A taste of home
At SoHo’s Brigadeiro Bakery, customers are often greeted by the sounds of two women speaking rapid Portuguese. Both named Mariana, they are Brazilians who now call New York home. They became friends and then business partners thanks to the brigadeiro, the Brazilian dessert that gives their store its name.
The bakery is located on Sullivan St, next to what used to be the legendary Joe’s Dairy – a destination for Italian cheeses that closed in 2013 after 60 years in business. This part of SoHo used to be an Italian neighborhood, but changing demographics and rising rents have led to an influx of high-end restaurants like The Dutch, further down Sullivan Street. Brigadeiro Bakery is in a way a mixture of both the old SoHo and the new — a family business that aims to be part of the community, but with a modern black-and-white décor and clean, uncluttered design that appeals to fashionable residents and workers in the area.
A glass counter displays the brigadeiros, which resemble chocolate truffles and come in 17 flavors. Three brigadeiros cost $5, but the first one is always free. Despite flavors designed to appeal to American customers, such as Oreo and cinnamon pecan, the aim is to keep the brigadeiros as close to authentic as possible. The shop also sells traditional Brazilian honey cakes ($4) and pao de queijo, a savory cheese roll ($2), as well as coffee and hot chocolate.
There are over 12,000 Brazilians in New York City, according to the American Community Survey (ACS). Many of them live in Astoria, but there are over 4,700 Brazilians in Manhattan. “A lot of our customers are Brazilian, but also everyone else,” said Mariana Viera, the chef and owner of the bakery. “You leave the door open and it’s a lottery.”
The 34-year-old Viera is tall, and wears her brown hair tied up in a messy bun, her large brown eyes hidden behind thick frames. She has been making brigadeiros since she was a child, having grown up in a family of seven whose birthdays were spread throughout the year. In Brazil, she said, no birthday party is complete without brigadeiros, so she felt as though she spent the entire year eating them, often made by her grandmother and aunt. “In Brazil, say you have a party for 50 people, you make 200-300 brigadeiros,” she said, but they aren’t only for special occasions. “When you’re watching a movie at home, you just make brigadeiros and eat with a spoon straight from the pan,” she said, recalling memories of her teenage years.
“Brigadeiros are very home-style,” said Viera. She heats all the ingredients – which vary depending on the flavor, but always include condensed milk and butter – in a pan and cooks them for 40 minutes. When the mixture is cool enough to touch, she rolls it into small balls that are dipped in a topping such as chocolate sprinkles.
Viera said that the confection was popularized in the 1940s thanks to an army brigadier (brigadeiro in Portuguese) who ran for president. He was good-looking and popular with women voters, who sold brigadeiros to raise money for his campaign. He lost the election, but the dessert took on his title.
Although the bakery has only been open for two months, Viera has been making brigadeiros professionally for four years. She arrived in New York five years ago, fresh out of culinary school, after her husband, an advertising executive, was transferred from Sao Paolo. She began working as a personal chef, and always served brigadeiros at the end of the meal. Soon people began asking her just to make brigadeiros, and she began taking orders. She worked out of her Brooklyn kitchen, and as the orders rolled in, she quit her job, devoting herself to the brigadeiro.
As her operation continued to expand, Viera realized that she needed a bigger kitchen. She had met the owners of Comodo, a Latin-American restaurant in SoHo, who were so taken with her brigadeiros that they offered her a deal: She could use their kitchen rent-free in exchange for supplying the restaurant with brigadeiros.
This arrangement worked for two years, but Viera’s goal was to have a store of her own. She had seen the success of stand-alone brigadeiro shops in Brazil, and she believed that the model could work in New York. “This excites me,” she said. “Why would I make cupcakes?”
Starting a business in New York City is challenging in any area, but SoHo is notorious for high rents. Viera and husband, Marcelo Reali, took over a space vacated by a juice bar, completed an extensive remodel, and built a kitchen in the basement. To fund this, they took out a loan and used savings that Viera had built up during the four years of running her brigadeiro business.
To cover additional costs, the team created a Kickstarter campaign to raise $20,000 in one month. By the end of their campaign, 262 backers had pledged almost $24,000.
Using Kickstarter was a way to not only raise money, but to engage with potential customers. People who backed the campaign were offered free brigadeiros and coffee, which could be redeemed in store, encouraging people to visit the bakery. “We could have gone to a bank, but we thought it would be better because people could get to know us,” said Mariana Memoria, Viera’s business partner. Originally from Rio de Janeiro, she has been in New York for seven years. “When people came and picked up the rewards, it created a community,” she said. “Our customers were our backers.”
On a recent Monday afternoon, the store was quiet – but a quiet store does not necessarily mean that no money is coming in. Customers across the country can order brigadeiros online, and the Brigadeiro team also caters for corporate functions. Forty percent of their business is in-store, 40 percent comes from catering and 20 percent comes from online sales, said Viera.
Although her store is in its infancy, Viera is already looking to the future. “We dream about having three, four stores in New York,” she said. The next step involves a vintage bike that has been outfitted with a small glass-covered case. Starting in April, the bike will be stationed at Gansevoort Market, a food hall that opened in the Meatpacking District last October. The bike will sell brigadeiros, the honey cakes, and cookies, with an emphasis on products that can be eaten on the go.
One of the motivations for Viera’s expansion and business success is her 2-year-old son, Dylan. “If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t have come so far,” she said. “Because when I had him, I thought if I’m going to do something, I’m going to do something that will bring [success] to all of us.”
Tags: Brazilian Food, brigadeiro, SoHo