Here at Santé, we’re gearing up for this week’s Expo West tradeshow. Prepping for these events makes us excited to meet new food entrepreneurs creating exciting products. Here’s a great company that’s right in our San Francisco Bay Area backyard that makes an addictively delicious snack from an exotic place.
As a successful landscape architect in Brazil and Japan who ran her own design company, Monika Batista never had plans to become a food entrepreneur.
But her path in life took a dramatic turn when her mother passed away. The loss left her feeling adrift and in dire need of the comfort of family. So Monika, the only daughter, moved from Brazil to the United States in 2003 to be closer to her three youngest of six brothers.
In so doing, she ended up bringing an iconic taste of Brazil with her.
“My mother’s death was a huge blow and it was the moment I decided to change my life completely,” Monika says. “I decided to make a business out of my love for Pão de Queijo (pown-deh-kay-zho) based on the tremendous feedback I got from friends about them. They used to call my home, ‘the House of Pão de Queijo’ because I made them so often.”
Literally translated as “cheese bread,” the airy rolls are about the size of ping-pong balls, and made with flour from the manioc root, otherwise known as cassava or yucca, as well as cotija and parmesan cheeses. They emerge from the oven puffed and crisp and golden with a warm, irresistibly chewy interior.
The gluten-free snack breads are near and dear to Monika, whose mother was German and father is Brazilian. She grew up in a variety of European countries because of her father’s frequent relocation for his job. With the family living away from Brazil for extended periods, they panged for their beloved Pão de Queijo. So much that they went to great lengths to try to satiate it.
“My father, on his many trips back to Brazil, would smuggle in prepared dough for Pão de Queijo that my grandmother made for us,” Monika recalls fondly. “Every family has their own secret recipe. I learned from my aunts, who are Catholic nuns, the recipe my grandmother used.”
Inspired and armed with the recipe, Monika founded Los Gatos, California-based Mãní Snacks, and began making ready-to-bake versions of Pão de Queijo.
The small company (only five employees) was funded solely by Monika, who says she is grateful for all the advice she received from the Northern California Small Business Development Center.
She may never have imagined herself a food entrepreneur, but now she can’t imagine not being one.
“The greatest satisfaction is seeing an idea for a product come to life,” she says. “The best part is when I deliver product at the loading docks of Whole Foods and the receiver, upon seeing the logo on the bag, says ‘This stuff is so good!’ It’s just like in that MasterCard commercial – priceless.”