Some 30 years after she fled El Salvador as a refugee, Yesenia Lopez still longed for the flavors of home.
She often found herself driving around Gainesville looking for soup and pastries like she had back in Santa Ana, but she could never find them.
“I was traveling all the way to Norcross and Gwinnett to buy some of this El Salvadoran food we eat,” Lopez said. “So I thought about opening a business where we could have all this here locally for our community.”
Lopez opened La Santaneca Bakery three months ago on Queen City Parkway in Gainesville, and she said the “response has been awesome.”
In her home country, pupusas are the main dish. Thick, handmade, corn tortillas are stuffed with cheese and meat to create a deliciously warm meal served with a tangy slaw. The smell — and sound — of those fresh corn tortillas being made on the griddle, slightly charred, now float down Queen City Parkway. And it all seeps through the doors of La Santaneca.
“That’s one of the things I wanted to do,” Lopez said. “Offer home-cooked El Salvadoran food. Authentic.”
Lopez knew she would enjoy this type of work after working at a popular bakery in Norcross. After a stint there, she moved to Flowery Branch and worked at Cottrell for five years before she finally got tired of searching for El
Visitors will also find cases full of pastries at La Santaneca. Lopez calls them “breads” and said the ladies who work in the kitchen make them fresh every day. They’re pretty simple recipes: Lopez uses milk, eggs, flour and sugar.
But while the recipes are simple, the ingredients are what set La Santaneca apart and ensure the real flavors of El Salvador are never lost.
“We search for specific kinds of ingredients which makes the bread different than others,” Lopez said. “For example, the pineapple jelly or syrup we use, it’s brought from El Salvador, not store-bought.”
She offers everything from brazo gitano — a cake that has a fresh pineapple, strawberry or vanilla filling smeared across it, then rolled up and sliced to serve — to volteado de piña, a pound cake type of bread that is baked with pineapple and cherry on top. Another favorite is Maria Luisa, a layered cake that has a creamy, vanilla milk filling giving it a flavor similar to cheesecake.
Making sure those fresh flavors are always there doesn’t come easy, though. Lopez said she usually spends about 14 to 16 hours per day at La Santaneca.
“We stay busy every day of the week because if it’s not serving, it’s preparing,” Lopez said. “A business just sucks your whole time.”
She thought about hiring someone to run the bakery so she could continue working at Cottrell to ensure a stable income, but she quickly realized there was just too much to do at La Santaneca.
Those long hours are worth it to her, though. And she said that’s what it will take if she wants to be successful in opening a new location — or two or three — or simply moving into a larger building.
She was timid opening La Santaneca because it was her first time owning a business, and all she started out with was a Facebook page. But by the response she’s had from customers so far, she can tell the word is spreading quickly.
“I see that it was definitely a need,” Lopez said. “They just drive by and are curious, and they come in and they tell other people to come.”