Most restaurants in the city count at least one Latina on their team. They are chefs, restaurant owners, cooks, and servers. Some were raised in the region and went on to take over their parents’ restaurants, others immigrated with the dream of building their own legacies, and still more arrived with plans to work in other sectors, but wound up in hospitality.
Immigration status, lack of access to capital, language barriers, and systematic racism are obstacles that Latinas face locally. Although they’re frequently the seen as heart and soul of the businesses or kitchens, they’re often overlooked when it comes to earning promotions, stories in the media, and landing other opportunities that could help with upward mobility. Although every story is different, the following four Latina food entrepreneurs bettering D.C.’s dining scene share common denominators: grit and determination.
Yudith Bustos, Executive Pastry Chef, Four Seasons DC
Behind the exquisite pastries featured at one of D.C.’s top luxury hotels is Chef Yudith Bustos. Born in Costa Rica, Bustos trained as a chef and began her pastry chef career at the Four Seasons Costa Rica in Guanacaste. She moved to the District more than eight years ago with the company to serve as a pastry chef at the Four Seasons located in Georgetown. After a promotion, Bustos now manages a team that creates delicacies for the hotel and its flagship restaurant, Bourbon Steak. Her work has taken her to Paris and London for continuing education with Michelin-starred chefs.
Communicating is her biggest challenge. “The most significant barrier for me personally has been learning English,” she says. “It’s been a challenge to balance my demanding schedule and becoming fluent in the language.” Then there’s navigating new cultures. “I come from such a small country. Working with people from different cultures was overwhelming at first, but I’ve learned from the experience.”
Working far from home has helped Bustos to find her voice. “Sometimes, because we don’t know the language, we create our own obstacles because we don’t believe we’re good enough,” says Bustos. “I’ve been working hard on being vocal about the things I want at work and believing in myself,” she says.
When the pandemic led to staff shortages at the hotel, Bustos took on more leadership responsibilities. When Bourbon Steak was between executive chefs, Bustos helped with scheduling, purchasing, and managing personnel. “It’s been challenging to rise to the occasion, but it’s been a great opportunity to be outside my comfort zone,” she says.
Employer support is critical for any worker. “The Four Seasons believes in my work, and that has allowed me to grow,” Bustos says. Her hope for the future is to see more Latinas in leadership roles in the culinary industry. She also would like to see a more camaraderie among Latina culinary workers. “I would love to see more of us come together to create change.”
Anabella Arcay, Founder, Arcay Chocolates
Entrepreneurship runs deep in the Latinx community, especially among women. Whether in the U.S. or their native countries, Latinas often find creative ways to support their families. Anabella Arcay, founder of Arcay Chocolates at La Cosecha, is no different. Her pathway to business ownership began in Caracas, Venezuela, where, at 9 years old, she was already selling doll clothes to her mom’s friends. That entrepreneurial spirit blossomed into many different ventures until she attended a chocolate class and became enamored with the techniques. “I bought my first molds and material on credit, and I’ve been making chocolate ever since,” Arcay says.
Arcay lived in D.C. for the first time 20 years ago, when her husband was a college student. She set her sights on returning. That opportunity came in 2017 when the couple moved from Venezuela back to the District. “Having a professional background in chocolate and dozens of international awards in my craft eased my entry into this country,” Arcay says. Venezuela has been going through a political and economic crises for the past 15 years, making it unfathomable to run a business there.
For Arcay, one of the biggest obstacles has been starting from scratch. “I went from being one of the best known chocolate makers in Venezuela to having to start all over again here in the United States,” she says. “I had to make myself known and find new customers. To make it worse, I had no choice but to leave thousands of dollars worth of equipment back in Venezuela and start making chocolate exclusively by hand, reducing my output.”
The support of the local community has been instrumental for her success. “To see people come to the shop and buy one or two truffles during these challenging times, even when you know they are struggling financially, exclusively to support us, is incredibly moving to me,” Arcay says. She hopes to secure the capital necessary to hire. “Right now, it’s just my husband and I working at the shop. It would be great to have more machines to produce and be able to afford to hire more people to help.”
Gabriela Febres, Founder, Arepa Zone, Antojitos de tu Pais, and Mosaíco
Gabriela Febres, the founder and co-owner of Arepa Zone, Antojitos de tu Pais, and Mosaíco inside La Cosecha didn’t intend to go into the food business. “I am a musician,” she says. “I play the flute. I came here to study audio production and music at American University.” Born in Venezuela and raised in Miami, Febres moved to D.C. as a teenager. She began her journey into the food business with Antojitos de tu Pais, importing Venezuelan products to the region. “I like to think of myself as Venezuela’s food ambassador in D.C. and beyond—whether it refers to my restaurants or my food distribution business.”
Febres’ says she struggles with finding funding. “My mom had to cash out her 401k and give us her life savings for Arepa Zone to come to fruition,” she shares. “This allowed us to prove to our lender that we were invested in the idea and that we had some funds to get going. Even then, it took over seven months to get a loan for $25,000. I think about it, and it makes me cry because, at one point, we were ready to give away a big stake in our company to a ‘shark’ type of investor who saw the grit in us, but wanted a massive chunk of our business.”
Being a young, Latina entrepreneur comes with hurdles. “Something else I can think of is not being taken seriously,” Febres explains. “I remember all the people who told me I was crazy about my idea.” When people started to see her business grow, their perception changed. “A lot of people don’t trust a 23-year-old when they have a fantastic idea. But then when they win best food truck, food truck of the year, best Latin American restaurant … All of a sudden, your ideas mean something.”
Febres is eager for the pandemic to end so she can continue to grow her various retail and catering businesses. “I still have the responsibility of making my parents proud, which keeps me on my toes,” she says. She’d like to see more opportunities for funding for her fellow Latinas in the food industry as well as greater mentorship. “There’s never enough mentorship and not enough mentorship from other women.”
Sara Quinteros-Shilling, Co-owner, Shilling Canning Company
Sara Quinteros-Shilling, the Bolivian co-owner and director of business development at Shilling Canning Company in Navy Yard, arrived in the U.S. at age 13 with her parents. “It was a difficult transition for me not only because I was a teenager, but I also did not speak English well,” she says. Finding her way regardless of these challenges helped her later in life: “This move taught me a lot about friendship and learning to be independent, and, while I didn’t know it at the time, it also taught me to keep my head up when opening a restaurant someday.”
A professionally trained chef and pediatric metabolic dietician by trade, Quinteros-Shilling wears many hats. She continues to work with patients and leads the business development for the restaurant she owns with her husband, Chef Reid Shilling. Sometimes she struggles to earn others’ respect. “I’m continuously challenged with earning the same level of respect as my male counterparts, who hold the same or similar executive roles in our industry,” Quinteros-Shilling says. “I will often have to navigate people who don’t respond to me, who question my decisions, which can be discouraging.”
Although Shilling Canning Company focuses on Mid-Atlantic cuisine, Quinteros-Shilling finds creative ways to inject a bit of Bolivia into the menu. She added Bolivian wines and cocktails showcasing Singani—a grape-based spirit—to the drink menu, for example. Last summer, she hosted a sold-out Bolivian Independence Day pop-up featuring her compatriot, Chef Sebastian Quiroga. “I am personally lucky because I have a very supportive family, and whenever I have done programs with the Latino community, they have been well-received.”
Her hopes for the future are for women to recover from the devastation the pandemic has created in women’s advancement, especially women of color. “So many small businesses won’t come back,” Quinteros-Shilling says. “Many women have exited the workforce, and we know that Latinx workers—and particularly women—are facing an exceptionally high rate of job loss. I hope our government leaders will be able to react with authority and [find] solutions so small businesses will have the support they need.”