When Her Parents' Restaurant Burned Down, This First-Generation Founder's Hot Sauce Brand Rose From the Ashes to Take on Corporate Giants.
Maritza Abreu, founder and CEO of Pisqueya, wants to share her family's authentic recipes with the world.
Today, Maritza Abreu is the indomitable founder and CEO of Pisqueya, the hot sauce brand that's using authentic recipes and natural ingredients to give its corporate competitors a run for their money.
But Abreu didn't always envision an entrepreneurial life for herself.
As a recent college graduate, she wanted to make her parents, who'd immigrated to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic in the late 1970s, proud — and, at the time, she thought that meant getting a corporate gig.
So she began a two-year internal consulting program at JPMorgan Chase. While it was pivotal for her professional development, she knew it was not her place.
"I remember vividly that first day walking into the office, an inner voice spoke to me and said, This is not your calling," Abreu tells Entrepreneur.
A "fire inside" burned. Abreu wanted to share something with the world: the flavors she'd grown up with at her parents' luncheonette in the heart of Brooklyn.
"Their menu was food from back home in a city that, back then, knew very little about our culture," Abreu says. "Yet they proudly celebrated our flavors and treated everyone that walked through our doors like family."
Her parents built strong relationships and a tight-knit community, the strength of which would be on full display after a neighbor called with tragic news in 2012: There was smoke coming from the restaurant. A fire had destroyed their beloved luncheonette.
An all-hands-on-deck effort followed: Loyal customers were eager to help, volunteering to paint and aid in the rebuilding process. "It was incredible to see such support," Abreu says.
"The Latin way of living and cooking is fundamentally grounded in principles of farm to table."
With the rally to build back underway, Abreu reconnected with her roots and saw firsthand the power of food. That was the catalyst for her leap into entrepreneurship. Abreu decided to carry on the family legacy — and its flavors.
From the start, Abreu recognized the clear disconnect between her culture's flavors and those available on store shelves. "The Latin way of living and cooking is fundamentally grounded in principles of farm to table," she explains. "[Corporate giants] have pushed their agenda and capitalized by adding artificial ingredients to enhance the flavor of harmful seasonings."
Pisqueya is doing things differently, celebrating traditions and practices that go back thousands of years and authentically represent Latin culture. But Abreu didn't just want to share time-honored recipes; she also wanted to tell the stories of families, like her own, who come to the U.S. in search of a better life, launching their own ventures in the process.
"[These families] make up the fabric of who we are as Americans," Abreu says. "The restaurants, the bodegas, the fruit stands, all of it."
It's so important we share the stories of businesses that have grown strong in a sustainable way, Abreu stresses, as they're examples for aspiring entrepreneurs who hope to do the same — and prove that building wealth doesn't have to always look the same.
"I've had to push through my fears and be okay with leaving a trail where there is no path."
Abreu's journey to company founder wasn't without its surprises or challenges. Immediately, she was struck by the lack of women in the Latinx food space, as they're usually the ones who "create the magic in Latin kitchens." Yet they weren't in the boardrooms where Abreu found herself. She had to forge ahead in her own way.
"In order to own the narrative and reclaim what it means to be a CEO, I've had to push through my fears and be okay with leaving a trail where there is no path," Abreu says.
One of the most important items on Abreu's agenda? Getting Pisqueya into the mainstream.
"People's choices about what to eat are severely limited by the options available to them and what they can afford," Abreu explains, citing food deserts that are saturated with inexpensive condiments and seasonings high in salt, sugar and other harmful ingredients.
But Abreu says securing that mainstream exposure starts with believing that Pisqueya, and all it represents, deserves it — and continues with educating the buyer about how the brand fills a gap in the market and is prepared to meet the demand.
"Don't be afraid to share your story — this is your superpower."
As Abreu looks ahead to Pisqueya's future, she's excited about the brand's growing community of people seeking authentic flavors instead of unhealthy corporate alternatives.
"This is slowly creating a shift in the market," Abreu says, "creating space for food products that truly represent us. By forging ahead with the flavors I grew up with, we're creating a new generation of business owners, a generation that celebrates authenticity and inclusion and inspires others to do the same."
Being part of that new generation of business owners also means giving back. Pisqueya's "Extend a Paw" initiative donates all proceeds from its "Hot Like Fuego" merchandise to local, primarily women-run groups that work on animal welfare causes in the Dominican Republic, where there's much less awareness about the issue than there is in the U.S., Abreu says.
Growing up surrounded by two cultures has given Abreu the chance to see the differences between them, and to recognize just how much courage and tenacity it took for her parents to come to the U.S. all those years ago, to build a business with limited resources, unable to speak English fluently. "They are true examples of entrepreneurship and living a life with purpose," Abreu says — and the people whom she admires most.
In honor of Hispanic Heritage month, which runs from September 15 to October 15, Abreu has some simple but invaluable advice for aspiring Latinx entrepreneurs: "Don't be afraid to share your story: This is your superpower."
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