My friend Shawn lives in Costa Rica, and recently opened his own bakery, called Crumbs. I was curious about what it would be like to bake American-style treats in a Latin American environment. Shawn was kind enough to answer some of my questions, and even shared his recipe for banana bread. I think it’s evident from the photos that he has a knack for this.
But that’s no surprise at all. Shawn is driven to excel at whatever he does. He’s one of those people that seem to wring as much fun and joy out of like as possible, working hard and playing harder. It’s inspiring.
FIG: So what are you baking today?
CRUMBS: Today, I’m baking Spiced Apple Crumb Muffins from Gwyneth Paltrow’s recipe, Blueberry Oat Muffins, a Pecan Bourbon Pie and I’m going to make some of my Banana Bread Muffins if I have time.
Wow, you are busy! What other things are on the Crumbs menu rotation? (Currently or future)
Well, we’re starting out slow, mostly muffins and sweet quick breads. I want to add a Lemon-Poppy Seed Muffin (I was able to find poppy seeds, but lemons are strangely unavailable in Costa Rica). I also want to do several types of scones (lemon-blueberry, maple-bacon, etc.), some pies, like the Pecan Bourbon and also a Plum-Cardamon Pie that has a wonderfully unique flavor. I’ll also be doing cakes, like a Tropical Carrot Cake with pineapple, coconut, candied ginger and macadamia nuts. Very soon, I hope to come out with some gluten-free options (in case any of your readers have suggestions).
That carrot cake sounds like a welcome respite from the over-frosted monsters I’ve become accustomed to.
Where do you sell your goods? What is your business model?
Well, for now, everything is based on word of mouth advertising, mostly via Facebook. I have a lot of friends who are athletic and most of my baked goods are relatively healthy, so Crumbs is quickly gaining a lot of popularity in that community. I also do deliveries around San Jose during the week on my bike. Basically, someone who has tried our products or seen them on Facebook will ask me to stop by their office, so I’ll go on my bike and show up with 30-40 muffins and the other people in the office will see them and want to try them too. I think the bike delivery component is going to be a big part of the business.
I want it to grow organically and sustainably. Right now, I’m still testing the waters and trying to pay off the initial investment.
What kinds of things did you need to get started?
Just a half a cup of inspiration. Haha! Too cheesy? No…I lost my job at the ad agency a couple of months ago and wasn’t finding anything and one day I was texting with my good friend, Sergio, and he was like, “Why don’t you start using stuff you already do well to make money till you find a job…like teaching English or baking?”
Well, I hate teaching English (no offense to all those wonderful language teachers out there…you all have my deepest respect), so I decided that baking would be a good option. I’m pretty decent at marketing, so I chose a name, designed a logo, developed a character profile for the company and started building my audience. It really wouldn’t be possible though without the overwhelming support of all my friends.
I’m sure they were thrilled to help, especially when baked goods are being handed out!
Tell me about the food culture in San Jose and the appetite for American baked goods. Are native Costa Ricans well-exposed to American sweets? Or is it an up-and-coming trend?
There’s a lot of US influence in Costa Rica. Many middle-upper and upper class “ticos” travel frequently to North America or live there for a period while studying or working, so many people are exposed to the kind of stuff I’m baking, but your common bakery here doesn’t offer any of those products, so the market is good and fairly wide open.
What are the challenges and alternately, the benefits, of baking American treats abroad?
The first (and most frustrating) challenge is that there are so many things that are IMPOSSIBLE to find here (like lemons, fresh berries and molasses), while other things are prohibitively expensive (like maple syrup, pecans, pistachios, certain dried fruits and equipment). By the way, if any of your readers are coming down, let me know and I’ll send them a shopping list!
The benefits are that it’s easy to find a niche and be unique. I’m also able to start this up without formalizing anything legally (I’ll probably get a visit from the health department tomorrow though, now that I mentioned that).
Are there any Costa Rican ingredients you think American cooks or bakers should add to their pantries?
I would say the most important Costa Rican ingredient you can have in your pantry would be Costa Rican coffee. It gives you that extra boost of energy to start your day, is the perfect accompaniment for any baked item and just a little bit of leftover coffee dumped into any chocolate-based recipe accentuates that chocolate flavor even more.
Shawn’s recipe for banana bread gets its flavor from cinnamon and nutmeg, which he likes to grind fresh. Bananas are one of Costa Rica’s main exports, and he says they are far more flavorful than the ones we get in the U.S., which are picked green for shipping. I especially love the long slice of banana on top. It’s a very sophisticated touch on an old favorite.
Banana Bread Instructions
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1/4 tsp ground ginger
- 1/4 tsp nutmeg
- 1 stick (1/2 cup) of unsalted butter
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup of brown sugar (depending on how sweet your bananas are)
- 2 eggs, beaten
- 2 1/3 cups of overripe bananas that have been mashed
- 1/2 cup of semi-sweet (or dark) chocolate, chopped or in chips
- 1/2 cup of lightly toasted walnuts
- Preheat oven to 350º (400º if you do muffins) and grease loaf pan.
- Mix all the dry ingredients together in a medium bowl. Then, cream the sugar and butter in a large bowl.
- Mix in the eggs and mashed banana just until all is well incorporated, then fold in the chocolate and nuts.
- Pour batter into prepared loaf or muffin pan. I like to fill my muffin tins all the way to the top so they get those big, fat muffin tops. Top with a thin slice of banana, sliced lengthwise, and a sprinkling of extra nuts and chocolate.
- If loaf, bake for 60 to 70 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean. If muffins, bake for 25-30 minutes, or until toothpick comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool in pan for 10 minutes and then turn out onto rack to continue cooling.
Thanks for reading!