Leading with Empathy: A Bakery that Proved Grit and Heart Can Survive the Hardest of Times

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, I’ve created an interview series to feature inspiring Latinx entrepreneurs whose stories of determination represent our community’s unwavering drive to seguir adelante.

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Published: May 14, 2020

“Work 80 hours a week. Always [keep my] purpose in mind. Faith in God. Work harder again,” Manolo Betancur wrote in his notes as a reminder to himself during one of his hardest moments as the owner of Manolo’s Bakery. COVID-19 had hit, and as someone who cared deeply about how his business provided value to his customers, employees, family and the community, he knew that the road ahead would be like nothing he had ever encountered before.

In the midst of the global pandemic, Manolo has worked tirelessly for the last few months to save his business, a small bakery that has provided Latin delicacies to families in Charlotte, North Carolina, since 1997.

I first met Manolo during his time in the Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative Education Scaling Program (SLEI-Ed), where I was inspired by his story of overcoming adversity as an immigrant.

I knew that overcoming this pandemic would be a challenge but nothing that his grit wouldn’t be able to weather. When he sent me his notes on his plans to keep his business alive, I knew we had to chat.

Interview date: April 15, 2020

Melody: “How is business? How have you had to pivot?”

Manolo: “There were several components [to consider]. With regards to the bakery, we started with The Cake Project, an affection-based initiative focused on delivering cakes to every child in Mecklenburg County for their birthday during the pandemic.

In regards to my team, we had the older staff stay home and continued paying them. We also made sure that those who had to provide for their families could remain working.

Finally, we started a GoFundMe, and next week, we are testing shipping nationwide.”

Melody: “How did you come up with all these ideas!?”

Manolo: “Some just came to me, and the rest were from my wife. We had to really rely on social media platforms; however, the newspaper and radio worked as well! I was able to share my story, and that is when order requests started to come in.

However, all of this would not have been possible without the support of the community and organizational leaders. It took an army of people behind me that care about the business.”

Melody: “It’s always moving to hear about people coming together to support one another. How have you kept up with employee morale?”

Manolo: “I have done a few things:

  • I have visited older employees from outside their homes to say, ‘Hi.’
  • I communicated to staff that their paycheck was my first priority.
  • I called all my employees to let them know that I wanted to keep them but that there were going to be some delays.

But really the most important thing has been being transparent and remaining in constant communication.”

Melody: “That sounds really reassuring, I am sure your staff has responded positively. Can you tell me a little about how your brick and mortar has transitioned to remote work?”

Manolo: “Actually, we only have our social media manager working from home. Everyone else is working from the shop.”

Melody: “So how have sales been affected?”

Manolo: “Well, we saw a 60% drop initially, which was really stressful for us. But since implementing new ideas and working everyday, my sales are now only down 3%!

I felt like I was in Zombieland. I was so tired and working such long hours. This past weekend was my first weekend off since shelter in place began.

I don’t even know how I did it, but we need to bring hope back to our communities.”

Melody: “That is amazing, Manolo! It really speaks to your work ethic. Can you tell me more about the resources you have relied on?”

Manolo: “I tried applying to several grants, such as the Verizon grant and the Facebook grant, but I didn’t get them. What did help was a webinar hosted by the SLEI network.”

Melody: “Unfortunately, this is something that we see often with our Latinx business owners when it comes to accessing bank or grant financing. In your case, it sounds like your hard work, creativity, and determination was what really helped get you back to breaking even. What help do you need now?”

Manolo: “There are several things.

  • Filling out paperwork has been tedious and difficult to do when I am at the frontline of my business now.
  • We need investors. My churro machine is from 1995. We could use some new equipment.
  • Anyone that can donate to The Cake Project through our GoFundMe account.
  • Guidance on how to implement technology into my bakery.”

What is Manolo working on today? He is still cranking away at his business and currently, is providing 2,500 meals a week to help feed shelters and refugees.

In speaking to Manolo, I quickly realized that there is no special recipe for success. It takes a combination of resources, community support, access to capital, creativity, vulnerability, and empathy. And even then, that can’t guarantee survival.

Learn more about Manolo and his bakery by visiting his website and social channels (Facebook and Instagram). If you are able to offer support or would like to contribute to the success of his business, feel free to ping me, and I can make an intro.

If you’d like to support Manolo and more exceptional entrepreneurs like him during this crisis, spread the word about this series and share this article with family and friends on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Email.

We want to hear what you think about this article or refer any entrepreneurs for this series. Send your responses to melodyestrada1@gmail.com.

Edited by: Jessica Salinas

Amplifying Diverse Founders | Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative (former) | App Store Marketing (former) | CubaRican | SJSU Alumni