Spice Man

November 16, 2012

Gerardo Castro had never considered going into business for himself. Never even dreamed it. At 40, he had worked as a security guard, a cook for work crews and even as a gardener in Toronto. Then nature played a dirty trick on him. A thyroid condition caused his body to balloon.

“Nobody would hire me. I was too fat,” he says now with a grin, displaying the 17 products with the Escarlet label. They range from mayonaise to marmelaid, from encurtidos (pickled vegetables that make your mouth water) to chileras (hot sauces that make your eyes water).

“They are all-natural,” Castro assures, with minimum tampering and no artificial flavors or colors. Located in Rincon de Cacao de Alajuela, his small company already hires helpers and has a growing market that includes the Southern Zone and Panama.

It all started back when Castro signed up for a course in food handling at the Instituto Nacional de Aprendezaje. The course is mandatory for anyone working with food, and Castro hoped it would help him get a job. “At the last class, the teacher tried to interest me in a course on herbs and spices. I said, ‘no, gracias,’ and went out to wait for the bus. While waiting, I thought about the course, went back inside and signed up.”

He admits he knew little about food when he started playing around with encurtidos and hot sauces. But soon he was liking what he made, and he dove in buying vegetables at the wholesale market at CENADA. Without a car, he still found ways to bring home 20 kilos of cucumbers, 10 kilos of cauliflower, 13 kilos of peppers and all the rest. Then, with the help of Instituto Mixto de Ayuda Social, he bought industrial cooking equipment and supplied caps, gloves, facemasks, shoe covers and the rest to comply with hygiene requirements. At the same time, he had to find markets to sell his products.

Then came a break. Teletica’s Channel 7 and the Banco Nacional sponsored a contest called Esto Prometo to promote small innovative businesses. Of almost 300 entrants, Castro was one of the eight finalists. He gained publicity through the program, and here his size was a plus. People remember the big man with the big smile.

He now sells his products at local stores and butcher shops, and has applied for a barcode so he can sell at supermarkets and chains. He has also set up displays at ferias and festivals and has been invited to participate in civic programs. One recent morning, he sold more than $140 of products through a television program in San José.

“We cook at night,” Castro says in the small kitchen full of stainless steel tables, pots, stoves and shelves. “It’s cooler, and there’s no risk of sweating. We cook up two products each night, 90 bottles of each. Our cooking aromas fill the air but nobody complains. The neighbors kind of like it.  They are our customers, too.” Helping in the kitchen are his wife Jenny and two employees from the area. In keeping with being natural, all food scraps are composted.

From his earnings, Castro was able to buy a small station wagon in which he can squeeze in cartons of Escarlet products, plus his own 250 pounds. It’s a big step up, he says, as now he can drive to his courses in business management at INA and to CENADA for raw material. If sales continue to grow, there will be a bigger car in the future.

Castro may not have his own website yet, but Productos Escarlet can easily be found on the Internet.

Gerardo Castro had never considered going into business for himself. Never even dreamed it. At 40, he had worked as a security guard, a cook for work crews and even as a gardener in Toronto. Then nature played a dirty trick on him. A thyroid condition caused his body to balloon.

“Nobody would hire me. I was too fat,” he says now with a grin, displaying the 17 products with the Escarlet label. They range from mayonaise to marmelaid, from encurtidos (pickled vegetables that make your mouth water) to chileras (hot sauces that make your eyes water).

“They are all-natural,” Castro assures, with minimum tampering and no artificial flavors or colors. Located in Rincon de Cacao de Alajuela, his small company already hires helpers and has a growing market that includes the Southern Zone and Panama.

It all started back when Castro signed up for a course in food handling at the Instituto Nacional de Aprendezaje. The course is mandatory for anyone working with food, and Castro hoped it would help him get a job. “At the last class, the teacher tried to interest me in a course on herbs and spices. I said, ‘no, gracias,’ and went out to wait for the bus. While waiting, I thought about the course, went back inside and signed up.”

He admits he knew little about food when he started playing around with encurtidos and hot sauces. But soon he was liking what he made, and he dove in buying vegetables at the wholesale market at CENADA. Without a car, he still found ways to bring home 20 kilos of cucumbers, 10 kilos of cauliflower, 13 kilos of peppers and all the rest. Then, with the help of Instituto Mixto de Ayuda Social, he bought industrial cooking equipment and supplied caps, gloves, facemasks, shoe covers and the rest to comply with hygiene requirements. At the same time, he had to find markets to sell his products.

Then came a break. Teletica’s Channel 7 and the Banco Nacional sponsored a contest called Esto Prometo to promote small innovative businesses. Of almost 300 entrants, Castro was one of the eight finalists. He gained publicity through the program, and here his size was a plus. People remember the big man with the big smile.

He now sells his products at local stores and butcher shops, and has applied for a barcode so he can sell at supermarkets and chains. He has also set up displays at ferias and festivals and has been invited to participate in civic programs. One recent morning, he sold more than $140 of products through a television program in San José.

“We cook at night,” Castro says in the small kitchen full of stainless steel tables, pots, stoves and shelves. “It’s cooler, and there’s no risk of sweating. We cook up two products each night, 90 bottles of each. Our cooking aromas fill the air but nobody complains. The neighbors kind of like it.  They are our customers, too.” Helping in the kitchen are his wife Jenny and two employees from the area. In keeping with being natural, all food scraps are composted.

From his earnings, Castro was able to buy a small station wagon in which he can squeeze in cartons of Escarlet products, plus his own 250 pounds. It’s a big step up, he says, as now he can drive to his courses in business management at INA and to CENADA for raw material. If sales continue to grow, there will be a bigger car in the future.

Castro may not have his own website yet, but Productos Escarlet can easily be found on the Internet.

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