Day Trips and New Friends

While Memorial Day weekend isn’t really a thing here, I kind of had an American-style celebration anyway. On Sunday, I headed out towards the area called Escuintla to a private finca (coffee plantation) called Finca El Zapote. While no longer an actual coffee plantation, it is now open to the public either by renting out one of the guest houses on site, or during their infrequent public days.

On this particular weekend, my friends Marina and Lico had arranged for one of the large guest houses for the weekend. Everyone was invited to come out Saturday and spend the night, or just visit for the day on Sunday. Due to Caoba – and lack of transportation – Saturday was out for me. But fortunately, some people heading out on Sunday morning had an extra seat in the car for me and off we went.

I had heard that it was important to have 4×4 vehicles to get there, especially during the rainy season. While the destination was only about 15 miles from Antigua, the last third of it (by distance) was over unpaved, rocky, bumpy roads. And you’d also need to cross some small rivers. It turned out that there were four rivers to cross, and we were fortunate it hadn’t been too rainy lately. Here’s our car crossing the fourth and final (and deepest) river:

Once we made it there safely, it was a wonderland. I imagined, from earlier photos I’d seen, that it was a park-like area with picnic tables and a place to swim. But that wasn’t it at all. It was a vast, open space, filled with rolling, grassy hills (pretty rare in this area), tall trees, honest-to-goodness swimming holes and more. I’ll let the pictures do the rest of the talking.

One of the first views at Finca El Zapote – walking from the guest house down to the swimming area.

A peek through the trees at some of the kids in a kayak.

A different view of the Agua volcano than I’m used to seeing in Antigua.

Mangos, we think.

You can see me enjoying the chilly – but refreshing – water.

It was a hot day, and while the water was definitely cold, once you jumped in (which most people did, literally), it was very relaxing and refreshing. For the first few hours, I – and most others – rotated being in the water, getting out and relaxing around the table of snacks, warming up too much, then getting back in. Many of the kids, however, never left the water!

This was a shot that Emma took, just after I placed the platters of cookies, blondies and babka down.

Kids play on the rope swings.

B on the rope, about to dive into the water.

John takes a leap off the rope.

Volleyball as the afternoon went on.

It was a lazy, relaxing and fun day. I knew three of the families ahead of time, had heard about a few others, and the rest were all brand-new. There were probably about thirty-five people there in total. Everyone was friendly and amiable, and while I don’t normally like big group settings where I don’t know many people (in advance), this was very informal and easy to be a part of.

As late afternoon approached, the parents corralled the kids, all the vehicles were loaded up, last dregs of food were consumed or tossed, and we all caravanned our way back to Antigua.

On Monday morning, I got up extra early so that I could get started on Tuesday’s bread production. I had to finish before 9 am, because it was time to head into the city again for more shopping. This, however, was a more unique trip because it came about via happenstance and the kindness of (no longer) strangers!

Two days before, at the Caoba market, I was chatting with a family who had become regular customers. Paul and Bethany, and their two sons, were from Louisiana but had been living in Guatemala for a few years. They always stopped by the table and bought a few items, and Paul and I had chatted about the food business a bit. Back in the States, they had started a small granola company out of their home kitchen, which then grew and grew and grew! They have plenty of experience selling at farmers’ markets, so we had common experiences to chat about.

So, as we talked on this particular Saturday, I mentioned how hard it was to find good bacon here. I wanted to do a savory biscuit or scone. They mentioned that Save-a-Lot, in Guatemala City, had great bacon, as well as plenty of other American-style deli meats and products. I said, “I’ll have to stop in there the next time I can make it into the city.” They said, “We’re going this week. Why don’t you join us?” I wasn’t sure whether they were saying that just to say it, or if they were serious about the offer. But they sincerely wanted me to join them, so I said, “Sure!”. And to show how generous and kind these people are, they asked ME which day was better! It wasn’t my trip into the city – it was theirs! But they were very considerate and we settled on Monday.

They are also neighbors of mine, it turns out. They’re only about a block and a half away from me. So it was easy to meet them at their place on Monday morning, once they gave me the heads-up as to when they wanted to leave. The five of us piled into their SUV and off we went to the city.

Mmmm….bacon!

And cheese!

This is apparently the first Save-a-Lot in Guatemala City and it’s a very weird experience, because once you walk inside, you could easily convince yourself that you’re in the U.S. Nearly all the products are American brands, the signage is predominantly in English, and it’s filled with common products you’d see in any US supermarket. And the selections of meats and cheeses! It was so exciting. They even had a special on some big packages of bacon – 2-for-1! So we all stocked up. I also grabbed some cans of sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk, for some recipes I love, and a few other items.

After a quick visit to Dollar City, in the same development, off we went.

First of two Megapaca stops.

Our next stop was Megapaca, which is the Guatemalan version of Goodwill. The stores are everywhere and they are enormous. Bethany and Paul were looking for a few specific things they needed for a camp they run here during the summer. Their kids were looking for anything fun. I was looking for items for the bakery – decorations, platters, etc. I found some random coffee mugs that I thought would be playful to use for customers.

Next stop was PriceSmart! Just like Costco back in the States, I can never get enough of this place. I was mostly shopping for bakery supplies at this point, not personal food items, and lucked out. Not only did they have a 40-cup coffee maker, but they also sold packages of to-go coffee cups and lids! I had imagined I’d have to source that somewhere else, so it was a great find. I ended up getting some other hard-to-find items, like frozen blueberries (I’ve had multiple requests for blueberry scones or muffins), Craisins (also for scones), and larger quantities of good cheese.

I crossed paths with Bethany in PriceSmart, and as my cart grew, I was worried that there wouldn’t be enough room in the car. She reminded me of the roof rack on their car and, again, in an example of their unfailing kindness and generosity, said, “Get whatever you need. We’ll make it fit!” And so I did. And so we did. The back of the SUV was full and A, their older son, helped Paul start strapping things to the rack on the roof of the car.

It was getting into the early afternoon and after briefly considering the PriceSmart food court – which looks just like Costco’s – we ended up heading to a sushi place near our final stop.

While the filling-to-rice ration was a little out of whack here, it was still a good roll, and we shared an enormous platter of veggie tempura. Their younger son, E, professed to not be too hungry, but he ended up nibbling on a bunch of the stuff that we all had. Plus, he was served an enormous virgin piña colada, which undoubtedly filled him up too.

With bellies full, we headed out to what was supposed to be our last stop – another Megapaca. Everyone got some more items and we started heading back to Antigua. On the way, though, Bethany remembered that there was a small health food store in a strip mall nearby. She follows a vegan diet, and this place had some hard-to-find items for her, such as vegan butter.

Called Healthy Deli…it wasn’t quite that. If being at Save-a-Lot was like walking into an American supermarket, being at Healthy Deli was like being in a very small Whole Foods. To an extent. Sure, they had a variety of good coconut oils and milks, almond milks, gluten-free soy sauce and things like that. But there was also a wide selection of American junk food – Kettle brand potato chips, candy bars and especially – to A and E’s delight – cereals!

“Healthy” food at Healthy Deli.

Most importantly, Bethany found the items she’d been looking for, so it was a successful stop. We headed back to Antigua, where we went first to their home. We unloaded all of their stuff, leaving mine behind in the car. We then sorted out all the cold stuff from the big cooler they’d brought. Then, leaving the kids behind to put things away, Bethany and Paul drove me back to my house and helped me bring everything in. I gave them a quick tour of the space, and they were excited to have not just a new friend down the street (as was I) but a fun, new bakery as well.

The rest of the week was pretty uneventful. I had three straight days of selling sourdough, cinnamon rolls and scones, before taking Friday off to prepare for Saturday’s Caoba market.

My new shelf!

One of the most exciting things, though, was getting this shelf installed. Sergio, who built the curtain rods for all the rooms in the house/bakery, also built this shelf for me. He also constructed a small table – on wheels – for my big mixer. Having this shelf allowed me to be much better organized. Now nearly everything I need as I work is in front of me, and I can better use the space below the work tables to keep larger quantities of flours and sugars. Makes a huge difference.

Super-puffy cinnamon rolls.

Sourdough boules, pre-shaped and resting.

Some of Thursday’s bake.

Best lunch ever – sourdough with colby jack and chorizo.

Meanwhile, I was enjoying my purchases from Monday’s trip to the city. I’ve now made the sandwich above four or five days in a row and haven’t gotten sick of it yet. I did, however, run out of colby jack and have switched next to the package of mozzarella I also bought at Save-a-Lot. It’s a simple and delicious sandwich, and one that’ll be easy to replicate for customers at the bakery, once I get to that step. The chorizo, from PriceSmart, is thinly sliced, which makes sandwich prep a breeze. I can pre-grate a big batch of the cheese, so that’ll easy. And I’d likely add some caramelized onions to this, too.

The ironwork has arrived!

Friday was a huge day. One of the final elements, before I felt comfortable opening the bakery, was having security doors installed. The first one, in front of the wooden door which opens to the street, serves two functions. First, it provides an extra level of protection and security. Second, it allows me to keep the wooden doors open for light and ventilation but still have a barrier to the outside.

Front security gate going in.

Interior security gate going up.

The second security gate is being installed to block off the upstairs – where I live – from the downstairs, where the bakery is. That way, when customers start showing up, they can be in any parts of the ground floor without my worrying about any private areas being accessed. The half-bath that is near the staircase is the one that will be my customer restroom, so with the gate and barrier installed on the staircase, they can use it without gaining access to the second floor.

First major collaboration in Antigua!

Late Friday afternoon, Felipe from Glacy Cream unveiled our promotion for ice cream cookie sandwiches. As I mentioned in a previous post, we’re going to start with a small batch of sandwiches next weekend (June 9-11) and see how it goes. Felipe had requested 120 cookies – enough for 60 sandwiches. I worked on getting the doughs ready and planned to bake them off Sunday, before delivering them to him on Monday. Then he could have the week to prepare them, package them, and get them into his store. The initial response – both on his page and mine – was lots of excitement. Felipe was now worried that we didn’t plan for enough sandwiches, but I didn’t think that was a bad thing if we have a limited quantity each day and they all sell out!

Fifth Saturday at Caoba – with my brand-new sign.

After a so-so Caoba the week before, I tried to adjust my inventory again. The only item which had sold out every week was my sourdough bread, so I upped the production from 12 to 16 loaves. I cut the banana bread from the menu, but increased the babka. I decided to bring cinnamon rolls, since they’d proven popular, and kept the scones and cookies the same.

The day started very slowly…and I was fearing I’d have a lot of leftover product. For a few hours in the middle of the day, however, business was very good, before drawing to a trickle again. I ended up selling out of all my bread, scones, and cinnamon rolls. Someone bought up all the brownies in one fell swoop, and by the end of the day, almost all the individual cookies were gone too. I was left with eight of my nine sampler packs, however, and two of the babkas. Nevertheless, it became the second-best day of sales (again) in my five weeks.

With things coming together at the bakery location, I planned to do one more week at Caoba, and let people know that – moving forward – the bakery would be open and they could find me there!

One of three cookie platters for a Sunday morning birthday party.

Sunday morning, my apprentice, Stefani, came by to help me get ready for the coming week. We took inventory of everything I had in stock and planned out our preparations. We also fired up the oven and baked off the 120 cookies for the Glacy collaboration. As any good baker should do, I made sure Stefani tasted the items coming out of the oven. She gave me the thumbs up!

In the middle of our work, I took a short break to deliver an order of four dozen cookies to a birthday party a few blocks away. I’m hoping that this type of catering and special event work will also become a big part of my business, as it’s a good way to get the name out there and bring in some additional revenue.

With just about ten days left before I planned to open, I looked at the week ahead as being focused on getting all the small things ironed out: seating, packaging, display items and related items. It’s getting very exciting here and I can’t wait to share what’s next!

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