Baking Sweet Memories in Caracas, Venezuela
“Each of my recipes has a story. Almost all my recipes have a reason for being,” Mercedes Grau.
Mercedes Grau was born and raised in Caracas. “I’m 35 years old. I’ve been cooking for 11 years. I’m a cook-pastry chef, a baker, but I don’t have a professional title,” she tells Latina Republic. Mercedes Grau is conquering Caracas’ sweet tooth, one recipe at a time. What’s extraordinary about Mercedes is that she has built a successful pastry and catering business during one of Venezuela’s most challenging economic times.
It is well known that being an entrepreneur and building a business comes with lots of challenges. It is not easy. But building a successful catering business in Venezuela during extreme scarcity times And when Venezuelans are leaving their country in great numbers, signals a special type of entrepreneur. This is a story about passion, love of sweets, overcoming, love of family, unwavering dedication to one’s craft and love of nation.
Mercedes Grau Reposteria & tienda Grau
“We have 2 locations, Mercedes Grau Reposteria, is like the core of the business. It is also where the business was born, and we still operate it. This core part of the business has been dedicated to mostly catering for events, for parties, and a year ago we decided to open, Grau, this little store in a great area of Caracas, where we sell freshly baked goods and desserts for clients to either order them for delivery or come enjoy them in the store.
The desserts that we sell in the Grau store are based on the most popular, in-demand pastries we offer through Mercedes Grau Reposteria. In Grau, we make them available to the public whenever they crave them,” describes Mercedes Grau to Latina Republic.
Venezuela’s Entrepreneurial Climate
“I wanted to do something that I really liked, and I liked baking sweets.”
Mercedes Grau: “I think that Venezuela right now is a country full of opportunities because in the last 15 years a lot of people have left. Above all, many young people, large companies, many businesses have closed and right now the country is having an improvement in the economy.
Venezuela has opened the country’s economy a little more and the country has become more flexible. There is a lot of opportunity because we lacked everything. Here in the country, there were very few things. And in the gastronomic world there was very little to offer.
Many young entrepreneurs, as you say, around 20%, have decided to start businesses because without a doubt it is a good opportunity. I have always said that for a business to be successful, you have to be very persevering. I, personally, 11 years ago when I started cooking and selling sweets, never thought I would be here 11 years later.
I really started doing it because I wanted to do something that I really liked, and I liked to make sweets. But the truth is that I didn’t think about it ambitiously, believing that 11 years later I was going to have a store, that we were going to have so many people, the truth is that I started everything very organically. Development has come only with time.
As I said, Venezuela is a country that right now is full of opportunities. And this is great because this makes the economy move, this creates more jobs, and this means that we all live better.”
Venezuela’s Love of Sweets
Mercedes Grau: “Well, I think that the Venezuelan has a sweet tooth. The Venezuelan loves eating a sweet treat after eating lunch at noon. We like buying a sweet, even if it is small. We also love to have a sweet snack around 4 or 5 in the afternoon. We enjoy having a cup of coffee with a delicious dessert, a small sweet, a cookie, for example. At night we also have the habit of following a meal with something sweet, something small, to end a meal with that sweet taste.
Recipes with a Story
Mercedes Grau: “Each of my recipes has a story. Almost all my recipes have a reason for being. They are recipes that I have inherited from relatives that we have adapted to the business, some I have also created based on the requests of people who ask me for example, “I want a chocolate cake.” Reading many recipes, I ended up making a unique chocolate cake recipe that is one of our most requested cakes. All our recipes have a story.”
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An Entrepreneur’s Journey and First Challenges
Mercedes told Latina Republic that before Mercedes Grau Reposteria and her tienda Grau were born, she felt the pressure to choose a traditional career path and not disappoint her parents. How to manage her parents’ expectations and the personal call to follow a different path?
Mercedes Grau: “Without a doubt! This happened to me. My parents are academic musicians. They are people who are very structured right now, but I think that in the case of my mother, my mother began to study music from a very young age, but she first studied a career and then she left for music.
Me, particularly, when I was 18 years old, I had to go to the University, and I did not know what to study. And my mom told me, “Choose something.” And I studied social communication, which is like journalism, advertising, a field that is like a sea of knowledge. I went to the university, I graduated, and at 23 I still didn’t know what I wanted to do.”
“If I am going to sell brownies and alfajores, they will be the best you’ve ever tasted.”
Mercedes Grau: “One day I decided to quit my job and I told my mom and dad that I was going to start selling pastries and they didn’t like the idea at first. “So, after so much study… you are going to sell brownies and alfajores?” I owned my choice and said, “If I am going to sell brownies and alfajores, they will be the best you’ve ever tasted.”
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A Family’s Unconditional Support
“I was young, and they saw me working until 1 or 2 in the morning.”
Once Mercedes’ family saw her passion for pastries and her commitment to launch a business, they recognized Mercedes’ vision and offered their unconditional support. Getting started as a young entrepreneur implied many sacrifices, and these tested her determination and earned her family’s support.
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Mercedes Grau: “When I was 23 years old, I spent every weekend baking for events, since most of the events are on weekends, I couldn’t go out to parties. I couldn’t go to the beach because I had to work on my business. And they saw me working until 1 or 2 in the morning to be able to deliver the pastries for my clients the next day. And it was there when they saw that I had a vocation for this. They have always supported me a lot. My parents realized that I was very responsible and very serious about the subject of sweets.”
Making Space for a Thriving Business
“In my mother’s house there is no living room or dining room. At mom’s house there are only stainless-steel counters where we make the desserts every day.”
Mercedes Grau: “And they have always supported me from the beginning. And three days after I started selling, my mom was the first to tell me, and can you make me a lemon pie? Or this type of cake? and she began to encourage me to do other things and she took my desserts everywhere, to promote my business. In fact, the workshop, Mercedes Grau Reposteria, the core business, continues to operate at my mother’s house.
In my mother’s house there is no living room or dining room. At mom’s house there are only stainless-steel counters where we make all the desserts every day. My parents are super happy. They say that this gives life to the house. Of course, we keep everything super clean, and we work there every day from 8 to 5, 6 in the afternoon. And everything is perfectly clean and organized.
We asked Mercedes to describe the key traits of a successful entrepreneur.
Mercedes Grau: “Look, I think what I always say is that you have to be very dedicated to what you do. You have to commit to what you are building. You have to be persevering.
Mercedes Own Persevering Story-Building a Business during Venezuela’s Scarcity Crisis
“It was almost impossible to get sugar, flour, eggs, milk, all the ingredients with which I work. Even in these circumstances, I did not rest.”
Mercedes Grau: “I personally started working as a pastry chef in 2011 here in Venezuela and then we went through the worst years. In Venezuela we experienced a terrible scarcity crisis. This was between the years 2014-2018/19.
Here in this country, it was almost impossible to get sugar, flour, eggs, milk, all the ingredients with which I work. Even in these circumstances, I did not rest. Of course, in those years it was very difficult for me to grow the business. In those years, I continued to sell my sweets with one or two people who helped me. I couldn’t grow much more because it was difficult to have a lot of work as the country was going through an economic crisis. Suddenly, one didn’t have many clients because there was little purchasing power.
“I would go to 20 different auto markets, looking for two cans of condensed milk. Those were very hard years but now looking back I say, ‘nobody gave me the store.’”
But I kept going, I did not rest. I would go to 20 different auto markets, looking for two cans of condensed milk. Those were very hard years but now looking back I say, ‘nobody gave me the store.’ The store is something that we have worked on, I speak in the plural because my husband supports me a lot in the store.
I have been working and cooking tirelessly for 11 years against all adversity because in this country it has been complicated. My store is small, but for me, it is the biggest in the world. For me this is, Wow!”
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It Took Perseverance and Time
“I spent the first two years working half a day in the kitchen by myself, and half a day working on something else because I couldn’t make it.”
Mercedes Grau: “And now that there are so many entrepreneurs in Venezuela and gastronomic entrepreneurs, many pastry chefs ask me, but how do you sell so much? I tell them, look, I spent the first two years working half a day in the kitchen by myself, and half a day working on something else because I couldn’t make it. At first, I couldn’t afford to only sell my cakes. It was a gradual work, little by little. After 11 years, we already created a brand, and now people already know us. People know our desserts.”
The Venezuelan Spirit-Being Part of the Solution
“Many people have left the country. For those of us who are still here, we want to do our part to help our country get ahead. We want to work for our country and live in our country.”
Mercedes Grau: “The Venezuelan, despite adversity, is a very happy person, very hard-working, we are persevering, we get up early, we go out to work, we are friendly, respectful people. Many people have left the country. For those of us who are still here, we want to do our part to help our country get ahead. We want to work for our country and live in our country.
“Leaving Venezuela has never been an option for us.”
Personally, although my father is Spanish and I have Spanish nationality and my husband has Polish nationality, leaving Venezuela has never been an option for us. Never. Never. We want to live here, we want for our children to live here, this is our country, our city and we want to continue working for our country.”
Adjusting to Growth and Wearing Many Hats
Mercedes Grau: “There are many who have joined us along this path. My mom is still my mentor, my main advisor. My husband started about 4 or 5 years ago with the push that we had to have a store. My husband is a civil engineer. He is a consultant. I told him I don’t have time to run two business. I have a two-year-old baby and I am pregnant right now. I told him then that I wanted to continue working and I also wanted to be a mother. That is also very important for me to be with them, especially when they are so young.
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My husband has been a huge support and is dedicated to the entire operational part of the store. And I’m in the workshop. So, each one of us is in one of the different businesses. It is the only way to be able to run both businesses. Without a doubt, the support of my husband is essential. Without a doubt, without my husband, Grau would not exist.”
My Business is Me
“I have never stopped being present in my business.”
Mercedes Grau: “Another key to my success in my business is that I have never stopped being present in the business. In other words, Mercedes Grau Reposteria and Grau are me. And it is also very difficult for me to be in the store and the people who come to the store expect to find me.”
Learning from Early Mistakes
Mercedes Grau: “I could tell you that 4 or 5 years ago my husband and I said, let’s sit down, let’s do the first Excel spreadsheet of costs to see how much it costs to make the goods and how I was selling them, and if I told you that at first, nearly all of my products were sold at a loss. And yet I was happy. And my husband arrived, he is a person of numbers, and without a doubt he has given structure to the business.
A Personal, Favorite Recipe
Mercedes Grau: “My favorite recipe is Torticas de Queso Criollo. The torticas are like a balance between sweet and salty. This is my addiction. I could sit down and eat 20 of these. The secret to them is that they are made with a cheese made here in Venezuela. It is a cheese that is made on the plains, where the farms are. It is a cheese that comes almost directly from the cows. It is a “salty llanero cheese.”
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In fact, I have shared many of my recipes with Venezuelans living outside the country and I have shared this recipe on my Instagram and many people tell me, but it doesn’t look the same when I make them! The secret is the llanero cheese that is sold here in Venezuela.
As I was telling you, all my recipes have a story, and this recipe is from my mother’s older brother who passed away 2 years ago, and this was his dessert. He always made this dessert on Sundays for the family. As I tell you, I have been working with and adopting desserts that have a family history and now we have them here in the store, available.”
Advice to Those Considering Starting a Business
Mercedes Grau: “At the beginning of undertaking a business, it can be very scary. If you are young, dare to take a chance. If you still don’t have children, I think it’s easier. With that said, if you have someone who supports you, also, dare to do it. At first, I was very afraid. I did not want to disappoint my parents. I set myself the goal and achieved something that I was passionate about. For every business or entrepreneurial project, you commit to, a sacrifice will be required, and it is worth it without a doubt. It is worth it, and you have to be very persevering. For us, we want to live here, we want for our children to grow up here. This is our country, our city and we want to continue working for our country.”
Watch our Interview:
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Claire Castrejon | Latin American Correspondent
My name is Claire Castrejon and I am currently studying Spanish Communities and Cultures at UCLA. I am working as a Latin American Correspondent because I want to bridge the gap between the US and Latin America bringing awareness to the social, political, educational or climate issues in Latin America. I want to bring awareness of the light that comes from the darkness of certain situations and help people understand that supporting countries and people in Latin American countries is important.
Soledad Quartucci | Latina Republic
Dr. Soledad Quartucci is the founder and CEO of Latina Republic, a 501(C)3 California-based nonprofit organization. Latina Republic is committed to improving the diversity and professional development of storytellers in the media industry as representation matters and affects the stories we tell. Latina Republic makes space for and empowers unheard voices and trains the next generation of leaders in the U.S.