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Economy & Business

3 immigrant entrepreneurs bring taste of home to St. Louis

Maria Altman | St. Louis Public Radio
Estie Cruz-Curoe, the founder of del Carmen Foods, stands with her employees (from left): Bill Stratman, Joe Neaf and Steve McClenahan.

Estie Cruz-Curoe knows black beans.

The Cuban native came to the United States in the early 1960s and grew up in Miami, where her mother added a Cuban mix of spices to canned black beans. But when Cruz-Curoe moved to the Midwest as an adult, she could no longer find the right black beans.

So she started experimenting with dried black beans and her own spices.

“A little while later they were coming out pretty good, and I started serving it to my family and my family was liking it, and I started serving to my friends and they were liking it,” Cruz-Curoe said.

It was her friends who pushed her to consider making it a business, and in 2009 del Carmen Foods was born. Cruz-Curoe now sells black bean soup, black bean hummus, black bean dip and, of course, black beans in stores around the St. Louis region with plans to expand nationally.

Yet this immigrant entrepreneur’s story is not unique in St. Louis.

While the region’s immigrants make up slightly more than 4 percent of the total population, they are up to 60 percent more likely to start their own businesses. That’s part of the reason why the Mosaic Project is working to attract more foreign-born people to the area.

“The foreign-born that are entrepreneurs are job creators, not job takers, so it really lifts the benefits to the region for all of us,” said Mosaic Executive Director Betsy Cohen.

Cohen said supporting their families is top of mind for immigrants, who often aren’t able to continue the profession that practiced at home. That was the case for Alaa Alderie. The Syrian native worked as a banker in Damascus for years. After arriving in St. Louis with his parents in 2012 he did get offered a job at a local bank.

Credit Cham Bakery
Alaa Alderie (second from right) with his family at Cham Bakery in St. Louis.

“But the pay was not enough to support all of us,” he said, including family back in Syria.

Instead, Alderie and his brother, who had come to the U.S. in 2010, tried a couple of businesses. They found that fewer people came out to shop or eat during the winter. So Alderie looked for something where there is consistent demand. He found it with his grandfather’s pita recipe and started the Cham Bakery.

“When you eat Cham pita bread you really have the experience 100 percent as when you’re eating pita bread overseas. It’s exactly the same,” he said. “ … and everyone likes it.”

Cham Bakery sells to restaurants and grocery stores, as far away as Columbia and into Illinois. Alderie said they will also begin selling their pita bread at Whole Foods in the state of Washington soon and plan to expand their staff from four to eight next year.

For Luis Rivero, starting his own business was less a necessity that an ambition.

“I’ve always had an entrepreneurial mindset in business,” he said.

Credit Hůga Bar
Luis Rivero and Luis Mendoza are childhood friends who started their own company, Hůga Bar in 2014.

Rivero grew up in Caracas, Venezuela, and came to the United States in 2003 for graduate school in North Carolina. After graduation he went to work for DuPont, ultimately landing in St. Louis.

Then in 2014 he and a childhood friend, Luis Mendoza, started their own business — Hůga Bar. The nutrition bars feature flavors they grew up with in Venezuela, such as hazelnut with chocolate and dulce de leche.

“We said what if we could make a bar that had some of these flavors and some of these ingredients and experiences that we had been exposed to in Venezuela?”

Hůga Bars are now in stores throughout St. Louis region and on-line, and Rivero said they’re working toward national, even international, expansion.

As for why so many immigrants become entrepreneurs, Rivero said those who leave their home countries tend to be well-suited for the lifestyle.

He said immigrants are just less risk-averse.

Follow Maria on Twitter: @radioaltman

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