By Cat Johnson (thefreelancecat.com)
Raising nine children on a family farm in a small Mexican village, Cesario Ruiz’s mother had her hands full feeding everyone. She would wake up at 5 o’clock in the morning to make breakfast for the family and get the kids off to school, have lunch ready when school let out in the afternoon, then have a family dinner at night.
“Activity in the kitchen was a nonstop thing,” says Ruiz, founder of My Mom’s Mole, a local culinary startup that makes refrigerated mole powder. “There was no rest time for my mom.”
One memorable day, his mom was feeling sick and Ruiz offered to make the family meal with her guidance. She agreed and talked him through making green beans and eggs from a nearby chair. Ruiz was just 11 years old at the time. The experience marked the beginning of his love of working with food.
From then on Ruiz participated more in the kitchen activities, helping with meals when he could. It wasn’t something he did every day, but, as he puts it, he became more present in the kitchen
“Working on a farm,” he says, “you had your own duties to do outside of school. I would have to go feed the goats or go milk the goats or anything like that, then school, then the homework. I pretty much had a busy life from the beginning, but whenever I had an opportunity to get my hands on the kitchen, I did it.”
Ruiz’s love of hands-on learning in the kitchen led him eventually to a position at Gayle’s Bakery in Capitola, where he continued his experiential education and learned how to produce a variety of foods using top quality ingredients. He learned how to develop recipes, how to stay consistent, how to work efficiently in a small space, and how to continually improve recipes and products—all qualities that have made Gayle’s a local favorite. As Ruiz says, “We know that everyone loves Gayle’s Bakery.”
From Gayle’s, Ruiz went on to manage a kitchen at New Leaf Community Markets. It was there that he learned about the administrative side of food creation, including managing employees, understanding profit margins on recipes, and keeping customer costs reasonable.
Building from his experiences at Gayle’s and New Leaf, Ruiz wanted to start a business of his own. A chance encounter with Carmen Herrera-Mansir, executive director of El Pajaro Community Development Corp which runs the Commercial Kitchen Incubator Program in Watsonville, led to a part-time position managing the kitchen incubator. It proved to be the perfect platform for Ruiz to launch from.
Armed with an idea, a passion for food, and a list of ingredients that his mother left when she passed away, Ruiz created My Mom’s Mole by transforming his mother’s ingredients into a mole recipe of his own. In creating his own recipes, he pays tribute to his mom, and honors the lesson he learned as a young boy making green beans and eggs for his family—that he can make delicious creations of his own.
“That’s the way I wanted it to be,” he says. “I didn’t want to reflect anything from anybody else. I wanted something that was going to be built from the bottom up by me. I took the challenge and even though it was a small challenge, I felt like it has more meaning to me knowing that I was able to develop it.”
Now two and a half years in, My Mom’s Mole is a local culinary sensation. The mole powder can be found online, at festivals, and in several stores around the Santa Cruz and Watsonville area, including New Leaf Community Market, Staff of Life, and the Corralitos Market and Sausage Co. Ruiz uses responsibly-sourced ingredients and buys local whenever possible. Growing up in a small village that was a 40 minute bus ride away from any ingredient shops, his family worked with what they could find or grow locally. He brings this same approach to My Mom’s Mole.
“Working with what you have around, you should be able to provide a good, quality product,” he says. “I can buy pumpkin seeds and almonds from China because they’re always available, but that’s not what I want to do. I want to continue using local ingredients as much as possible.” He adds, “It just makes sense to buy your products from local sources. I don’t want to send any money outside of my area if I don’t have to because, at the end of the day, we want to continue building a healthier economy.”
In addition to My Mom’s Mole, Ruiz teaches Mysteries of Mole Unlocked!, a monthly class at the kitchen incubator that features a different mole recipe each month. He also mentors other entrepreneurs in the incubator space, helping them navigate the complexities of the food industry, from sourcing, preparation and packaging to business plans, marketing, accounting and more.
The leadership role suits him perfectly as he’s a natural at sharing and community building.
“I think we are making a huge impact in the community,” he says. “For me, it’s about always keeping that long-term vision and sharing the information that you know to help others get where you are, and get even further.” He adds, “We’re starting to see some very successful stories from the kitchen and that’s the motivation to keep doing it—to keep sharing whatever information you have with newcomers, to inspire them and encourage them.”
In recognition of Ruiz’s contributions to the community, he has been named the 2016 Nexties Entrepreneur of the Year. Receiving the award came as a shock to him and he says he’s very honored and humbled to receive it. The public acknowledgement is also a reminder of his commitment to the community.
“I want to do as much as I can locally because this is the community where I want to continue growing,” he says. “If I’m successful in the business, I want to put Santa Cruz and Watsonville on the top of the list because this is where everything started.”
Like his mom before him, Ruiz now has his own hands full creating food, teaching, managing the incubator, and growing My Mom’s Mole. For him, keeping everything going is a matter of staying true to himself and his vision.
“I’ll continue being who I am, not lose my essence, not lose my goals in life, and just keep doing what I’m doing because it’s worked so far.”
The 2016 Nexties takes place on Friday, April 8 at the Rio Theatre. Tickets and more information at Event Santa Cruz.
Cat Johnson is a freelance writer and content strategist. She helps purposeful businesses tell their story with content. Get content marketing tips at thefreelancecat.com. Follow @CatJohnson on Twitter.