In many families, it is common for recipes to be passed down from generation to generation. For Estrella Gonzalez and her family, recipes for tamales, pupusas and tostadas also find a place at the table of the food business.
As the owner of Estrellita’s Snacks in San Francisco’s Tenderloin, Gonzalez continues her mother’s business heritage while passing it on to her own children. The recipes, the business sense, it’s all passed on to the next generation.
“My mom told me when I was young that this would all be for me in the future,” Gonzalez said. “So it was very important for me to follow the culture and keep it alive.”
Gonzalez learned to make pupusas from her mother Maria del Carmen Flores while growing up in her native El Salvador. Her mother learned her trade from her mother and sold El Salvadoran specialties on the street along with fresh fruit topped with chili and salt. The family later moved to Mexico, learned to cook regional specialties and again sold on the street to earn a living.
When Carmen Flores moved to San Francisco with her family, she made a living making and packaging plantains and yucca chips to sell on the street. She named her company Estrellita’s Snacks. Gonzalez and her siblings grew up helping out in her endeavours.
“My mom was always a dreamer,” Gonzalez said. “She always wanted her kids to have something to fall back on when they came to the US”
Carmen Flores joined the incubator program for La Cocina, a non-profit organization that helps immigrants and women of color start their own businesses. She planned to move to the group’s new marketplace in San Francisco’s gritty Tenderloin. But she fell ill when the pandemic delayed the opening of La Cocina’s Marketplace.
When it finally opened in 2021, her daughter Gonzalez now ran the business, carefully sculpting thousands of pupusas while learning the ins and outs of running a professional food operation. She considers it a tribute to her mother, who is slowly recovering from her illness.
“So that’s why it’s very important for everyone to know that we’re not letting the company die, because that would be like letting its dream die,” Gonzalez said, sitting at her market kiosk.
Dreams got complicated as the pandemic halted life in San Francisco, thwarted plans and derailed aspirations. But one thing clicked into high gear: food delivery. Estrellita’s Snacks gained momentum, preparing some 10,000 handmade pupusas a week.
Gonzalez never shied away from the hard work or the long hours. Today, when she’s not behind the grill at her kiosk, she can make pupusas and tamales at many farmers’ markets around town.
“My mom, she wakes up super early in the morning and she works a lot of hours,” said son Angel Gonzalez. “Sometimes she comes home at eleven at night.”
Angel now works with his mother in the kiosk of La Cocina. A sister goes to business school. Gonzalez’s twin sons also work weekends at Estrellita’s Snacks. For Gonzalez, family is the secret ingredient in her traditional El Salvadoran recipes, which now have legions of fans.
“I’m very happy with them, it makes me very emotional when customers come back and tell me the pupusas are the best they’ve had,” she said. “I always keep in mind that I have to cook with an open heart as if I were making it for myself or my kids.”
Gonzalez wants to expand her business, give her children the same opportunities as her own mother, while spreading her love for her native El Salvadoran heritage.
“As a young girl I was always taught that if you want to get ahead, you can get ahead, and that language isn’t a barrier because hard work always pays off,” Gonzalez said.