Saturday, February 2, 2008

"Federal aid allows baker to make headway"

(Published February 2, 2008 in The Guadalajara Reporter)

As a certain diva might say, that carrot cake was like buttah. It achieved a moistness poised between that of a fruit and pound cake (the secret was in those pineapple slivers), and the whipped icing, spread about as thick as the cake itself, would’ve made Martha Stewart swoon.

My birthday indulgence was the result of more than just a good recipe. Esther Lopez Cabral, the owner of a little bakery on the corner of Belgica and Fermin Riestra (a block away from the Super Gigante on NiƱos Heroes and Tolsa shopping center), is a visionary of confections and a true self-starter.

Esther’s story starts about 18 years ago, when her twin daughters were toddling two-year-olds and she was a traveling social worker. While the girls appeared normal, the doting mother noticed a discrepancy in their mental development. A single mom, she took the risky decision to leave her job and take care of the children full-time while selling odds and ends out of her home, like clothing and make-up, for income.

The bakery started as an experiment: a small table, little cakes and breads and sacks of cookies. Recognizing her daughters’ handicap, Esther enrolled the girls in CCATI, an affordable training school where they learned to bake; later they helped their mother at home in the kitchen.

“I was thinking about the future of my daughters, knowing that they would need to learn something manual,” Esther reflected.

And then, around four years ago, Esther saw an advertisement on a public television channel for a federal work assistance program. Shortly thereafter she applied for help from the “Productive Investment Project,” which doesn’t give her cash, but provides all tools and equipment she needs to run her business.

“I don’t need money to eat,” she explained, “but I can’t go out and buy an oven. Everything I earn I need for basic costs of living.”

The program furnished Esther with a refrigerator, two worktables, an industrial oven, and a scale to kick off her new venture. This year she’ll receive a mixer, a blender, and a microwave oven.

These days business is improving. She still sets her confections on tables peeking out of the iron-barred double doors of her kitchen, the cookies prettily tied with colored ribbons, the cakes laced and powdered. It’s always a good sign when customers start ordering “the usual,” and that divine carrot cake reportedly tops the list.

Esther would like cookies to become her specialty. They’re sold at 100 pesos per kilo and in flavors like walnut, cinnamon and pumpkin seed. Cakes range from 80 to 180 pesos depending on size, and can be made to order with a day’s notice. She also offers gelatins and pies.

Esther is a committed advocate for government assistance: “There are many government programs that help people who want to work,” she tells me, and insists that one needn’t be destitute or unemployed to participate – only willing and persistent. For example, the state program Emprende provides low-interest loans from 5,000 to 30,000 pesos for small business start-ups.

Esther’s days are satisfyingly non-stop. When not running deliveries or coaching the twins in the kitchen, she attends CCATI to expand her own culinary education. She has thrived, not just survived, for the health of her family, and it shows in every bite.

La Pasteleria Fina Lolisara is open Monday through Friday, 1-8 p.m. Calle Belgica 700. Tel. (33) 3812-9480.