Friday, 4 Dec 2020

2 Broke Artists Started a Bakery at Home. It’s a Pandemic Hit.

They didn’t have an oven. Their apartment resembled Santa’s workshop set up in a dorm room. But two rookie bakers are thriving in Mexico City, where food and entrepreneurism go hand-in-hand.


By Natalie Kitroeff

MEXICO CITY — A toaster oven may not be the ideal gadget for starting a full-fledged bakery, but this is a pandemic and everyone is doing their best with what they have.

And what two artists in Mexico City had was a $42 toaster oven.

“We were broke,” said Andrea Ferrero, shrugging her elbows out of a bowl of cake batter. “We bought it on credit.”

Like legions of others around the world stuck in coronavirus lockdown, Ms. Ferrero and her boyfriend, David Ayala-Alfonso, began baking several months ago to escape unrelenting boredom.

They turned out to be very good at it.

So they started an addictive Instagram account, Cuarentena Baking, or Quarantine Baking, to showcase their cookies, cakes and doughnuts. And they have since amassed hundreds of clients. With a viable business, they’ve moved out of their tiny apartment into a bigger place — one with a real oven.

Their success, a rare bit of good news in a country pummeled by the coronavirus, is a testament to the power of cooking as a survival strategy in Mexico’s food-obsessed capital.

Before the virus struck, the streets of Mexico City were already flush with taco stands, people serving tamales on bicycles, and carts offering roasted sweet potatoes or corn on the cob slathered with mayo, cheese and chili powder. The pandemic and the attendant loss of millions of jobs across the country has pushed even more people to try their hand at selling their home cooking.

“In Mexico, someone’s kitchen is home, and street food is someone’s home brought to the street,” said Pati Jinich, a Mexican chef and cookbook author. “For people with no resources, they can make the food they grew up eating or they were taught — or just the one thing that they had.”

Across the city, there’s been a blossoming of so-called ghost kitchens — set up to make food exclusively for delivery, with the preparation often done in people’s apartments.

When their family’s catering business in the capital lost steam, Jonathan Weintraub and his brother Gabriel started selling pastrami sandwiches under the moniker “Schmaltzy Bros Delicatessen.” After getting laid off, Fahrunnisa Bellak turned bagel-making into a full-time job and is now opening a storefront.

Encouraged by his wife, Pedro Reyes, a food writer, decided to package and sell his popular salsa macha, a nut-filled hot salsa. He said his venture has a natural market in Mexico City, where an inordinate share of conversations revolve entirely around food.

“Most people here like to eat well and they brag about knowing where to eat,” Mr. Reyes said. “That helps people open up to these small businesses, to be able to say, ‘I want to buy cookies from this guy and paella from that one.’”

The popularity of Cuarentena Baking has a lot to do with its Instagram account, which every day features close-ups of the owners’ confections, like gooey filling smooshed into a brownie or spilling out of cakes. Instead of advertising out-of-reach luxury for fantasy browsing, it offers something attainable for people with $1.75 to spend on a mound of pure joy.

At first, the couple posted pictures just for their friends, who would send them tequila or homemade hummus in exchange for samples. Then friends of friends started placing orders.

Someone asked for a menu, so they invented one including babkas, doughnuts, sourdough and later, cakes and brownies. Besides sourdough, the couple had never made any of these treats before quarantine. At first, everything besides the cakes was baked inside their toaster oven.

Moving into a new apartment has given the couple only slightly more control over the bedlam of operating a full-fledged bakery from home during a global health crisis.

“I obsessively plan,” Ms. Ferrero said. “And then, chaos.”

Their home looks like what would happen if Santa’s workshop were located inside a dorm room. The kitchen fits a maximum of four people comfortably. The assembly area is squished into what would be a modest second bedroom. Their trash can is a stool turned upside down with a garbage bag fitted over the four legs.

On a recent Saturday, while frenetically churning cake and then brownie batter, Ms. Ferrero asked herself the following questions: “Did I already put eggs in this?” (No.) “Did we run out of vanilla?” (Yes.) “Was this cake supposed to have three layers?” (It was.)

She eyed the day’s to-do list — 61 jars filled with cake, icing and crumbled cookies, a best-selling concoction; 162 brownies; 38 cookies; and three cakes — and picked up her phone to respond to the messages flooding her inbox.

“Can I come pick the order up now?” she said, reading one of them aloud. “No!”

Ms. Fererro, originally from Peru, is a sculptor, and Mr. Ayala-Alfonso, born in Colombia, is a curator — trades that are at least tangentially connected to building structures out of dough and creating an alluring visual vibe on Instagram.

But their transformation into professional bakers has not been without mishap.

They have started several oven fires, sent countless incomplete or late orders, and once had a delivery person disappear with several brownies and a cheesecake. They constantly run out of ingredients.

Over the last few months, Mr. Ayala-Alfonso said, they’ve been working to perfect their craft, searching YouTube for videos on “how to make a cake,” and “why is my cake falling down,” and “what’s the difference between baking soda and powder.” They also recently hired an artist friend, Yorely Valero, to help manage the onslaught of orders a few days a week.

They have developed a special intimacy with clients. People ask them to write love notes to their crushes, on top of boxes of brownies.

One regular asked Ms. Ferrero to not draw her signature hearts on a box that was to be delivered as a six-month anniversary gift to a boyfriend, because it might scare him off. “I said ‘sure, good luck!’” Ms. Ferrero said.

“You’re already interacting on social media more because of quarantine, so people actually talk to us,” Mr. Ayala-Alfonso said. “Our account is a support line.”

By 2 p.m. on the recent Saturday, when they officially start handing out orders, a small crowd of couriers and customers was waiting outside the Cuarentena Baking headquarters, which is on a tree-lined street in Roma Norte, a hipster neighborhood south of the city’s center. One woman, who had been waiting for 10 minutes, let out a long sigh and a terse “thank you” when Mr. Ayala-Alfonso handed her a box of cookies.

Half an hour later, the woman messaged the Instagram account: “It was worth the wait ;)”

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