The aroma of Margarita Cruz’s food was strong enough to fill the three floors of the house in Aguada where she raised her kids. She recalls cooking early on Saturday and Sunday mornings and having her three children, Nathalia, Manolo, and Natasha— and whoever they had over—wake up at 8:30a.m., eat lunch, and go back to bed.
Does it smell like chuleta al vino? Why don’t you eat breakfast?
The odd tradition captured the attention of Nathalia López’ husband, Orlando Cajigas, when they first stayed over at her parent’s house. “He adopted that system, and now he credits the extra pounds he’s gained to my mom,” López says. The tradition also planted the seeds of a business idea – one that could help get Cruz back on her feet after she lost her job a few years ago. Cajigas and Nathalia used their personal savings to buy a food truck that is now ‘Mi Suegra,’ a truck that will debut on November 18th, selling the recipes that Cruz has been making for her family and church for years.
Starting a business from scratch at the age of 55 may seem daunting, but although Cruz is new to the food industry, her recipes have already inspired one successful food business: that of her son, Manolo López. A couple of years ago, Manolo opened Mofon•GO™, a mobile food stand that reinvents Puerto Rican dishes in New York City, and which was inspired by his mother’s cooking. Since then, Mofon•GO™ has become one of the most popular stands at Smorgasburg, drawing high profile fans like Spike Lee and Action Bronson. Manolo even brought his mom to the city for a month when it first launched. “Growing up watching mami cook was like being live with Emeril, but in Puerto Rico,” Manolo said.
Cruz describes her food as Puerto Rican classics with a twist. “These are recipes that you might think anyone can do, but the way I compose and change them is what makes them unique,” she said. Peach marmalade, chicken breast stuffed with sweet plantains with four cheese red sauce, cream cheese and guava budin—these are just a few of her children’s favorite dishes. She’s self-taught, learning by reading, traveling, and following her instinct. “I’m very bold, very aggressive. When I’m cooking, I’m not afraid. I use wine; I use liqueurs.”
The same year Manolo launched Mofon•GO™, his sister Nathalia co-founded Merendola, a coffee shop that offers artisanal sandwiches, fresh juices, and smoothies in Mayagüez, Puerto Rico. Both siblings are using their assets to help their mom launch Mi Suegra, turning the venture into something of a family endeavor. Nathalia has established connections with suppliers and talent in Puerto Rico, while Manolo has experience with mobile establishments in New York. Since Mofon•GO™ is seasonal, Manolo is basing himself in Mayagüez for the next few weeks to work full-time on Mi Suegra.
“Branding is key, at least for me,” said Manolo, who studied Design at NYUSPS. “The relationship between design and business is really important. I preach it everywhere I go.” He consulted for Mi Suegra on everything from pricing, to design aesthetics, to packaging. He’s also running all the social media. “If we’re going to put out a lemonade stand that’s the same as everyone else’s, we’re not doing anything for Puerto Rico,” he continued. “We want to represent what the culinary Puerto Rican culture is like and demonstrate that in these hard times [for the island] we can still achieve at a high level.”
Before designing the logo and truck, the creative team of A+DLC were invited to Cruz’s kitchen island for a tasting and a conversation. Beyond good food, the designers found a story of overcoming adversity. Cruz is part of a generation that is reinventing themselves and pursuing new ventures. In 2015, the oldest baby boomers will turn 69 and the youngest will turn 51. According to the Kauffman Foundation, baby boomers will remain an important economic force for many years because of their life-expectancy, experience, and network.
Now a single woman, Cruz has been living in Mayagüez for the past year. “It’s a completely different change, but I’m really happy. And now at this age of 55, I decided to venture into a new business where my kids are helping me, they want me to do this. And more than anything I want to spread this form of eating that’s more than food, it’s feeding people with good conversation, rescuing family unity, and getting back to the table like we did before.”
Although she has never had her own food business, Cruz has experience catering and teaching how to cater. Many people that have tried her food are showing their excitement on Facebook. Their first picture on Mi Suegra’s page over 1,600 likes and the page has already reached 4,000 fans before ever serving a single soup.
Mi Suegra will open for the first time right next to the Rooms to Go in Mayagüez on Wednesday from 10:30a.m. to 3:30p.m. for lunch service. More than good food, Cruz promises a good environment. “My kids have learned that around the table we laugh, cry, and solve problems. It’s a place where you take the spiritual temperature of the soul,” said Cruz.