New Ways Of Working: Sonoran Businesses Adapt, Grow Amid Pandemic

By Kendal Blust
Published: Wednesday, August 26, 2020 - 5:05am
Updated: Thursday, August 27, 2020 - 8:50am

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market
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Ts'aak employee Julio Guzman selects produce at a large outdoor market in Hermosillo on Aug. 20, 2020.

Every morning German Tapia and his team scour the stands at a huge outdoor market in the Sonoran capital Hermosillo, where fresh fruit and vegetables from all over Mexico are piled high in colorful displays. 

Tapia digs through ice-packed crates of radishes, giant bags of onions and boxes full of bright green poblano peppers, picking out the best produce for his clients.

Ts
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
Ts'aak deliveries produce and other products in reusable packaging to avoid plastic waste.

Before the pandemic, Tapia’s business Ts'aak, which he runs with his two sons, produced kombucha — a fermented tea — which they sold at local grocery stores and health food markets. Then earlier this year, they started toying with the idea of offering home delivery of kombucha and other health foods. But Tapia said they were hesitant to make such a big shift.

"We hadn't started. We were indecisive," he said. "We wanted to do it, and we felt we could make it work by offering fruit and vegetables. But we weren't sure."

Then, the pandemic hit. 

"The pandemic arrives, and we said, well, if we want to do this, now is the time," he said. "The truth is, we didn't even think about it."

With no experience selling produce, or with the logistics of a home delivery operation, Tapia said, they dove into the new business model right after the first cases of coronavirus were detected in Sonora in March. 

And it worked.

"The orders were, well, 'I want to stay at home,' right?" Tapia said with a laugh. "So it started to work, it started to grow."

With many people following the state’s strict stay-at-home guidelines, Ts'aak’s clientele has grown quickly to an average of 60 deliveries a week.

Now, Tapia said, the question is how to keep the new business model relevant as life, eventually, gets back to normal.

"What problem am I solving so that people will really buy from me?" he asked.

From the beginning, Tapia and his sons have tried to set Ts'aak apart by donating a portion of their profits to local shelters, offering a zero-waste model and teaming up with other local businesses to offer products like fresh bread and pastries, peanut butter and almond milk. Plus, he said, they focus on excellent customer service.

seedlings
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
A tray of seedlings sprout up from one of Carlos Iribe's online gardening workshops.

"I won't be satisfied until you tell me everything is perfect," he said of communicating with clients using the popular messaging app WhatsApp.

"So will it keep growing," he said. "I think so."

Carlos Iribe left behind a career in commercial agriculture six years ago to open his business Verde Jamaica. 

"This is something with a lot of future potential," said Iribe, who is also hopeful that he’ll have lasting success with online gardening workshops he started up amid the pandemic.

He helps schools, businesses and individuals grow urban gardens. But the pandemic cut him off from most of his clients.

"But, stemming from that problem came a restlessness to do online workshops," he said 

In April, he started connecting with first-time gardeners through weekend Zoom workshops.

Interest in gardening has surged since the pandemic started. And that has been a huge boost for Iribe, who said he’s gained hundreds of virtual clients, with as many as 56 people attending a single two-hour workshop. And even as pandemic restrictions loosen and he's able to visit clients again in person, he said he’ll continue experimenting with online courses, including one on composting he’s launching in September, and perhaps trying to expand into other parts of Mexico, too.

"We just had to adapt," he said. "Was it hard, of course. But we didn't have any other option.

At the end of the day, Iribe said, for him and many others, rethinking their businesses during the pandemic wasn’t a choice, it was a necessity.

construction
Kendal Blust/KJZZ
La Brújula Pizza's new location is being remodeled.

Salvador Del Castillo, general manager of La Brújula Pizza in Hermosillo, says maybe that’s a good thing.

He and his family are working to open a new branch of La Brújula, the pizza shop his parents opened 20 years ago in their hometown of Caborca. Three years ago he and his brothers opened a second branch in Hermosillo. And now ...

"In the middle of this pandemic we're betting it all on expanding the business," he said, to a third location, one tailored to the moment. "Basically it's just to go and drive thru."

That makes the new location a far cry from the higher-end dine-in service at La Brújula’s current Hermosillo location. But after closing down for three months and undergoing significant adaptations to their menu and operations just to stay afloat, he said it’s worth the risk to try something new.

"This is a moment to adapt to change and to see in which ways we need to evolve our businesses," he said.

As hard as things have been, he said, changes spurred by the pandemic could end up making businesses like his better. At least, that’s what he’s counting on.

Starting From Scratch

Coyotas De La Abuela
Julio Robles
Las Coyotas De La Abuela

Five days a week, Martha Córdova kneads, shapes and fills dozens of coyotas.

In June, she and her son Julio Robles started selling hundreds of the traditional Sonoran pastries with sweet filling each week as part of their new family business Las Coyotas De La Abuela, or Grandma’s Coyotas.

"In truth, I never imagined that we would be so successful," Córdova said.

In fact, it took a lot of persuading, and a little scheming, for her son to convince her to sell her homemade pastries.

"I went to my room to rest, and when I came out, he told me he was going to deliver the orders. He sold them without my permission!" she said with a laugh. "And from there on we've been working hard to keep up."

Córdova is fully on board with the business now, she said, and delighted at the positive feedback they’ve gotten on her baked goods.

She has always loved baking, often making cakes, cookies and other desserts for friends and family. But before the pandemic she’d never tried her hand at coyotas.

kneading coyotas
Julio Robles
Martha Córdova kneads the dough for her coyotas she and her son started selling during the pandemic.

Then, stuck at home to avoid the spread of the coronavirus, she and her five sisters started sending each other recipes and cooking together over video chat, she said.

"We would laugh so much when the things we made didn't turn out at all," she said.

One of her sisters found a recipe for coyotas. The ones Cordova made were so good, her son said, he knew he had to sell them. Not least of all because he lost his job at a primary school when the coronavirus started spreading in Hermosillo. The coyotas could bring some income into the household.

"And now we've seen that this is something that can help us move forward, this little business," Robles said. "I definitely want to keep it going."

Though there is plenty of competition for coyotas in Hermosillo, Robles said Las Coyotas De La Abuela has found plenty of customers in part because his mother’s coyotas are different. In addition to typical fillings — such as the brown sugar-like piloncillo — Cordova also makes coyotas filled with strawberry, pineapple, Nutella and other non-traditional flavors.

"At my age, it's another accomplishment in my life, as a woman entrepreneur. As the restless woman that I am," Córdova said.

She's proud of the business and also to be able to help her family make it through these difficult times, she said.

Nearly 40,000 people have officially lost jobs during the pandemic in Sonora, according to state leaders. And the restaurant industry has been particularly affected.

Manuel Lira, vice president of the national restaurant association in Sonora, said about 60% of the state’s approximately 13,000 food establishments have had to close during the pandemic, from the smallest food carts to the fanciest restaurants. About 2,500 shut down for good.

But he says he’s glad to see some people using food as a way to stay afloat.

"My respect to those people," he said. " "These are tough times for everyone."

'A Push'

falafel
Alejandro León
Vegan Munchies opened during the pandemic to serving vegan food that owners Alejandro León and Daniela Ochoa call "delicious and affordable."

For Alejandro León and his business partner Daniela Ochoa, the pandemic was the push they needed to start their new venture Vegan Munchies.

"It was the pandemic that pushed us to experiment," he said.

León said both he and Ochoa lost income during the pandemic, and with more time at home, they decided to make meals that will prove to Sonorans that vegan dishes can be just as delicious and affordable as what they’re used to. Not an easy task in a state known for its carne asada, he said.

"But we've had a really good response," he said. "We have clients that from the first sale until now continue buying meals every weekend."

He believes there is a market in Hermosillo for more plant-based food. And once the pandemic is over, he and Ochoa hope to find a physical location and expand their menu.

Irene Félix has already taken that next step with her pandemic-born business Crumbs & Goodies.

"Everything started to go really fast, from one day to the next," since she decided to start selling her healthier versions of cookies, cakes, pies and other “goodies” in April, she said. "I left the house telling my dad I was just going to look into starting the business, and I came home with all my banners and labels and the social media set up."

Crumbs & Goodies
Irene Félix
Cookies are the most popular item from the Crumbs & Goodies menu, says owner Irene Félix.

The pandemic devastated her existing business, which provided decorations for weddings and other events. So a friend urged her to start selling her homemade treats.

"It was almost as though she pushed me to the edge of a building: 'OK, now fly!" Félix laughed. "That's how I felt. And I'm really grateful to her for that."

Just a few days later her business was up and running. Within a month she’d rented out a commercial kitchen.

The pandemic has been hard on business owners like Félix. But she says that challenge pushed her to take a risk she might not have otherwise. And she couldn’t be happier with the business she’s built.

"I am really in love with my business," she said. "It's going to keep going, for sure. I love it and it has so much room to grow."

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