A chef's entrepreneurial way

by Susan Malovany
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Chef Nelson 
Nelson Serrano-Bahri brings a unique culinary perspective to his hometown of San Juan, Puerto Rico in his post-corporate R&D career.
 
Nelson Serrano-Bahri is on a tropical culinary adventure. That is because he is living a dream of opening his own business after following a traditional product development career path. Last year he left his job as R&D chef at global company Unilever Food Solutions in Lisle, Ill., moved back to his birthplace of Puerto Rico, and co-founded Puerto Rico Food Innovations in the island’s capital of San Juan.

 

“Specialty gourmet products are sold in our company’s 1,200-sq.-ft. retail store in San Juan — our store is for everyone that is passionate about cooking, eating and food — but we also have a foodservice arm and a consulting firm,” Mr. Serrano-Bahri said.

Puerto Rico Food Innovations imports hard-to-find fine wines and spirits, oils, flavored vinegars, honey, pastas, spices and blends, lemon curd and other ingredients from the mainland US and from suppliers throughout Europe, which taps Serrano-Bahri’s culinary savvy from years at major US-based food companies. Puerto Rico Food Innovations also works directly with foodservice operators and is developing products for retail. That is where he leverages his R&D expertise and it’s what gives his company its competitive edge.

Raising his business acumen

Mr. Serrano-Bahri thought he was leaving his fast-paced position behind for a less-pressured environment when he left the corporate world, but he said the new business he started isn’t 9 to 5. It's now 24/7, and time is his main challenge. “There’s just not enough time in the day,” he said.

As vice president culinary innovation and executive chef of Puerto Rico Food Innovations, there is no typical day for Mr. Serrano-Bahri. “One day I can be visiting one of our [foodservice] customers on the other side of the island testing new ingredients for their products and then the next day I will be in a kitchen helping a chef with a new spice blend that we have procured for his operation,” he said. “I also work on the sales floor of our retail store because it is critical that I know what is happening, what kind of experience our customers are getting…Plus it is fun to hear firsthand what people think, especially when they don’t know I am the owner.”

The company develops customized products from the ingredients it imports for its foodservice clients, including local chefs, and takes great pride in doing so since this sets it apart from other importers. “We created a custom olive oil blend imported from California that we sell to a chain of restaurants here, for example,” he said.

Mr. Serrano-Bahri said his foodservice business and retail store business overlap in an organic fashion. A custom gourmet spice product is slated for launching in supermarkets in the coming year, too.

“Our retail store is mostly private, branded products, meaning that we sell goods under our own brand,” he said. “For foodservice, we focus more on representing and selling brands to high-volume customers.”

Understanding the market

His personal expertise is in analyzing what the ingredient market uses in Puerto Rico. “As a culinary chef, I saw the need for high-end products here on the islands,” he said. “We don’t have Whole Foods Markets here or specialty supermarkets, and the ones we have offer a very limited selection. I saw a need to procure products for the islands.”

He said US trends tend to hit later than on the mainland. “In our market, there is an enormous agricultural renaissance. Anything local, organic and deemed ‘healthy’ is a trend and important here now.”

Spicy food has just begun to emerge in Puerto Rico. “For Puerto Ricans, cuisine is not preferred to be spicy from heat, but from the use of many spices. Right now, my foodservice customers request a lot of spice blends to use in their dishes — Spanish saffron from a specific region in Spain, cloves from Morocco or hibiscus petals from South Africa, for example.”

One of the main challenges his new company faces is costs for imports and shipping to the US territory of Puerto Rico, though he has reduced costs by 50% by consolidating transportation suppliers. Manufacturing and co-packing details can depend on the client. “Many of [our clients] want their products to bear the ‘Made in Puerto Rico’ stamp, and in that case, we help them find manufacturing facilities in Puerto Rico,” he explained. “This can be hard, as there are not many, and expensive, since in some cases much of the work is still done by hand. This adds cost, so the client has to absorb that or pass it to the consumers. Other times the whole process takes place in the mainland USA, and is later imported and distributed.”

Native son

Raised in Puerto Rico, Mr. Serrano-Bahri loves its beauty and diverse ecosystem — it has the only tropical rainforest in the US, for example — and its range of cuisines. Most of all, he likes its nice people and vibrant culture, he said. He attributes his optimism, pride and love for food to his island heritage.

“My parents are both physicians, so going to culinary school was somewhat of a risk for me,” he said, “but I prefer the creative part of myself. I didn’t know any chefs, but I just knew innately that I loved cooking.”

He met his wife, Trisha, at Kraft Foods when they were interns. Before starting his own company, Mr. Serrano-Bahri learned his craft at Unilever and before that as a product application food technologist, pizza division, at Nestle USA. He learned how to deal with customers and solve problems creatively in these past positions, as well as how to develop new products, he said.

“At Nestle, for example, I created new seasonal items and flavors for the frozen California Pizza Kitchen line and also for the DiGiorno pizza brand,” he said.

As a graduate of Johnson & Wales University, Providence, R.I., he is working with the RCA membership committee to establish the first Puerto Rico RCA chapter at a culinary college. “[My culinary degree] changed my life for the better and I know it can change students’ lives here, too,” he said.

He’s on the planning committee for the next annual Research Chefs Association (RCA) Conference, too, to be held March 14-17, 2017, in San Juan, and looks forward to welcoming attendees to his hometown. “Even though Puerto Rico is part of the US, many have not had the chance to come and see what it has to offer.”

Although Puerto Rico has magnificent beaches, he says he isn’t a beach person. Going to the mountains, gardening, traveling and spending time with his wife and young daughter are among his favorite activities.

Still, his new business remains front and center. “I would tell anyone entering the R&D field or starting their own food-related business to get a lot of rest beforehand, to never lose faith, to keep fighting and to never forget about those who helped you along the way,” he said.

“Also, always take the time to refuel and sharpen your mind.”

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