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Sunday, February 25, 2024
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How I Got My Job: Connecting Top Restaurants and Home Cooks with Heirloom Corn and Masa

Graydon Herriott

Jorge Gaviria’s company, Masienda, is making a name for itself among chefs and home cooks — and building a more sustainable supply chain in the process

In How I Got My Job, folks from across the food and restaurant industry answer Eater’s questions about, well, how they got their job. Today’s installment: Jorge Gaviria.

Jorge Gaviria was raised in Miami by a Mexican mother and a Cuban father, so he grew up eating a lot of masa. It was in the tortillas, tamales, arepas, and pupusas he loved, but he never imagined that the traditional corn dough would factor into his career. Although he headed to college thinking he would be a lawyer, like his father and grandfather before him, Gaviria found his passion for food impossible to ignore, so he ditched his legal pursuits in favor of an internship at an agricultural estate in Tuscany, where he learned about vegetable farming and animal husbandry. He applied this education to a line cook position at Maialino in Manhattan, then tried his hand at front-of-house work at Blue Hill at Stone Barns. All three culinary experiences led him to his final destination: founding Masienda.

“The mission has always been to reinvent the entire masa value chain from scratch,” Gaviria explains. “Masa will be a $45 billion market worldwide in the next couple years. It’s humongous, and yet it’s a word that many people don’t know. It’s something that we all consume and yet we lack familiarity with it. My whole goal was to enable a connection and a celebration of the rich culture that surrounds masa with a strong emphasis on value-added products that are obviously masa itself.”

Since launching the company in 2014, Gaviria has achieved what he set out to do — but it wasn’t a linear journey. He began by supplying top restaurants, like Enrique Olvera’s Cosme, with heirloom Mexican corn. It took six years, a few failed attempts, and the pandemic demand for pantry staples for him to successfully break into the consumer product game with masa harina corn flour. Now, both the commercial-facing and consumer-facing parts of the business are thriving, and the company’s 2022 sourcing report outlines how the Masienda supply chain “preserv[es] community access to heirloom corn” and “embrac[es] environmental sustainability.”

Gaviria also published a cookbook, Masa: Techniques, Recipes and Reflections on a Timeless Staple, cementing himself and his company as cultural leaders in the space. Here, he shares his winding path to entrepreneurship, how he built a brand that’s becoming a household name, and where he’s found free mentorship along the way.

Eater: What does your job involve? What’s your favorite part about it?

Jorge Gaviria: I’m a glorified generalist. We now have a team, which is a luxury. People who are much smarter than me do everything from operations and supply chain management to branding and marketing. But I’m still very much tied up with the brand, so on the practical, day-to-day level, I’m inextricably linked to branding conversations and content ideas. The lion’s share of my time goes to performance marketing because it’s an area that I really wanted to understand better and it’s a significant driver of the business. It’s been an unexpected delight.

I’m also chief culture officer. I’ve learned from attrition that we’ve had in the past how to really build a team that’s built to last as opposed to just get us through from milestone to milestone. Masienda is something that people are really proud to be a part of and celebrate every day that they come into work.

What was your first job? What did it involve?

After college, I taught for two years with AmeriCorps in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, while prepping for the LSATs and trying to figure out how to get into law school — while also trying to stall it. The school used project-based learning, so we would have to find ways to bake in vocational programming within the academic setting. I realized that so much of the work I did with kids was really programmed around food and just bringing math, language, everything to life in a really relatable way.

How did you get into the food industry?

The tipping point for me was reading Danny Meyer’s book Setting the Table. There’s this moment the night before he was going to take the LSATs when his aunt and uncle convinced him to pursue a career in hospitality instead. He actually went to Italy right after that and I was like, I’m going to do the same thing.

I had no plan, no money, but found a way to parlay my interest into an internship with a group called Spannocchia, where I wasn’t getting paid, but I got free room and board to live in Italy for a year, which was amazing. It was a 1,200-acre agricultural estate that’s really focused on the preservation of heirloom vegetables that are endemic to the region and heritage breeds of animals. It was very important for me to get that experience to set me up for what came next.

What was the biggest challenge you faced when you were starting out in the industry?

It was actually a connection from the teaching job that got me a job at Danny Meyer’s restaurant Maialino. My biggest goal for working in a restaurant was to feel technically capable of controlling the most important lever in my life at the time, which was food and my next meal. So I chose to work in the kitchen, taking a pretty big pay cut; my starting wage was $10 an hour. It was a really sobering experience. But if I was willing to work for what felt like nothing, I knew it was the right place to be and it was the happiest I’d ever been.

I joke about it now, but I didn’t play team sports growing up. I didn’t carry around — and still don’t have — a particularly macho brand of energy. I wasn’t in a fraternity. I didn’t really go out at all in college. I was pretty introverted. And I think there was an initial culture shock when I started in kitchens. There’s a need to fit in because it’s survival. You really depend on each other and the love language is, “Let’s have a beer and spend hours just decompressing after work together.” That was not — and still is not — me. I’m early to bed, early to rise. So that took some adjusting and felt at odds with who I naturally am.

What was the turning point that led to where you are now?

After about a year at Maialino, I knew I didn’t want to work in the kitchen anymore. They had offered me a chance to become a sous chef, but I didn’t want to be responsible for a menu every day. Once I got to the hot line — which was the major merit badge for me — I was like, I’m good. I know how to cook for myself. I saw, I conquered, now let me scratch that other itch of being in front of guests and having that connection.

I applied for the Blue Hill at Stone Barns F.A.R.M.S. front-of-house apprenticeship for restaurant management service and they accepted me for that position. I was there during the heyday of the celebrity chef. I was surrounded by and serving my heroes on a daily basis. I was intoxicated by this exposure to great ideas and creativity. There was this one event called the G9 Chefs Summit and some of the greatest chefs in the world were invited: Ferran Adrià, Harold McGee, Enrique Olvera, Alex Atala. It was a who’s who of that moment and I was getting insider information on what the future of food was going to look like.

I thought, “If the major conversation is around being intentional about sourcing and being actively involved in supply chains, this is a theme that’s going to reverberate for years to come. Let me start a company that speaks to this and that feels personal to me.” Applying that theme to Latin food was the no-brainer. The foods that I grew up eating were underrepresented and under-indexed in these conversations. I wanted to see that ethos applied to that category and create a brand around it.

Do you have a mentor in your field?

Never underestimate the power of deep dives on the internet to scratch that mentorship itch. You can really learn a lot from how people you admire show up in interviews, how they represent themselves on social media, and how they’ve built their companies. I am the king of plundering the internet for free mentorship from people who don’t even know it. And it’s been one of the things I enjoy most about this self-taught experience that I’m on.

When was the first time you felt successful?

The initial idea was to start a tortilleria in New York. I wanted it to be fueled by the best corn in the world, which is found in Mexico. I needed to go there and meet with people to set the supply chain up, so I spent about six months researching and reached out to Enrique Olvera to say, “I’d like to start a tortilleria and I hear you’re starting this restaurant, Cosme. Can I make your masa and tortillas with this yet-to-be-opened, yet-to-exist concept that I’m doing?”

He got back to me the day I arrived in Mexico — I hadn’t heard from him for months — and was like, “Yeah, I don’t want your masa, though. I want to do it in-house, but if you have the corn, we’ll buy your corn.” It was a bit of a detour, but I had to find a way to build a supply chain anyway. Why not do it with a customer who’s going to help build that volume?

The first moment of success was the first check I got from Cosme for about $6,000 for a large order of corn. I was financing the inventory with deposits. That was their deposit for the whole year and when they came through with that, it was just a hugely validating moment. I had transformed an idea into something that fundamentally had value. And it was compounded by the fact that we were successful in communicating the mission of what I was so passionately trying to do, which was to build this entire awareness, education, and product from the ground up.

Did you have any setbacks? What were they?

It took us a while to build a supply chain, then scale that into something more accessible for the everyday consumer. Creating a supply chain in a place where there is no infrastructure is incredibly difficult.

Corn is not a cash crop in Mexico; it’s a subsistence crop. It’s different from the spice trade or cacao trade because it’s not a commodity in Mexico, where it’s grown for household consumption. It’s meant to feed the family and the culture and the tradition. And there’s zero infrastructure in those places. There are no pallets to put bags of corn onto, there’s no cleaning equipment, there is no anything.

It feels like we’ve been at it forever, but the majority of the time has been spent building a scalable, sustainable model for how to do this across Mexico. And that is, without a doubt, the hardest thing. And it remains tough. It’s gotten easier and we’ve worked out a lot of kinks. But I’m still humbled by just how ambitious this undertaking is. It isn’t a commercial farm that we work with. It’s a different scale.

How did the pandemic affect your career?

In 2020, I was getting restless. It had already been six years. Lots of attempts at finding the consumer product to scale hadn’t worked. I was honestly thinking about potentially stepping away from the business at some point and finding a way to let it run on its own with the teams in place that were in Mexico. I thought the last thing I needed to do before leaving was write a book. But there’s so much knowledge that we’d gained that hadn’t been shared. At the very least it would be the legacy of this company, whether it survives or doesn’t.

We got a book deal in March 2020 and then the entire world stopped. Our entire business stopped because all of our customers were food service. And we had bought over a million pounds of corn and didn’t have anywhere to sell it. We reduced our staff to just two people. We were like, “We just need to find out a way to exit this gracefully because we’re toast. And at least I’ve got this book deal to keep me engaged while the world ends.” It was bittersweet.

What we didn’t expect was that people started to purchase food like never before. Staples like beans, corn, and masa were very much a part of the pandemic pantry-building. And we could not keep up with orders. We only had a very basic e-commerce platform that was meant to monetize samples for chefs, but then home cooks started buying from it. We thought it was a fluke, but six months went by and the volume kept holding. We thought we needed to seize this opportunity because this was it.

We were handed the pivot that we were looking for all along, so we used that — and the book — as a chance to secure financing with an institutional partner who was really excited about the opportunity and the direction that we were looking in, which is masa harina, the dry, powdered form of masa. The cultural moment had also shifted to be more inclusive and representative of different voices and stories that hadn’t really been told.

We grew up in restaurants and the hospitality industry, and we still very much identify with that, but the education has really broadened and expanded beyond that core wholesale consumer to a home consumer. And so we’ve sort of married the experience into a direct-to-consumer retail omnichannel brand that has masa at the center of everything it does.

How are you making change in your industry?

On a micro level, serving as a resource to aspiring entrepreneurs is thrilling. It’s always really fulfilling to see other brands that are inspired and very successful because of this first step that Masienda took. On a macro level, Masienda being a change agent to get people to become active consumers as opposed to passive consumers is what drives me probably consciously and subconsciously every single day. Masa is a global phenomenon and has a huge impact. And being a leader in teaching others how to consume that is an enormous honor.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Morgan Goldberg is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.

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