Staff Columnist

Food is foundation of bridge to future

Column by Ann Macari Healey
Posted
Ann Macari Healey

As a family approaches the stand, Monse Hines smiles and offers: "Do you want a sample?"

"No," Greg Elliott says. "We know it's good." He looks at his wife. "Two zucchini, two hots?" He glances at the small container on the table. "And a thing of this stuff."

"OK," Monse says. "Thirteen dollars."

"Oh," Greg says. "Give us one more of each."

The "each" is a pupusa, a traditional El Salvadoran food the size of a small tortilla made of corn masa filled with various ingredients - in this case, beans or zucchini, corn chile poblano and mozzarella or the "hot" mirasol roasted peppers. The "stuff" is curtido, a pickled cabbage slaw, also from El Salvador.

"We tried them last summer," Greg says, "and we really got hooked on them."

And, adds his wife, Danielle, there's Monse (pronounced Mohn-seh). "She's very sweet."

Monse Hines is sweet. She is small with earnest brown eyes and long, brown hair casually pulled into a ponytail. She wears faded jeans with a blush pink blouse and a silver necklace with a medallion of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus. Her nails are bluntly cut, no polish. Her smile is friendly and easy, like the conversation with her customers, many of them regulars at this farmers' market.

But don't be fooled.

Monse Hines, 34, is bold and brave, too - so much so that she made her entrepreneurial dream come true, one small, risky step at a time. And she did it despite being a newcomer to this country, this language, this culture.

In a few short years, she has built a business that could be her family's future. In the process, she has firmly cemented the roots of her El Salvadoran home into the foundation of her new one - adding yet another cultural ingredient to the melting-pot land we live in.

"I think we all have the ability to come out ahead," she says, intently, in Spanish. "Solo se necesita un sueño." All you need is a dream.

Flavored with heaps of determination.

"No existe la suerte," she says. "Cada quien se hace la suerte." Luck doesn't exist. Each person makes his own luck.

Monse should know.

She was born in a Salvadoran town so small it doesn't have a stoplight and there are few cars, anyway. Her parents taught in a high school in a nearby city, about half the size of Colorado Springs, where she lives now with her Army husband and two daughters.

She met her husband in Germany, where she had traveled for a yearlong exchange program while in college. She wanted to learn German, so she sold her car and just about everything she owned to finance the trip. Friends took her to an Oktoberfest, and while she was dancing, Timothy Hines, stationed at a nearby Army base, began talking to her in English.

"I asked him why he was talking to me in English - we are in Germany," Monse remembers, with a smile.

Three months later, they flew home to his family in Texas and married on Thanksgiving Day. They celebrate their 10th anniversary this year.

It was in 2011 - Tim was deployed for a year in Afghanistan - that Monse's dream emerged. Her sister took her to a Whole Foods. She recalls the wonder. "Everything was so pretty," she says. "There, my vision started - a healthy product in this supermarket."

After deciding that her pupusas and curtido would be gluten-free and use only organic and non-genetically modified ingredients, she began researching on the Internet: How to get a license to sell a food product. How to make a label. How to package according to health department regulations. Who had the best prices.

Everything had to be bought in small quantities because there was little money to invest - she and Tim had decided they would not take out loans. Each month, Monse would decide how much she could afford to spend. Maybe $100 one month. She needed a Web page? Maybe $10 more another month for that.

Neighbors and family helped her navigate the English language and fill out paperwork. Her mother-in-law designed her label.

"We all have these angels who help us," Monse says.

Then she won an audience at a Whole Foods in Colorado Springs. And, in June 2012, her curtido, under the name Monse's Taste of El Salvador, first appeared on the store's shelves. The pupusas followed two months later.

"No sé como explicarlo," she says. I don't know how to explain it. "To know that a company so big wants your products - it's like being in a dreamland."

Tim got home in time to make the first delivery. He was thrilled. "She decided 'I'm going to do this' and she did," he says. "I was proud to come home and share this thing that was hers."

He describes how, for Monse, food from her country was a way to introduce herself to families in the places they lived. "She would make something from El Salvador and nobody else would have it and it was something she could share."

As a business, it does the same, opening a door between cultures. The niche "is hers and she can claim it - 'This is how my mom and my grandma made it and I'll use your ingredients to make something from my home,'" Tim says. "I think it's really cool."

These days, Monse has one employee to help her make about 7,000 pupusas a week. They work from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. out of a commercial kitchen space that is shared with five other entrepreneurs.

"We divide the cost so we can all survive," Monse says. And she buys her produce from Pueblo and Colorado Springs farmers, so that the circle of local enterprise is complete.

Her products can be found in Whole Foods in Colorado Springs, Highlands Ranch, Southglenn and Belmar, and soon in a Natural Grocers in Colorado Springs. The University of Colorado in Boulder buys about 4,000 pupusas a week to sell in its cafeterias.

"I can't believe that this has happened to me," Monse says. "I am grateful to God and to the support from this country. As a woman, too, I feel as if I've been able to better myself, that there are no barriers."

The Army has relocated Tim to Oklahoma for three years, starting in mid-July. But they have decided Monse and the girls will remain here. They will travel back and forth to see each other. The business, they hope, will be their work after Tim retires.

"We have to make the sacrifice," Monse says. "Si Dios quiere" - if God wills it, "the business can give us a better future for our daughters."

A customer approaches Monse's stand at a recent farmers' market in Highlands Ranch. "Can I try one?" the woman asks. "Which one is this?"

"Black bean," Monse says, as she slices the pupusa that has been heating on the pan and tops it with a spoonful of curtido.

"Excellent," the woman says, after a bite. "You're here every week?"

One more sale. One more convert. One more step toward a future built on a taste of the past.

Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. Her column earned first place in the 2013 Colorado Press Association Better Newspaper contest. She can be reached at ahealey@coloradocommunitymedia.com or 303-566-4110.