‘The best ingredient IS LOVE’Nov 10, 2021 10:07AM ● By Donna Isbell Walker
The Morales family will never forget their first customers at Pereira Bakery.
The family opened the Colombian bakery 14 years ago in Taylors, but the day they opened for business, they were still waiting for the machine that would allow them to process credit and debit card purchases. That meant they could only accept cash for purchases that day.
Those first customers bought $32 worth of bread, but as they went to pay, they realized they didn’t have cash, only a debit card, so owner Dora Morales let them take the items with the promise they would return the next day.
They came back a day later and paid the IOU, and they’ve been regular customers ever since.
“That’s the story we always tell,” said Lizeth Arango, the daughter of owners Miguel and Dora Morales. “Our very first customers, we got no money from them. But (now), they come every day.”
Dora Morales recalls that day with a laugh. “I felt so bad,” she said. “I couldn’t say, ‘Give me the food back because you have no money to pay for it.’”
The Morales family moved from Colombia to the United States in 1999, settling first in New York City before moving to Greenville a few years later. They opened Pereira Bakery in 2007.
“My husband (Miguel) was a baker in Colombia,” Dora Morales said. “He has been baking his whole life.”
They found Greenville thanks to an uncle who had moved here a few years earlier after hearing that a Colombian bakery was in need of a baker.
“He came down here and liked it, and then he invited my dad to come,” Arango said. “And they saw an opportunity to grow with their profession. Fourteen years ago, there weren’t as many Colombian bakeries as there are maybe now. So after they saw that there was a business opportunity here, then my dad was like, ‘Let’s try it out.’”
South Carolina has more than 6,000 businesses owned by Hispanic individuals, according to the South Carolina Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
When the Morales family opened their bakery in 2007, they were part of a wave of Hispanic-owned businesses, from restaurants to fitness studios to marketing companies, locating in the state.
Between 2007 and 2012, Hispanic-owned businesses increased by 71.9 percent in South Carolina, the largest increase among minority groups in the state, according to a 2019 report from the South Carolina Commission for Minority Affairs. By comparison, African American-owned businesses rose by 41.4 percent and Asian-owned businesses increased by 42.6 percent in the same time period.
After the family decided to start their business in the Upstate, Miguel Morales came to Greenville first and got the ball rolling, and the rest of the family moved here later. These days, Dora runs the bakery with her sons while Miguel works in New York City much of the time.
The family found a location on East Lee Road, not far from the intersection with Wade Hampton Boulevard, and it seemed like a good place for their business, although in those days the road wasn’t as heavily traveled as it is now.
The owner of the East Lee Road location had struggled with keeping a tenant, and it had been empty for four years before Pereira opened, Arango said.
Even though the family had been discouraged from opening the bakery in that location, Dora Morales listened to her heart, and Arango said everyone is happy that they chose the spot on East Lee.
The family owns a second bakery in Gastonia, N.C., operated by Morales’ son and daughter-in-law. And the Morales family is looking into the possibility of opening another Upstate location in 2022, perhaps in Spartanburg or Easley, and they’re also considering a location outside of the Upstate, in Columbia.
The pastries are the most popular item on a menu that also includes quesadillas, chicken wings and traditional Latin dishes such as carne asada con arepa y/o papas fritas, which is beef steak with fries and/or cornbread cakes.
Dora Morales thinks the key to the bakery’s success is “authenticity.” Most of the recipes are passed down through generations of the Morales family, so the breads and pastries and savory items have a slightly different flavor than customers would find in another Colombian bakery.
“They’re family recipes that have been passed down from my dad to my brothers that are now the bakers here, (and) my mom,” Arango said. “Although you can find the same piece of bread at a different bakery, you’re not going to get the same taste.”
For someone who’s never tried Colombian food, “I always say pastries are kind of a safe start,” Arango said. “We have pastries that are caramel-filled, and everyone knows what caramel is, but our basic caramel is a milky rather than a syrup flavor.”
Guava, a tropical fruit, is another component in many of Pereira’s pastries.
They put a priority on high-quality ingredients, “but the best ingredient is love,” Morales said.
The menu changes at least once a year, and it’s been revised twice in 2021.
“We tried to get more chicken on the menu than beef because right now the beef is more expensive than chicken,” Morales said. “I’m trying to keep the prices for the rest of the year like I have them right now.”
Two of Morales’ sons work at Pereira, and Arango grew up in the bakery, working as a waitress after school until she went away to college. Now she’s married with a toddler and a baby on the way, so she’s not as involved with the day-to-day operations of Pereira, although she manages the bakery’s social media presence.
“I have really beautiful memories here growing up. Now, customers that see me 14 years later with kids and a (pregnant) belly say, ‘Oh I can’t believe you’re the girl who served me coffee back in the day,’” Arango said. “I knew how important this was, not just for my parents but for my life, and we all worked real hard to keep it where it’s at.”
The bakery is named after Miguel Morales’ hometown in Colombia, located nearly 200 miles west of the capital of Bogota, and “my dad’s love for bread started in that city,” Arango said.
The Covid-19 pandemic has brought its own challenges to Pereira Bakery, which has eight employees.
Because the bakery was deemed an essential business, it was only closed for a week near the beginning of the pandemic, and that was because an employee tested positive for coronavirus.
That employee stayed out of work for a couple of months but has since made a full recovery. All employees received Covid tests, and the bakery did a full cleaning and sanitization before reopening, Arango said.
“I’m very blessed because I only closed for one week,” Morales said.
While no employees were laid off, Morales had to reduce the bakery’s hours to remain profitable, and business has been down somewhat. Despite the reduced hours, Pereira is still open seven days a week.
Now, inflation is making it necessary to increase some of the prices, which is disappointing to customers, Morales said.
For example, a shipment of meat that cost $1,600 last year now costs $2,900 for the same quantity from the same company.
Pork belly, a staple of many Colombian dishes, used to cost customers $4 per lb., but Morales has had to raise it to $4.50 to cover her increase in costs.
While the food is an obvious draw for customers, a mural on the exterior wall of the bakery has offered a connection to Greenville for Colombians living in other cities around the Southeast.
The mural depicts a man leading a package-laden donkey, and it resonates with people from many Latin countries, Arango said.
The family often hears comments such as “That’s my Colombia, that’s my country” from people who see the mural.
“It’s very representative of the culture of where we are from in Colombia, how we started the business in Colombia, everything carted on the animals,” Morales said.
The Morales family worked hard to create and sustain the business over the past 14 years, and that mural has helped spark interest in the bakery from non-Hispanics, but it’s also generated interest in Colombian culture in general.
“The mural represents not just the hard work of everyone from this bakery who brought this bakery up, our hard work, but it represents all of the hard work from all Colombians, all Latin Americans who know what it is to carry all your goods on an animal and go up a mountain next to your animal,” Arango said. “If it wasn’t for all that hard work, labor, we might not have a meal on our plate.”