Serving up tastes of home helps laid-off immigrants make ends meet

At 3 a.m. on Friday, Eddy Llamas stood in the middle of his Miami apartment’s small kitchen, elbow-deep in the sweet, buttery dough that’s typical of bread from Guatemala. About 200 loaves were taking shape, each the size of a fist, soon to be sold for $1 a pop. “This […]

At 3 a.m. on Friday, Eddy Llamas stood in the middle of his Miami apartment’s small kitchen, elbow-deep in the sweet, buttery dough that’s typical of bread from Guatemala.

About 200 loaves were taking shape, each the size of a fist, soon to be sold for $1 a pop.

“This is a kind of bread that people in Guatemala eat every day for breakfast. It’s not hard like French bread, which you really have to bite into. It’s soft and spongy,” said Llamas, who moved from the Central American country to Florida when he was 10. “It’s part of our culture.”

Down the hall, Llamas’ wife and two-year-old son slept.

“I have to do everything as quietly as possible,” said the 38-year-old. “I don’t want to wake them up.”

For Llamas, a trained cook, furtive trips to his own kitchen in the wee hours of the morning are a notable departure from his life before the pandemic hit, when he worked as a chef at an Uruguayan barbecue joint.

In mid-March, mandatory restaurant closures devastated Llamas’ previous employer — wiping out 75 percent of sales revenue — and forced management to cut two members of the kitchen staff.

Llamas, then a five-year employee at the restaurant, volunteered.

“Thankfully, my wife was able to keep her job [at an awnings company] so we knew we at least had that one source of income. That’s why I told the restaurant not to worry about giving me hours. I knew there were other people there, including people who are single parents, who really, really needed those hours more than I did,” said Llamas. “But the whole thing did come as a shock.”

Since then, Llamas has helped his family make ends meet by baking and selling breads from his home country, an operation that began with a Facebook post a month and a half ago and has since grown “little by little.”

Conchas baked by Eddy Llamas in his kitchen at home in Miami, Florida, June 2, 2020.
Conchas baked by Eddy Llamas in his kitchen at home in Miami, Florida, June 2, 2020.

“I honestly never thought this would take off the way it did,” said Llamas. “I now have many repeat, weekly customers. I have customers who at first were ordering just one loaf and are now ordering bags of five, bags of ten.”

Llamas is one of many Miami immigrants weathering a layoff thanks in part to the overnight clientele for homemade dishes that free promotion on social media can help unlock.

As the number of unemployment claims in Florida ratcheted up during the course of the pandemic, food posts began appearing more and more often in Facebook groups for Miami-area immigrants (including “Guatemaltecos en Miami,” or “Guatemalans in Miami,” whose 1,300+ members now frequently come across posts from Llamas urging them to put bread orders in), with some posters stating explicitly that they need help because of coronavirus-related economic hardship.

Among those hawking food from his home country online is Edgardo, an undocumented immigrant from Argentina.

When it became clear three months ago that group gatherings present an elevated risk of COVID-19 infection, Edgardo lost both his day job at a wedding and event planning company, as well as a side gig performing as a clown in children’s birthday parties (his “stage name,” which he first began using 14 years ago, was “Payaso Plim-Plim” or “Plim-Plim the Clown”).

Now, Edgardo’s sole source of income is the money he makes selling Argentine-style pastries and empanadas, made by resuscitating recipes from his life as a baker in Argentina before moving to Miami in 2001.

“I started doing this as soon as I lost my job. In this city, you can’t afford to waste time. I need to make a living somehow. I have bills to pay … I just thought, ‘baking was something I did once, a long time ago, so let me do it again,’” said Edgardo, who asked that his last name not be used because of his immigration status. “Thankfully it has been going ok. I’m not making a lot of money, but everything helps.”

Stories like Edgardo’s have become common in part because U.S. Latinos — who are over-represented in the workforce of restaurants, hotels, and other vulnerable service-sector industries — are among the workers hardest hit by coronavirus-related job losses and pay cuts, according to a Pew Research Center survey. Around 49% of Latinos report that they or someone in their home had experienced reduced wages or a layoff — or both — because of the pandemic, compared with 33% of all U.S. adults.

Those who are undocumented, such as Edgardo, find themselves in an even more precarious position, since they are ineligible for coronavirus relief money and cannot apply for unemployment benefits.

In Florida, it is legal for individuals to prepare and sell certain “cottage food” products from their homes’ unlicensed kitchens, according to state law. That includes breads, cakes, and biscuits and excludes foods like meat products or products with meat fillings.

Home chefs like Edgardo or Llamas are thus not required to obtain a license from the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and are exempt from inspection by state authorities.

But there are some rules to be mindful of. Cottage food operators may not sell more than $50,000 per year, and all cottage food products offered for sale to the public must be labeled stating that they are not subject to Florida’s food safety regulations.

PROJECTS FOR THE FUTURE

The economic crunch triggered by the coronavirus pandemic spared no one in Nicole Serrano’s family.

Serrano, an immigrant from Bogota, Colombia, lost her job as an executive assistant. In quick succession, her mother was laid off. She worked as a restaurant chef. Then Serrano’s younger brother, a college student, became unemployed as well, losing a part-time gig.

“It was an extremely difficult situation. Everyone in the house was jobless and we didn’t know how we were going to get our hands on any money,” said Serrano. “But we had to look for something to do because we couldn’t afford to just sit and do nothing.”

In early May, the Aventura-based family decided to team up and sell arepas and empanadas, priced at $1.50 each, as well as marranitas vallunas (plantain balls stuffed with pork belly). A robust presence on social media — including an Instagram page that amassed more than 400 followers in six weeks — nets the Serranos about 15 orders per week. Customers pay with cash or through Zelle. The majority are Colombian and Venezuelan.

“I’ll be honest, it hasn’t been easy. It’s tough getting the word out and the truth is that not a lot of people have the extra cash these days to buy food made by someone else,” said Serrano.

Still, the family is so far enjoying the work.

“We see this as a project that we would like to invest in and work on. I don’t know if that means opening a restaurant way down the line or just finding a way to do this at a bigger scale,” she said. “But we feel that this is an opportunity, in a way, and there’s nothing better than working with family.”

From left, Jorge Serrano, Carolina Galeano, and Nicole Serrano with baskets containing homemade tequeños, arepas de huevo, buñuelos, panes de bono, empanadas and arepas de queso in Miami, Florida, June 17, 2020.
From left, Jorge Serrano, Carolina Galeano, and Nicole Serrano with baskets containing homemade tequeños, arepas de huevo, buñuelos, panes de bono, empanadas and arepas de queso in Miami, Florida, June 17, 2020.

A FAMILY RECIPE

Llamas’ turn to baking, too, doubles as a homage to family tradition.

Back in Guatemala City, his family has operated a bakery for generations. Llamas remembers learning the basics of bread-making there as a child, when the business was still his grandfather’s (it has since been passed on to his eldest uncle, the first of 12 siblings).

The bread Llamas now sells in Miami is the product of question-filled conversations on Skype with his cousins.

“We went through the recipe together and they answered all my questions about how to shape the bread, for how long to knead the dough,” said Llamas. “It was a huge help. I’ve spent years in kitchens and I had baked bread before, but this particular bread is really different from any other that I had made.”

Though Llamas can’t get his hands on the key ingredient that he said sets the family recipe apart — a small dose of a parmesan-like cheese from the eastern Guatemalan province of Zapata — he found an acceptable alternative in queso frijolero, a dry, salty cheese available at Walmart.

And even in the midst of a quarantine baking boom that’s stretched supplies of yeast and flour thin, access to his former employer’s food vendors have kept Llamas’ kitchen fully stocked.

Over time, the same base dough Llamas makes for bread was also used to create other Guatemalan-style confections, including crunchy, biscuit-like champurradas, which cost $0.50 each.

Champurradas baked by Eddy Llamas in his kitchen at home.
Champurradas baked by Eddy Llamas in his kitchen at home.

On Friday, there were eight orders to fill. Llamas delivered them himself, setting out in his car at around 5:30 p.m., once all the bread had cooled.

Insisting on contact-less delivery, Llamas drops orders off near customers’ front doors, knocks, and steps back. From his car, he exchanges greetings.

Younger customers typically pay Llamas, who created Facebook and Instagram pages for his baked goods, through Venmo. Older ones leave envelopes with cash hidden outside.

As things stand, more than 90 percent of Llamas’ business comes from Facebook, and around three quarters of customers are fellow Guatemalans.

“Here in Miami you have a Cuban bakery in every block but finding Guatemalan bread can be very difficult,” he explained. “That’s where I come in.”

Llamas concedes he makes less money now than he did at his restaurant job, but he explained his current work feels more purpose-filled.

“My days are long now, especially because I’m working by myself, from home, but they are my days. I can have breakfast with my wife, I can take my kid to the daycare. I can make my own schedule,” he said. “I like working on something that is my own and seeing it start to pay off. And it’s wonderful to hear Guatemalans tell me how much my bread means to them.”

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