Chef Maria del Carmen
Profile & Story
I’ve been making pupusas, tamales, chips, and tostadas since I was 6. I would make them alongside my mother and we would sell them on the streets of El Salvador. I’ve been doing food stands my whole life. It’s in my blood. And when it comes to pupusas, I’ve always stuck to the same family recipe. The ingredients, preparation, and cooking for the pupusas, curtido, and salsa have never changed.
What was it like when you first came to SF?
When I first came here to SF, I needed a base to start my own food business. I worked in a hotel and began saving money. But one day, I hurt my back. So I went back to my roots and decided to help a friend with her food business. We sold mangos on the street and she taught me everything I needed to know about running a food stand in America.
How did Estrellita’s Snacks get started?
With no stable job, I decided to use the $20 I had in my pocket to start my own business. I bought all the plantains I could and made them into chips. I’d sell them on the street right out of my purse. But it’s not exactly legal to sell food like this. So the police would follow me from time to time. But I stored the chips in a gift bag so that every time the police would stop me, I would just say that they were for a party. $20 quickly turned into $300. That $300 then became $500. Today, as an established business, I sell these same chips at 150 stores. So these chips are my estrellita, the little stars that have brought me to where I am today. And that’s where the name of the company came from.
What happened after that?
Along the way, I partnered with someone to open a restaurant. But it didn’t work out and I ended up losing $25,000. Then I learned about La Cocina and Atlas, which are both programs dedicated to helping low-income women start their own businesses. It helped that I happened to live right in front of La Cocina as well. I applied, got accepted into both incubators, and that’s how I got to where I am today.
What’s your favorite part about cooking?
Making people happy. To see someone brighten up when they eat the food you make is a really special moment. Whenever we get praise at the farmers’ market, I feel the energy and motivation to keep going. One time, I wasn’t feeling so good and I got an email from a customer who really loved the pupusas we gave her. Just reading that email made me feel much happier and free of the pain I was feeling at the time.