Viviane Motta De Mello has been making Brazilian brigadeiros for years. As a child in her family’s kitchen in Brazil, Viviane would take instruction from her grandmother, following the traditional recipes for these treats by mixing sweetened condensed milk, cocoa, and butter to form something that we might best describe in the US as a truffle. Today, she is reminded of those delicious memories anytime she heads to Dream Kitchen to make desserts for Puga & Mello Artisanal Sweets, a company she co-owns with her husband, Patricio Puga.
Patricio moved to Chile as a teenager and lived there for 22 years. It was here that he found inspiration for Puga & Mello’s other shoutout to Latin American desserts— the alfajor. To make alfajores, you first bake cookies from a cornstarch base then form a sandwich around a generous helping of dulce de leche. Though these cookies are traditionally Argentinian, the proximity of countries within the Southern Cone of South America allows for a beautiful influx of culture across borders. “While I lived there,” explains Patricio, “I tasted food from all over. Peru, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil. Of course, I fell in love with traditional Chilean food, too, like cuchufli. But the alfajor is what I remember most.”
Patricio and Viviane did some research and found that very few companies in the Chicago area, specifically around Elgin, were offering traditional brigadeiros and alfajores. The couple knew that they could fill this gap by starting their own company. It seemed like the perfect plan, except for the fact that Patricio and Viviane knew absolutely nothing about owning a business.
“Both Viviane and I worked as paralegals and neither of us had any experience in culinary whatsoever. We had to find a way to learn what it means to be a business owner.” Patricio continues to explain that they found Dream HUB online and enrolled in Dream EDU around the same time they began to use Dream Kitchen’s shared commercial space. “Through Dream EDU we learned all about the dynamics of working in the food service industry. Before the program, that phrase—“food service industry”— wasn’t even in my vocabulary and it made it difficult to understand our identity as a small business. We weren’t a coffee shop and we weren’t a restaurant. But after learning more, we realized that we were a food service provider. Dream EDU helped us to understand what this means and how we can best offer our product direct-to-consumer.”
The couple thinks back to these early days and realizes that they encountered many important learning opportunities. “There were a lot of things that we basically didn’t know before enrolling. For example, we’ve had private, personal accounts on social media for a long time but we never saw it as an opportunity for advertising. Through Dream EDU we learned a lot about the importance of social media. We created Puga & Mello accounts on Instagram and Facebook and now we are starting to learn even more, like about hashtags and how they can attract more customers.”
Patricio also shares how Dream EDU has given the couple an awareness of how to expand their reach. “We learned a lot about how to market our products to smaller coffee shops. The funny thing is that while we were working in Dream Kitchen we became friends with a guy who owns a food truck and cafe. We shared about what we do at Puga & Mello and how we were looking to expand to sell in coffee shops. We gave him some of our brigadeiros to try and he ended up asking to sell them at his shop. If it hadn’t been for Dream EDU and Kevin, five months ago I would not have sought conversation with other cafes to offer them our products.”
Now that they are expanding to third party businesses, Patricio and Viviane know they need to continue to develop their packaging, something else that has been consistently evolving with the help of Dream EDU and some personal research. “Our packaging is always changing because we need to consider what’s best for the customer and not just for us, the owners. We always want to make sure our desserts get home in the best state possible. And now that we are looking to sell in cafes we need to start thinking critically about how we can best package our desserts in a cost-effective but attractive way so that the shops can store our products and display them. Again, months ago I never would have considered any of this.”
Patricio admits that he is definitely not an expert yet but that he is learning something new each day. “It’s a snowball effect. One strategy you learn affects the next.” The couple expresses that one of those lessons has been appreciation for what it takes to run a company. “All the learning and time it takes to make and sell a product is more than you can imagine. But it’s worth it.” The company receives a lot of gratitude back from their customers, and the couple points to these interactions as their proudest moments. “They give you strength to keep going, affirming that we have a good product. One of these moments happened recently, at an Elgin farmer’s market a few Saturdays ago. A woman came to our stand and bought a box of ten brigadeiros for herself, her husband, and her kids. A little bit later, she came back to buy another box of ten because her family devoured them in minutes. Another customer that same weekend called us later in the day to simply thank us. She said ‘We just finished your brigadeiros. Thank you, these made my day. I can’t wait to buy more.’ We’re so grateful that someone is willing to give hard-earned money for our product and we’re thankful that we can make our customers so happy.”
One element that might have to do with their success is that the couple makes all of their desserts handmade. They believe that this is what makes a quality product. “Sure,” begins Patricio, “you could use machines like other companies but it’s not as affordable and also doesn’t produce the same result. It’s not as authentic.” Instead, the couple uses Dream Kitchen to create their recipes, honoring both tradition but also putting a twist on some of their desserts. In additional to traditional brigadeiros, the company offers options that include almonds, fruit, white chocolate, seasonal flavors like pumpkin, and even the addition of red wine or whiskey. “My wife is the mastermind behind the products and recipes,” Patricio explains. “She’s the chef and I’m her assistant in the kitchen—she tells me what to do. The recipes she has for our future brigadeiros and alfajores are to die for.”
The duo is also working with Dream Brand, another spoke of Dream HUB that helps market Dream HUB clients. “Dream Brand is an ongoing process. As the company and the owners learn and evolve, so does the brand. It takes time, but the employees at the marketing agency ask a lot of questions and are on top of their stuff. We’ll see the final product soon.”
Patricio and Viviane haven’t completely left their other jobs but that’s in the forecast for the couple. For now, they look forward to learning more through Dream EDU, experimenting with new flavors in Dream Kitchen, and continuing to expand the reach of Puga & Mello Artisanal Sweets through Dream Brand.