Bringing Mesoamerican Food Traditions to People’s Food Co-op
By Ryan Gaughan, Raw Foods & Alcohol Buyer, Collective Manager
People’s Food Co-op plays many important roles in supporting the genuine local food economy. We pay a premium price to small farmers for their products, reflecting the real cost of labor and profit margin necessary to maintain their economic survival. Grocery items that are produced blocks away from the co-op share shelf space with leading national brands. And, importantly, we are willing to work with new producers to help them market their products at the co-op, serving as a stepping stone towards broader distribution and economic viability for their new businesses.
Many entrepreneurs get their start at People’s, which is a special thing because it means that the co-op is always on the cutting edge of new products and ideas. One shining example of this is Ancestro, singularly owned and operated (for now) by Sandra Ultreras. Ancestro produces the delicious Azteca Bars, which you can find at the cash registers at People’s.
I met Sandra in December 2014 at a special event hosted by Micro Mercantes, a program of Hacienda Community Development Corporation (CDC) in Portland that help entrepreneurs in the beginning stages of developing food production businesses. Many participants in Micro Mercantes speak Spanish as a primary language, and are first or second generation immigrants to the United States. As a member of the Buyers Team at People’s, I was invited to speak with students in the Micro Mercantes program about what kind of products our customers and Member-Owners are looking for, and how they could get those products onto the shelves at the co-op.
Participating in the conversation with the Micro Mercantes students was really fun, if not a little challenging for me because my conversational Spanish skills are not as good as they should be. Thankfully, Pedro Ferbel-Azcarate (of Three Sisters Nixtamal, purveyors of fine masa harina and tortillas at People’s Food Co-op and Farmers’ Market) graciously volunteered to attend the event and assist with interpreting. Pedro provided a wealth of knowledge and experience for the students about starting a successful food production business, and helped communicate the important nuances of what sets People’s apart from other natural foods retailers in the city.
Sandra’s product really stood out to me because it already met the major buying guidelines for People’s; Azteca Bars use primarily all organic, plant based ingredients and are simultaneously delicious and unique. Furthermore, Azteca Bars already had design packaging, an ingredient list, and a UPC “bar code”, all critical elements for a food product to be sold by a retailer. Sandra was pretty much ready to go with Azteca Bars, and only needed some additional guidance and encouragement from retailers to get her product on the shelves.
Azteca Bars are an homage to Sandra’s native state of Oaxaca, in Southern Mexico. In Oaxaca these dulces tipicos are commonly known as Alegría, or, “cookies of happiness”. They are typically a round cookie, primarily composed of popped amaranth bound together by honey and molasses, and are enjoyed by adults and children alike. Sandra was inspired to begin producing Azteca Bars because she found herself making Alegría for her family, and wanted to find a way to include more nutritious ingredients.
Azteca Bars contain ingredients that are native to the Aztecan, pre-hispanic diet including cacao, coconut, sunflower, and chia seeds. These foods were being cultivated and consumed by Mesoamerican people long before European colonists arrived in the lands now referred to as the Americas. Today, they are utilized in Azteca Bars to increase the nutritional content of Alegría, and to satisfy increasing consumer demand for organic, non-GMO ingredients.
Many entrepreneur food producers struggle with developing their business from the “start up” phase of operations into something that can be financially sustainable. The effort to move past the break-even point and into profitability is very difficult. Thankfully, organizations such as Micro Mercantes exist to provide education, resources, and most important of all, friendship and support to everyday people seeking to make better lives for themselves.
Take Azteca Bars, for example. Sandra currently produces them in her home, which has a license as a certified domestic commercial kitchen. This helps her save money on commissary kitchen rental costs, but poses its own limitations in terms of food storage and production capacity. Furthermore, the process of popping amaranth, one of the main ingredients in Azteca Bars, is time consuming. Sandra can only pop 2 tablespoons of amaranth at a time on her stove without burning the seed, which means it takes her approximately 3-4 hours to fill a 5-gallon bucket.
Programs like Micro Mercantes enable food production entrepreneurs by providing business foundations classes addressing topics such as insurance, registration, ingredient sourcing, and safe food handling. In Sandra’s business, she is saving money through an Individual Development Account (IDA), which will eventually be matched by grant money administered by Micro Mercantes and Hacienda CDC. This capital will help Sandra to purchase an industrial scale machine for popping amaranth which will greatly increase her production capacity, eventually leading to more sales and greater chance of economic survival for Ancestro.
Micro Mercantes and Hacienda CDC also provide an opportunity for new food producers to rent out affordable commissary kitchen space, the highlight of which is the new Portland Mercado project, scheduled to open this year at SE 72nd & SE Foster, in Portland. The Portland Mercado exists, according to their mission statement, as “...an economic development project based on Latino cultural heritage that brings together diverse cultures through entertainment, art, and food.” For people like Sandra who want to keep their product family owned and produced, but will eventually need access to commercial kitchen space in order to grow, incubators like the Portland Mercado can serve as a vital stepping stone.
The relationship between People’s Food Co-op and organizations like Micro Mercantes is important. Unlike most other grocery stores, People’s is willing and able to work with new food producers to help them enter the market, and eventually develop their product for distribution on a larger scale. We have the unique position of being accommodating to people producing foods indigenous to their culture, while simultaneously encouraging the use of organic and non-GMO ingredients. In this way, the Buyers Team at People’s helps the co-op to meet critical components of our Ends Statement, specifically, “Thriving Cooperative and Local Economies,” and, “Access to Healthful Foods Our Customers Can Trust.”
- You can connect and learn more about Ancestro on Facebook
To learn more about the programs mentioned in this article, please visit: