“We decided to not talk to our customers about it”
How a small local seafood restaurant and a global luxury chocolate brand are transforming the lives of farmers and workers in Peru. Read More
On the long road towards becoming a country of justice and reconciliation, which Peru desperately wants to be, formal laws are not the only way to success. Change often comes from individuals, from civic action and the strong belief that it is possible to set the wheel of balance and equality in motion ourselves. I wanted to find out about some of these initiatives.
To be honest though, terms such as fair trade, sustainable consumption, social responsibility, and sustainability always sound like empty promotional buzzwords to me. Perfect for a shop’s marquee, but with nothing much to them. They often seem like a facade naive and goodhearted people adhere to and organized scoundrels take advantage of – at least in my home country Peru.
Skeptical about these marketing terms, I took out my notebook and started looking for stories that could change my prejudices. I emphasized the people behind the stories and what they had to say about the things they are doing.
Luckily, I found two people who grew up with the ideals of sustainability from a young age. They have decided to do business in a different way, dedicating themselves to social and ecological activities that do not result in any personal profit.
Astrid Gutsche: Luxury chocolates for international restaurants
As a child, Astrid Gutsche used to stroll the streets of Paris with her father in search of new flavors. “My father loved ginger dipped in chocolate. At home, there was not a day without chocolate. Every one of them had its own flavor and my mother would eat an entire bar like a sandwich,” she tells me laughing, recalling her childhood in Paris.
Paris was also where Astrid met her future husband. Back then, Astrid and Gastón Acurio, the son of a Peruvian diplomat and a renowned chef, attended the same cooking school. He specialized in main dishes; her emphasis was on deserts and pastries. Today “Astrid & Gastón” is the name of their global restaurant chain with franchises all over South America and Spain.
After more than twenty years living in Peru, Astrid Gutsche has assimilated so well that people often say she is more Peruvian than the potato. And it is true: Her blond hair and twinkling blue eyes shine brightly throughout the land of the Incas, and she melts into a sincere embrace with all the people she meets. I experienced her warm hug first hand when we first met, as do all the farmers from rural and indigenous communities with whom she has been working to find the best cocoa plants.
Astrid is a pastry chef, not a cocoa planter or trader. But she’s a frequent buyer of high quality cocoa, and she works incessantly towards her goal of using her purchasing power to ensure a decent income for producers. To her, buying fair trade isn’t enough. Official “fair trade”, she says, hasn’t become truly “fair” yet, as the resellers and middlemen still swallow too much money. This is why she decided to ignore the middlemen and buy the cocoa directly from the farmers in Peru’s Andean and Amazonian villages.
Fair trade is not fair enough
“The local communities do not know what fair trade is; they have no idea,” she explains. “Once a man – a real snake-oil salesman – crossed my path in the Amazonian. He was going from community to community asking the villagers to gather the sum of 20,000 soles. With this amount, he would market their cocoa under the fair trade label. The farmers spent a year trying to raise the money for this man, who, after receiving it, continued to pay them not more than 1.70 soles – about 0.50 US dollars – per kilo of cocoa baba.” Baba is the content of the cocoa pod. “They were still starving! I was very angry and sent him packing in no uncertain terms. I couldn’t stand to see the bastard anymore.”
Similar things have happened in several places, so farmers, peasants and indigenous communities sometimes have reservations against newcomers. Astrid always tries to announce her arrival in the communities in advance, but the geographical and technological conditions do not always allow her to do so. Remote villages are often not connected to the telephone grid or the internet.
“Depending on the village, approaching people can be tricky. For example, if you want to reach out to a Wuanpis or Awajun community in the Amazonian, you need a translator because they don’t speak Spanish. These people have suffered neglect by the state time and again over many years. They do not have electricity, they don’t have running water, and travelling anywhere is very expensive. If some of them have electric lights, it is because a foreign company interested in marketing their cocoa has installed solar panels.”
What bothers Astrid most is that the intermediaries in the cocoa supply chain know about the farmers’ difficulties, but still persist in paying them less than the value they receive in a never-ending quest to line their own pockets.
“Buying the cocoa directly from the farmers has three advantages for me: First, I cut out the abusive middlemen. Second, I can control the quality of the cocoa and make sure that it is not blended, and most importantly, I can now pay the farmer directly and even in advance.”
Astrid uses the cocoa for the chocolate and pastry products she sells in her restaurants across Peru and Chile, and for her new “MELATE” chocolate brand. Furthermore, she does her best to connect the cocoa producing communities with chocolatiers and restaurant owners from different countries. To date, chocolatiers from Japan, France, Belgium and the USA have visited them and bought directly from the producers in Quillabamba, Jaen, Tumbes or the Amazon. They all fell in love with the humility, respect and human warmth with which they were received, she recounts.
The Goicochea family: Organic seafood restaurant for local workers
Alcides Goicochea’s father Rodolfo was born in the Andean city of Cajabamba in the north of Peru. Having grown up on the Huarasullo farm surrounded by nature, Rodolfo is an impressive treasure trove of agricultural knowledge and know-how. Today this store of knowledge is one of the main pillars of the family’s local business: the “Los Herrajes” seafood restaurant in the Peruvian town of Huanchaco. Although few people know about it, Los Herrajes offers healthy, organic food made from home-grown crops.
The story of Los Herrajes is one of many personal, instinctive decisions. In 1995, Rodolfo’s wife and Alcides’ mother, Luchita Cruz, needed a new job.
She had worked in fine jewelry, which collapsed because of the increasing popularity of gold-plated imitations. In search of a new occupation to satisfy his energetic wife, Don Rodolfo had the idea of setting up a food-related business. He didn’t have a clear vision yet and his initial ideas ran the gamut from a chicken broth business to a restaurant serving typical Peruvian food. The decision in favor of a seafood restaurant was based more on instinct than on a reasoned assessment of what the people of the area – mostly local workers – might crave as a nutritious lunch.
But although they wavered about the kind of restaurant they wanted to start for a while, from the start the whole family was determined to provide high quality food and to respect the existing food businesses in the area. They knew they had to find their own market niche and not start competing for the same customers.
Once the family decided on seafood, Alcides started visiting the docks in Trujillo, the region’s capital, at least three or four times a week to purchase fresh fish. “I had to be at the docks by 3:50 am at the latest, because the battle to get to the fishermen first and to get hold of the best fish was tough.” But buying from a wholesaler instead of from the fishermen wasn’t an option for him: “If you buy a hundred kilos of fish on the wholesale market, 50% is good, 30% regular and 20% is other kinds of fish thrown in as makeweight. So your customers are not satisfied, and a disgruntled customer is very unlikely to come back.”
Over time, Alcides has established a working relationship with some good seafood suppliers who adhere to his quality demands and sell their fish directly to him. For him, the basis of any business is maintaining open, sincere and honest relationships:
“Our suppliers know that they cannot send us fish that is not fresh, that was not caught that day, or does not have the proper firmness. We are aware that we have to pay a little more for this service, of course. In the end, the goal is not to do business for just one day, but for a lifetime.”
How a hurricane turned Los Herrajes into an organic restaurant
Turning Los Herrajes into an organic restaurant wasn’t a well-thought-out plan from the beginning. The concept was born out of need and a determination to serve good quality, healthy food.
In 1998, when El Niño walloped the country, entire crops were washed away by the waters, including the lemon harvest. This directly affected the restaurant’s menu, since one of its most popular items is Ceviche, a typical Peruvian dish of seafood marinated in lemon juice. The only lemons available at the markets were small and very expensive. After this experience, Rodolfo suggested the restaurant start growing its own lemons. And even though Alcides initially thought it was a crazy idea, he did it anyway, and was soon growing not just lemons, but cassava, sweet potato, mochero chili, achiote, coriander, bocona lentils, lettuce and passion fruit as well. He even started raising small animals.
A few years ago, Alcides received help from an unexpected quarter. A refugee family from the town of Huamachuco who had been evicted from their land asked Rodolfo if they could live on the farm in exchange for labor in the fields. Rodolfo welcomed all six family members and together they built a house on the property for them. Since that day, the refugee family participates in the entire agricultural process, their children go to school – and the Los Herrajes restaurant sells dishes made from their home-grown organic crops.
“Not everyone knows what an organic product is.”
As Alcides puts it, rather than sell a product, they sell health. They prefer to keep this to themselves though: “Once I asked some guests in the restaurant how the food was, and I took the opportunity to tell them that the ceviche had been prepared using organic lemons. One of them immediately said, “So I was right, I thought I tasted something different. It is not as good as it used to be.” From that moment on we decided to not to talk to our customers about it. Not everyone knows what an organic product is.”
A matter of principle
Hearing both these stories brought one key question to mind: Is this type of business model profitable?
“Not now,” replied Astrid. “We have to buy the tickets for one or two people to fly to the Andes, pay for a hotel, wait for the cocoa to dry and be fermented, package it, bring it to Lima, and then return by plane. So buying directly from the farmer is more expensive than buying from the factory. But it satisfies me to know that I can trust the farmer and that he trusts me. And in the future, I will not have to travel as much anymore.”
“I don’t really turn a profit, but I don’t lose money either,” says Alcides. “It is a matter of principle. I guess that there aren’t more restaurants like mine because it is not profitable. To plant and grow, you need patience and the necessary budget. I had to wait for four years before I could finally harvest my first crop of lemons.”
Alcides hopes that more restaurants that promote sustainable consumption will open one day and that people will shift towards organic production for more healthy and environmental-friendly food. To realize this dream, he is now working with the regional education authorities and has opened his farm to the public in hopes that people will come to pay them a visit.
“I don’t really turn a profit, but I don’t lose money either.”
“We need to return to small-scale farming,” Astrid agrees. “Sustainable agriculture and good soil conservation allow us to produce good quality products.” She warns against organic monoculture farming though, as monocultures screw up the natural ecosystem and destroy the soil.