathered with butter and jam, at neighborhood markets, despite the area’s large Portuguese population.

In the Azores, Leonor’s mother, Beatriz Caetano, sold her homemade bolos levedos out of her house. She gave Tiberio, who was then working at the Chaves Market in Fall River, the idea to do the same. The husband-and-wife team used Caetano’s recipe, adapting it to American ingredients. In their garage bakery, Leonor molded balls of dough by hand, cooked the rounds in small batches in a skillet, and sold the muffins to neighbors and local markets. “They kept selling out and building up clientele,” says their son Paul Lopes, 46, who now oversees company sales. He and his brothers, Rob, 48, and David, 41, grew up helping their parents. David runs the operations, while Rob works outside of the business.

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The bakery moved out of the garage in a year to a tiny storefront on South Main Street in Fall River, and Leonor still cooked the muffins in a skillet. A distributor brought the Lopes’s bolos levedos to small stores on Cape Cod, including Provincetown, where there were many Portuguese residents. A word-of-mouth following created demand, and the family mailed muffins to customers.

Years later, a semiautomatic dough dispenser allowed them to ramp up production and also move to a larger storefront on Pleasant Street in Fall River. In 1989, an article about the bakery in The New York Times boosted their mail-order business, and in 2000 the Lopes’s bakery was featured in the book “Food Finds: America’s Best Local Foods and the People Who Produce Them,” by Allison Engel and Margaret Engel.

At the Tiverton plant, each day high-end equipment churns out tractor-trailer loads of 3 Meal Muffins, each marked with a golden brown circle on the top and bottom. Made with yeast, butter, eggs, and milk, they fill the air with an enticing bready aroma when they bake. Although the product has transcended its status as a breakfast food, it hasn’t changed in 40 years, says Paul. “We use pretty much the same recipe as when my mom was doing it by hand.” The scent wafts out into the street, luring in customers, although this bakery is largely wholesale. “If a customer walks, in we’ll usually sell them some,” says David.

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The Lopes’s 3 Meal Muffins gained celebrity over the last few years, when famed New York City restaurateur Drew Nieporent began putting his award-winning burgers on them at Tribeca Grill and at his concession, the Daily Burger, in Madison Square Garden. It turns out that the muffins’ cake-like texture wonderfully absorbs pan juices and flavors without falling apart.

The business has come a long way since its inception in the family’s garage. In 2010, CBS’s Katie Lee used the Lopes’s Portuguese muffin for the portobello mushroom burger she was preparing on air and called it the key ingredient. Photos of actress Kate Upton, former basketball star Walt Frazier, and Nieporent all holding burgers on 3 Meal Muffins have surfaced on the Internet.

Although Tiberio is now retired and has given the reins to his sons, he still comes in to check on things. Paul says of his father, “I see his eyes light up. None of us ever imagined that our muffins would end up in a place like Madison Square Garden!”

The 3 Meal Muffin is also available ($4.99 for 6) at www.3mealmuffin.com.

Ann Trieger Kurland can be reached at anntrieger@gmail.com .