The first thing anyone notices about the del Carmen Foods production space in the Near North Riverfront is its unmistakably delicious aroma. Even before spotting the industrial-sized vat of coffee-colored black beans swirling in the corner of the business’s commercial kitchen space, a person can detect the scent blossoming with carefully chosen spices and a wealth of flavors—the smell of quality food made with quality ingredients.
Estrella Cruz-Curoe, who often goes by “Estie,” is the founder and CEO of del Carmen Foods, which produces flavorful, ready-to-eat vegan beans, soups and dips. In the morning hours, she busies herself with a long list of entrepreneurial duties and kitchen prep, moving swiftly past an enormous mixer and oversized whisks towards a mountain of uncooked black beans waiting in a large canvas sack along the back wall.
“The food movement in St. Louis is pretty recent. I’ve been at this since 2009 and it was pretty void for a long, long time,” Cruz-Curoe says as she moves about. “But I think there’s a little bit more out there for food entrepreneurs now than there was before. Hopefully we can ride that wave.”
These days, there are plenty of notable chefs, restaurateurs, grocers and food-related businesses throughout St. Louis. But before the Gateway City landed many of the current national and international accolades—and before Cruz-Curoe even considered launching her own business—Cruz-Curoe found herself missing one of her favorite Cuban foods and meal staples: black beans. In grocery stores, she struggled to find fresh or canned brands that had the authentic, balanced seasoning and healthy ingredients that she wanted for herself and for her family.
“I started buying canned beans and they just weren’t working for me,” says Cruz-Curoe, who was born in Cuba. “I couldn’t find the right taste or consistency—everything was off.”
She began experimenting with her own black bean recipes in her kitchen, researching different cooking processes and mixtures of ingredients and then asking friends and family to taste the series of batches. Gradually, she learned more about fresh ingredients and foods preserved without chemicals and sugar. She even researched different packaging processes, eventually leading her to settle on frozen packaging to optimize both freshness and convenience.
“There was a flavor that was in my mind that I could taste, and until I reached that, I didn’t stop,” she says. “It took me two years.”
Eventually, Cruz-Curoe landed on the perfect flavor and encouraged by family and friends who had tasted her beans, in 2009 decided to transform her unique recipe into a flourishing business. Her road to successful entrepreneurship proved to be long, but worth it. Without a storefront or restaurant base, Cruz-Curoe had to build del Carmen Foods’ customer base from the ground up.
As she became more familiar with the St. Louis food scene and forged connections through the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis, Cruz-Curoe realized her Cuban style black beans were filling a niche in the product market. Many St. Louisans didn’t know how to properly cook fresh black beans, much less prepare the variety of black bean dishes possible with the super food, she found. To introduce residents to the Cuban flavors they’d eventually crave, Cruz-Curoe brought del Carmen Foods and her famous black beans to open-air markets around the city, including the popular Tower Grove Farmers Market in Tower Grove Park. There, Cruz-Curoe says, she could meet customers in person and build lasting connections with other foodies and del Carmen Foods fans.
It’s something Cruz-Curoe continues to do even as del Carmen’s success grows. She says she loves encouraging new customers to try different items in her product line, experiment on their own and have fun personalizing black bean dishes for their families.
Cruz-Curoe also continues to sell at local farmers’ markets to gain invaluable feedback from people who sincerely wanted her business to succeed—a welcome and incredibly vital component to the success of any small business.
“You have to test the market and you have to listen to your customers because, actually, they made my product better,” Cruz-Curoe says knowingly. “I am so into farmers’ markets for that reason. People who go there are foodies and they really want you to succeed. They are there to help you. There’s a community there, and it’s a wonderful community, really.”
Now in business for ten years, del Carmen Foods has grown out of a local incubator program to an industrial-sized kitchen in St. Louis’ historic Produce Row. Today, del Carmen Foods items can be found in the freezer section of many local markets, Fair Shares CCSA and St. Louis-area Whole Foods stores; Cruz-Curoe also recently inked a deal with Sysco in St. Charles to reach even more of the food service industry. Her Cuban-style black beans infused with St. Louis’s iconic Schlafly beer, creamy black bean hummus, gluten-free black bean soup and flavorful black bean dip are all vegan certified with no added sugar, additives or preservatives.
“They’re ready to eat, they’re frozen, they’re fresh, and they’re homemade with my own recipe,” Cruz-Curoe says with a smile. “There’s no added sugar, and the other juices in there—and there’s plenty of juices and vegetables—are not from concentrate, so they’re completely natural. We’ve done our best to have incredible flavor and keep it clean and healthy. ”
“All beans are good for you. But black beans, they say, are the king of beans,” she continues. “They are a natural antioxidant, they have things that make them a little bit healthier, and they’re good for the earth. The crop is very sustainable. It’s good all the way around.”
While the vat of black beans simmers and swirls in the kitchen, a faint scent of Schlafly beer floats through the air. Cruz-Curoe is cooking a batch of her Cuban style black beans with beer this morning. The steam wafting off the lightly-bubbling surface is enough to make anyone hungry, even if you’ve already eaten.
But even as the small business continues to expand, thriving through each new challenge and success, Cruz-Curoe says the St. Louis farmers markets where she meets customers will remain a regular part of her business plan.
“Customers were like, ‘I can have these beans every day,’ and, ‘Oh, these are amazing,’ and, ‘I trust you.’ That was huge,” says Cruz-Curoe. “When I heard that, it was just so heartwarming.”