Tech Gurus Teach Food Entrepreneurs The Recipe For Success


Get the full story on NPR.

San Antonio is one of the country’s emerging tech hubs. It’s also home to a rich culinary scene. Now city officials are trying to bring both communities together through a program called Break Fast and Launch.

The program pairs emerging food entrepreneurs with technology mentors who teach them business. The tech mentors don’t have culinary backgrounds, but they know how to get a startup off the ground. The idea behind Break Fast and Launch is to take some of that vibrant startup energy and inject it into San Antonio’s food scene. It’s one of several “culinary incubator” models springing up across the country.

Break Fast and Launch was started last year with city and federal funding. Thirty entrepreneurs went through the competitive program last spring. Munirah Small is part of the fall cohort that started in September. Last year, the 44-year-old mom quit her job as a customer service representative at AT&T to start a cake company calledSweet Themes.

“The best way to describe my cakes would be a delicious edible centerpiece,” Small says.

She says she found a lot of business through church and community groups. Baking is now her full-time job, and she has plenty of repeat customers. But after accounting for her expenses, there’s not much money left over — certainly not enough to pay herself a regular salary, she tells me. So Small applied to Break Fast and Launch to figure out what she could be doing better.

The eight-person cohort meets once a week in a designated part of a public library to talk business strategy with different mentors. When I first met up with the group in October, they were talking to Mike Girdley, the founder of a popular programming boot camp called Codeup.

Girdley has no experience in the food industry. In fact, he’s never tasted anything whipped up by the entrepreneurs before him. Today they’re talking about a common business mistake: pricing your product too low.

“You’re going to price it way too low, Girdley tells them, “because you’re seeing it from the price of a technician. You’re not necessarily seeing it from the perspective of a customer, right?” The question these entrepreneurs need to ask themselves, he says, is “what value are you giving to the customer?”

Small sells her cakes for between $35 and $175 each, depending on the size, ingredients and design. That puts her in the same price range as a grocery store bakery — not her gourmet competitors. Girdley says if Small accounts for the value of her time, she’s actually losing money on every cake. He tells her, you need to be chargingthree times as much.

A sampling of Munirah Small's cakes. "The best way to describe my cakes would be a delicious edible centerpiece," she says.


A sampling of Munirah Small’s cakes. “The best way to describe my cakes would be a delicious edible centerpiece,” she says.

Girdley says another lesson food entrepreneurs can pick up from the tech world is how to market their products with a story — the way Apple has long marketed its products to the creative class.

“People don’t necessarily buy what your product is. They’re buying into your story — the vision of how you’re making the world a better place, or how you’re changing people’s lives,” Girdley says.

Small might be a baker, but Girdley says she’s not actually selling cakes: She’s selling a complete experience. “They’re not buying cakes from you, they’re buying interactions with you,” Girdley says.

After two hours at Break Fast and Launch, Small walks out with optimism and Kanye levels of confidence. She proclaims, “I’m the best cake service in the city!”

Three weeks later, I visit Small in her small apartment kitchen to see whether she has implemented the changes her mentor advised her to make.

As Small mixes the buttercream frosting, a cloud of sugar rises from her stand mixer, making her entire apartment smell sweet. Her little oven has been working around the clock. And there are so many cakes cooling in the fridge that she doesn’t have any room for her own food. It’s a sign that business has really picked up.

A lot has changed since we last met. Small has almost tripled her prices, and she’s started marketing herself as a designer of custom, gourmet cakes. She’s been targeting the market for weddings and quinceañeras — a coming-of-age tradition, popular among many Latinos, to celebrate when a girl turns 15. These affairs can be as lavish as weddings, and Small has been going to expos, convincing women that her gourmet creations will impress their guests.

She’s also using social media to promote herself and hosting cake tastings for potential clients. Earlier this month, she was the subject of a feature story in her local newspaper.

Small says something surprising happened when she raised her prices. “People were more apt to be interested than before, when I was undercharging myself,” Smalls says. “It’s kind of crazy how that works!”

At first, Small was worried about how her repeat clients would react to her price hikes. She explained to them that now that she’s an established business, she needs to charge more. It turned out, most of her repeat clients were OK with the new prices, she says. Overall, the demographics of her clientele are shifting: She’s now making larger cakes for weddings, quinceañeras and big corporate parties.

Of course, not every customer was on board with the higher prices. “I have some that have dropped off, they’re like ‘you’re too expensive,’ ” says Small. “And that’s OK, because when I’m at the mall, I can’t shop at every store — not right now, sure can’t. And it’s no harm, no foul.”

Small is baking nine cakes in the next 48 hours. The smallest — a two-layer chocolate cake that feeds eight people and takes her two hours to make — used to go for $35. Now she’s selling it for $85.

“I’ve stopped taking that relaxed approach to it,” Small says of her business strategy. And she says she’s glad she reached out to the tech community for help.

“Analytical strategy is universal. You just have to have a system — whether it’s computers nerds, cakes and cookies — you still need to have a system in place to make it work,” Small says.

And, yes, she’s now paying herself — and making a 35 percent profit, she says.

She’s still getting mentoring from Break Fast and Launch — only now, the focus is on what to do with her newfound profits. Her next goals: to get out of her tiny kitchen and into a commercial kitchen space, and to hire five people to work for her company full time.

F12W: People Call Me Dosa Man

I am so honored to have participated in the New School’s Feet in 2 Worlds workshop in NYC this weekend. Check out the full story on Cowbird.

We had an assignment prompt: Tastes Like Home. This is what I produced.

“My name is Thiru Kumar, people call me the Dosa Man.”

“Jaffna Lunch, it’s number 6 on the menu, it’s like 4 little dosas, comes with the dry coconut everything, this is a special weekly lunch. It’s the only place you can get it here, my grandmother taught me how to make it, you can only buy it from my cart, nobody makes it.”

“I learned most of this stuff from my grandmother, and you have to put love into it when you cook, otherwise it won’t be tasty.”

“This is Masala Dosa, so this is the second time I’m coming over here because it tastes yummy and I’m from India, so this is our food, like this is South Asian food, It reminds me of my home place, my land, right, India.”

“Every day is a best day, when the weather is nice, sun is out, everyone’s here.”

You Don’t Need Eggs To Make a Breakfast Taco

4188956731_eb729ec537_bGet the full story on the Texas Standard

You’ve seen the headlines this month: “America’s Egg Shortage Threatens Austin’s Breakfast Taco Supply”, “Austin Restaurants Respond To National Egg Crisis”.

But – wait a minute. We need to think through this clearly. Deep breaths.

Not having eggs in your tacos isn’t a tragedy; this is an opportunity to branch out of your comfort zone. That’s what Mando Rayo says – he’s the author of a book called “Austin Breakfast Tacos.” He stopped by the Texas Standard to put us at ease.

On restaurants charging extra for eggs:

“Yes that is true, they are charging just a little bit extra delivery free of the egg from the chicken. As well as limiting their hours of operation for breakfast, which is a tragedy in Austin because in Austin if you wake up at 7 in the morning, at 2 in the afternoon, or 5 o’clock you need your breakfast taco.”

On alternatives for eggs in breakfast tacos:

“The breakfast taco you know Mexicans been eating tacos before Texas was Texas. Breakfast tacos not always comes with egg. Anything outside eggs like barbacoa, picadillo like ground beef with potatoes and some pico de gallo with some spices; lots of pepper. Also carne guisada, which is stewed meat and gravy. You can do cactus but that usually goes really well with eggs. Avocado and bean taco with just a little bit of cheese is delicious!”

On whether a breakfast taco is truly a breakfast taco without eggs:

“I laugh in your face! Abuelita’s have been making breakfast tacos without eggs. As soon as that part of frijoles was done, refried with a little bit of butter, that’s a breakfast taco!”

In your opinion, do breakfast tacos need eggs? Tweet @TexasStandard using #NotAllTacos and tell us what you think!

Drought Diet: How Much Water Did it Take to Make Your Food?

7192715804_8153ca0d58_kGet the full story on the Texas Standard

Imagine you’re at the grocery store and you’re picking out a cut of beef. You look over the expiration date, the price and nutritional information. And then you spot a green sticker: This flank steak took over 800 gallons of water to produce. That sticker? That’s what Chuck West wants. He researches water conservation at Texas Tech University.

“Consumers should be more aware of the water footprint of the things that they consume, be it clothes, food or whatever, but a problem that consumers have is that they don’t have the numbers,” West says. “We don’t have that number stamped on the label of a beef product, for example, so it’s very hard for consumers to make those decision.”

West envisions a near future where water conservation becomes integrated with lifestyle, like the next Paleo or Raw Food diet, but one that focuses on conserving water.

“I think a low water footprint diet would be a very interesting thing to develop,” he says. “I think that would help the consumer make purchasing choices that are based on that, if the information can actually be printed on that label.”

But whoever writes that diet book is going to have a hard time doing it. The amount of water that goes into producing food varies depending on how and where it’s made. And it’s not just about being vegetarian or vegan. For instance, it takes almost a thousand liters of water to produce just one liter of wine, and it takes over three thousand liters of water to produce one kilogram of rice.

Staci Davis thinks about this a lot. She’s the owner and chef of Radical Eats, a Mexican restaurant in Houston that caters specifically to vegans and local-vores.

“We take sustainability from all levels, to kind of gas consumption to kind of soil erosions, we take it all into account, all of it, as much as we can,” Davis says. “We’re not perfect, but we try.”

But until that perfect diet book is written, what do you do if you’re a red blooded Texan with a passion for protein, but want to stand in solidarity with your yellowing lawn? Davis says here’s what you should have for dinner tonight.

“I would recommend that they do something familiar and sort of easy, so like enchiladas, everybody kind of knows what an enchilada is, it’s easy to do” Davis says.

Have a side of beans, no rice, and feel free to add as much hot sauce as you want.

Heritage You Can Taste

Get the full story at Latino USA.


When you think of Mexican food, the first thing that comes to mind might be burritos or nachos, but that’s not really Mexican.

At least that’s what the Mexican Gastronomic Conservatory told UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

Margarita de Orellana is with the group of Mexican Academics who put together the first cookbook to be included on Unesco’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

“We said ‘No, that’s not Mexican, that comes from the south of the United States. It’s great, but it has nothing to do with the ways and traditions of our cooking,'” says Orellana.

The conservatory organized experts and artists to create an authoritative guide to Mexican food. It focuses on the food of the Michoacan region, which Unesco specifically highlighted as being culturally significant.

The metate is a type of stone mortar and pestle used for grinding up spices in Mexican cuisine.
The metate is a type of stone mortar and pestle used for grinding up spices in Mexican cuisine.

The book examines traditional kitchen utensils like the Metate — a type of stone mortar and pestle, and indigenous ingredients like cacao (cocoa), avocado, corn and an aztec delicacy called huitlacoche.

Joe Quintana is the head chef of Rosa Mexicano, a downtown New York City restaurant specializing in Mexican cuisine. He loves cooking with huitlacoche, which he calls “the caviar of corn.”

Margarita de Orellana understands why. “That’s one of the most exquisite dishes that we have, because you know huitlacoche is a mushroom that is like a sickness of the corn that grows all over the world, but nobody really knew what a specialty and how wonderful this part of the corn is. ”

His favorite dish to make is huitlacoche crêpes, which he says demonstrates the influence French cuisine had on traditional Mexican ingredients.


Chef Quintana’s huitlacoche crêpes recipe:


For the crepes:

  • 4 eggs
  • 1 1/3 cups milk
  • 2 tablespoons melted butter
  • 1 cup flour
  • ½ teaspoon salt

For the filling:

  • 1 pound fresh huitlacoche or oyster mushrooms
  • 2 ½ tablespoons corn oil
  • ½ medium white onion, peeled and chopped
  • 2 large cloves garlic, peeled and chopped
  • 1-2 serrano chiles, seeded and finely chopped
  • 1 sprig epazote (leaves only) chopped
  • salt to taste

For the sauce:

  • 4 poblano chiles, seeded (not necessary to peel them for this recipe)
  • 1 cup milk
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1 cup Mexican crema or heavy cream
  • salt to taste
  • grated mild melting cheese (Mexican manchego, jack, gruyere or fontina) for topping


Make the crepe batter: Place all ingredients in a blender and liquefy until smooth. Let batter rest at least 30 minutes while the filling and sauce are being made.

Make the filling: Coarsely chop the huitlacoche or setas and set aside. Heat the oil in a skillet, add the onions and sauté until they begin to soften. Add the garlic and chile and continue to cook for 5 minutes. Add the huitlacoche or setas and cook until they have rendered their juice and it has nearly evaporated. Stir in the epazote.

Make the sauce: Roughly chop the poblanos, place them in a blender with the milk, and liquefy to make a puree. In a saucepan, melt the butter and whisk in the flour to make a light roux. Add the chile puree and stir with a whisk until it has thickened to the consistency of heavy cream. Remove from heat, add the crema and salt to taste.

Make the crepes: Heat a bit of oil in an 8″ crepe pan, wiping with a paper towel to coat the surface. Pour ¼ cup crepe batter into the pan and roll the pan around to coat the bottom with batter. When the edges of the crepe start to dry and turn up, turn the crepe over and continue to cook for 1 minute.

Place the crepe on a plate and repeat with remaining batter, stacking the crepes as they are finished.

Assemble: Divide the filling evenly among the crepes, roll them up and place them in a lightly greased oblong baking dish. Pour the sauce over the crepes and bake them at 350º F for 25 minutes. Sprinkle with the cheese and bake another 5 minutes, or until cheese has melted. Serve immediately.

Makes 4-5 first course servings of 2 crepes each.

Christmas A Busy Season For Tamale-Makers

Lauren Rock/NPR
Ofelio makes tamales in his home
Lauren Rock/NPR

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For Christmas, Central and Mexican-American families don’t crave a holiday turkey; they want a plate of steaming hot tamales.

Gustavo Arellano, author of the book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, says that to him, tamales are more than food. They transmit Latino culture during Christmas.

“It is about sustenance, but not just in the nutritional sense. It’s also in a community sense. It’s also in a spiritual sense,” he says. “It’s the ultimate Christmas gift.”

But making tamales is a time-consuming endeavor. It can take a whole day to make a single batch. That’s why many families prefer to buy tamales in bulk for special occasions.

Good tamales, though, don’t come from a restaurant. They have to be caseros, that is, homemade. And so many families turn to tamaleros — men and women who make tamales for a living — to get their fix.

Ofelio Crespo is a tamalero who lives in Washington, D.C. He is usually out of bed by 5 a.m. and spends his mornings making gallons of salsa on his stove to pair with his tamales.

Lauren Rock/NPR
Ofelio Crespo makes tamales in his home all year, but December is particularly busy.
Lauren Rock/NPR

He makes a red salsa for chicken tamales. The vegetarian option uses hot peppers and cheese. But his specialty is the green salsa he cooks for pork tamales — it’s a mix of jalapeno peppers, poblano chilies, onions, garlic and spices.

Crespo grills the meat at night and prepares the tamales with his family in the evening after making his deliveries. The kitchen has a second refrigerator to keep the ingredients fresh. A big bowl of cornmeal dough called masa sits in the middle of the dining room table. The stove is on all day.

Assembling the tamales is an art form. Crespo starts by washing the cornhusks that will encase the tamales in the kitchen sink. He then takes a golf-sized ball of dough from the bowl, flattens it with a tortilla press and beats it down onto the cornhusk. He puts meat and salsa in the middle of the masa and folds the tamale in place.

He and his children do this approximately 900 times a week.

Tamales are a comfort food for Central and Mexican-Americans, and recipes vary from region to region. In Michoacan, they come in triangles. In Oaxaca, they’re made with beans. Tamales salvadorenos are wrapped in banana leaves instead of corn.

Crespo’s tamales are in the style of the Mexican southern state of Guerrero where he was born. He sells them all year, but December is his busiest month. The Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Dec. 12, Nochebuena on Dec. 24 and New Year’s Eve wouldn’t be complete without tamales.

There might also be another factor in their popularity. “We get more people asking for tamales because it’s colder outside. People want something hot in their stomachs,” says Crespo’s 20-year-old-son, Romelio, who, along with his younger sister Maria, helps his dad with the cooking.

Lauren Rock/NPR

Crespo assembles tamales in his kitchen in the evening.
Lauren Rock/NPR

Crespo started making tamales for friends in his church group eight years ago. After a few months, he was getting big orders on a regular basis. His primary client base remains the Spanish-speaking congregation in his church, but Crespo says he is always getting referrals.

Many higher-class families who move to the U.S. find that a family cook is no longer in their budget. They still crave traditional food, but they might not know how to make it themselves. That is when the door opens for Crespo and other tamaleros.

The tamale market is usually an informal network that expands by word of mouth. But Crespo wants his business to grow. He’s getting financial counseling and plans to rent out an industrial kitchen and later buy a food truck he’ll name “Mexican Cowboy Tamales.”

Some families come together for tamaladas, tamale-making gatherings. But Crespo insists his tamales have sabor, a special taste. No one makes tamales like his, he says. And once you taste them, you won’t even try.