Vicente Quintana started El Nopalito Produce in Watsonville, CA with a 30-pound box of cactus paddles and in just six years turned his kitchen-table business into a thriving concern with six employees, processing 10,000 pounds a week and distributed in more than 30 markets across central California.
Tender, young cactus leaves, or nopales, are a staple of Mexican cuisine. However, before they can be cooked and eaten they need to be trimmed and peeled and cut. It’s a time consuming and sometimes prickly process which is why most people buy them pre-packed in convenience bags. These days processing is done by machines.
That’s not how Quintana does it at El Nopalito. He and his employees still hand-process each and every cactus paddle and know that the extra effort pays off. Markets carrying Quintana’s nopales say that not only does their quality keep picky customers coming back, but his nopales have a longer shelf life than the machine-processed competitors. So marked is the difference in quality that a few markets have dumped the other brands and carry El Nopalito Produce exclusively.
However, success didn’t come overnight for Quintana, and it didn’t come alone. He may have started with a single case of cactus in 2010, but by 2013 he was struggling to process 2,000 pounds every week to meet the demands of his local markets.
At a certain point he realized he just couldn’t grow the business any larger from his kitchen and he rented processing space in a local grocery store, but still he could only do so much by himself.
Add to that, Quintana was beginning to be hassled about inspections, licenses and business plans – things he needed if he wanted El Nopalito Produce to grow enough to fill the demand that was already there.
Luckily, that’s when he partnered with El Pajaro Community Development Corporation (El Pajaro) which was developing a brand-new Commercial Kitchen Incubator – a maker’s space for cooks. The idea is that people can rent time in a commercial-quality kitchen that meets stringent health and safety regulations for a reasonable rate, drastically reducing start-up costs for small food-based businesses.
Quintana enrolled in El Pajaro’s Business Education and Loan Program, and got assistance developing his business plan and formalizing all his necessary permits. He moved into the Commercial Kitchen Incubator when it opened in the fall of 2013.
“We really took him by the hand and guided him through all the process,” said Cesario Ruiz, the Kitchen Incubator’s facility manager. He estimates that Quintana received more than 40 hours of individualized support from El Pajaro.
El Nopalito Produce got to the point where Quintana started hiring help. Business is booming thanks to a distribution deal with the Mi Pueblo grocery chain with its 19 stores in the Central Coast and Bay Area. Since the start of 2013 he’s been able to hire three more people. They now process 10,000 pounds of nopales a week, up from 2,000 pounds a week in 2013. Gross revenue increased by 230 percent from 2014 to 2015.
More importantly, Quintana now has a sense of belonging, of being a successful businessman able to support his family and build bonds in a community he loves. His nopales are sourced from a local farm. Before this deal the farmer spent much of his time trucking cases to – and often back from, unsold – area farmer’s markets. His fluctuating income made his finances unstable. Now the supplier has an assured and steady income, no small feat in this economy.
It’s a case of how communities can bolster businesses which in turn bolster more businesses and strengthen and stabilize communities in return.
As for the future, Quintana wants to stick with the cactus business, but hopes El Nopalito Produce can reach a wider market by expanding into health-oriented grocers and markets. He is currently batch-testing corn and cactus tortillas and toying with the idea of launching a line of ready-made salads.
One thing for certain, Quintana’s story shows that with a lot of hard work and some key assistance, a small entrepreneur can create profits out of otherwise thorny prospects.
Written by Cassandra Stern, a freelance writer from Albany, CA.