In our ongoing exploration of the impact that food truck entrepreneurs are having on the food industry, Symrise’s Dylan Thompson, Marketing and Consumer Insights Specialist, conducted an interview with Cesar Fuentes, the son of Reina Soler-Bermudez, who with her husband, Rafael, is a co-owner of Solber Pupusas. Their Salvadoran specialties have taken hold and expanded to fusion varieties, combining the ethnic food backgrounds of Reina’s native Salvador with Rafael’s Dominican Republic heritage. Pupusas have now gone mainstream, coming a long way from Reina’s and Rafael’s initial sale. The couple was so nervous that when a customer ordered coffee, and gave them a twenty dollar bill, didn’t have any cash to make change. Finding themselves thoroughly embarrassed, they gave away their first sale for free!
Dylan Thompson: It’s a pleasure to have the opportunity to get to know you and learn more about Solber Pupusas. We were impressed with the long lines that are always found at Solber Pupusas and the delicious food we sampled. For starters, we would like to know how your family became interested in food and cooking in general.
Cesar Fuentes: Sure, back in 1998-99, we started in Brooklyn, at the Red Hook Ball Fields to be precise. In those days, the Red Hook Ball Fields in Brooklyn were a mecca for Latin American soccer teams to come together. Those who were enjoying those games were also enjoying the Latin American equivalent of soul food. My mother, Reina Soler-Bermudez, and her husband, Rafael, in need of earning more income, decided to sell food at Red Hook. While they had no professional experience in the food industry, they knew they could prepare good food and they were willing to work hard. The start of the formal business was really based on our fight for survival, when there was a lot going on in our neighborhood. IKEA was in the process of paving the road and the community was being refurbished to get rid of the vendors. What was thought of as ‘cleaning up’ was really like being evicted for many of us. So, we started a grass roots movement to prevent the gentrification of our neighborhood. I represented my family and the other vendors who wanted to identify gentrification by its name and we fought to continue to preserve the culinary jewels – not just for my family, but all of the other vendors.
DT: When did the business grow to become Solber Pupusas?
CF: By about 2006, there was really an explosion of the street vendor presence in the city. The many ‘foodies’ that were moving into Brooklyn, in the Williamsburg section and in Red Hook, were no longer solely Latin American. There was a shift in demographics and slowly but surely menus were revised, expanding beyond the Latin American items that had been featured. Actually, we incorporated our business in 2010 and Solber Pupusas was launched. At that point, we also began conversations with Eric Demby, who came to be known as Mr. Flea Market. We worked with Eric and before long, our brand had grown substantially.
DT: When was it that Martha Stewart came to know you?
CF: In the fall of 2010, Martha discovered us at the Brooklyn Flea Market. She was fascinated with our food and invited my mother, Reina, and her husband, Rafael, to her show, Martha Stewart Live, where they prepared their delicious food and created an interest and desire for their beloved Salvadoran dishes. It was a big deal for Pupusas and for my family.
DT: Soon after, you won the Vendy award, correct?
CF: We were actually finalists in 2008. But it wasn’t until 2011 when we won the Vendy Cup. Yes, that was another big deal for us. No longer were we recognized as Salvadorans making food for Salvadorans, we had become the new ‘in’ food, recognized as the best street food available. We were seen as a vendor who could provide wholesome and organic food with different types of flavors and tastes.
DT: Where do you find inspiration for the flavors created at Solber Pupusas and for the types of dishes that you serve?
CF: Actually, it’s fusion – the direct result of transitioning from the homogeneous flavors of an ethnic group to catering to a broader demographic. It’s similar to what happened with other ethnic foods, reminiscent of how pizza evolved, also like the German sausage leading to the American hot dog. It’s a matter of acculturating the food - Americanizing it – by being open to expanding our offerings from the traditional varieties of Pupusas found in Salvador to more fusion tastes such as Pupusas Teriyaki with shitake mushrooms, or Greek Pupusas. We’ve catered Bar Mitzvahs where we have done Pupusas with Kosher ingredients. We’ve also done Italian versions. We are very open to exploring the different flavors of different cultures and making them work. Pupusas are actually tortilla con masa, almost like a sandwich. Of course, they are more elaborate – sort of the love child of a sandwich and a pizza. Maybe they are a bit like empanadas. Pupusas are ancient, dating back 2000 years as a Mayan dish. The traditional Pupusas probably made their first transition to a fusion dish with the Spanish influence. The Spanish influence continued to evolve in America until today, when it has gone mainstream. An example of a transition to a newer version can be found in my mother being married to Rafael who is from the Dominican Republic which, while also Latino, has a different culture allowing for the fusion with the different flavors that Rafael brings to the original Salvadoran taste varieties.
DT: You mentioned the advantage of starting a food truck business compared to opening a brick and mortar – can you explain this a bit more?
CF: Although street vendors were recognized by Mayor Blumberg and now by Mayor DeBlasio, we are still struggling businesses, facing many challenges, but easier to overcome compared to all that takes to open a brick and mortar. Brick and mortars are challenged by the rising costs of real estate, whether they are owners or renters. Just think about that long established bakery that had to move to Baltimore – it was written up in the New York Times. They had to relocate because New York is so very expensive. We are up against the same thing so we supplement our business through catering. And we are challenged also by the limitations in our permits about where and when we can be open for business. This year, for example, we only use our truck for special events. We participate in vendor markets in East Harlem. Now, we hope to bring our Pupusas to Fairway.
DT: Your business has certainly evolved – so how do you see it going in the next three to five years?
CF: Right now as we work with Eric, he’s asking and we’re asking that same question. When we look back to 2012 when food trucks were the hottest thing, we acknowledge that that boom had a lot to do with the recession in New York City. At the time, big franchises went into the food truck business. The Vendy awards have served as a great engine for bringing food trucks to the celebrity level, with a lot of support from people like Mario Batali who calls it the Oscar for food trucks. It’s given us the opportunity to be recognized as the ‘best of the best’. Look, down the line, we realize that there is likely to be someone better. So you need to be true to what brought you to the business in the first place – whether financial need, or the passion for what you do or even boredom with what you’ve been doing like an accountant or anything else. You want to be the next big thing. I have been fortunate that I have been able to bring my life and work experience to help my family and other vendors. Today there are vendors who have been hidden in the South Bronx or Roosevelt Avenue in Queens or Staten Island, and I have been able to help them get to the next level. Right now, Pop Ups represent a great opportunity. People don’t have to wait for a food truck, they can go to Union Square Park or Flat Iron Park which afford great opportunities for small vendors and micro-producers who are not ready for brick and mortar, although that may always be their dream. Many believe that through some magical occurrence, they will be able to open their own restaurant or get their brand into a supermarket. It’s not as easy as they would hope. I’m not ready to go to Shark Tank but if Mark Cuban or Mr. Wonderful come along and say they believe in our business, and are going to make us the next Chic-Fil-A – well that’s the kind of dream that could entice most street vendors! But in fact, we’re all faced with realizing our dreams amidst all the day-to-day struggles at both our business and personal levels.
DT: Can you identify what you think will be the next “big street food” creation?
CF: I think of Kogi’s Korean Taco and the influence of the L.A. food truck business. I believe that fusion is the way to go. Foods like the Pupusas or Samosas are ancient foods that have not been well known but which have evolved to something new to appeal to a different and new palate. I think this will continue. My dream has always been to not be strictly identified with Pupusas but to expand what we serve. The new ‘in’ food will come from what you have had at home, that you can bring as new food items to people who never knew them.
DT: Along with the ingredients in the Pupusas, are there any ingredients that you and your family favor as having potential widespread use?
CF: Well, the Pupusas do count on ingredients that can be versatile such as curtido (pickled cabbage/cold slaw), chorizo, maduras (sweet plantains) and jalapeños. Pickled cold slaw with the vinegar and the Salvadoran sour cream, which is a sweeter version than what’s commonly used in the U.S., are new and successful tastes for some. I think some the sauces we are creating have ingredients that make them up and coming. Of course, there’s are always new salsa ingredients to think about. I have to say that I see the ingredients in Mexican food as winners. Mexican cooks and chefs are always getting acclaim for their creations. It’s an ethnic food that is always expanding with different variations of familiar favorites – such as new salsa ideas. And the complex ingredients in Horchata are inspiring. The novelty of our Pupusas ingredients led to collaboration with Makers Mark Whiskey. We were challenged to make a food with it and actually made a homemade tomato sauce which we showcased at the Village Voice a few years ago – it was a big hit.
DT: Do you have any new concepts that you will be launching in the future?
CF: There are new tamales that I am working on with my mother. She’s very creative and always has a million new ideas. We are working on a recipe book, putting together Salvadoran meals that include different versions of tamales. Keep us on your radar…we are always thinking and coming up with new ideas.
DT: We have covered a lot today, and I want to thank you for your insights.
CF: Thank you as well, it was good getting to know you and Symrise.