By CAITLIN ESCH
Her first year in business, Cristina Besher got divorced, had a root canal and sprouted her first grey hair.
“I thought: I can’t go on like this,” said the 44-year-old founder of Kika’s Treats, high-end sweets sold in specialty stores across the city. But one year later, things are looking up for Besher. After a sluggish summer caused a 50 percent decline in sales, business is better than ever.
“It’s an expensive product,” Besher acknowledged. “And it’s a seasonal industry—chocolate sales go down in summer months.”
Brazilian native Besher, who moved from Sao Paolo to San Francisco in 1999, is the second immigrant to graduate from La Cocina, a nonprofit training program for low-income businesswomen on Folsom Street.
Since La Cocina’s inception three years ago, the program—financially supported by the Women’s Foundation of California—has given 24 applicants the space and skills to realize their business plans. Besher, accepted in 2006 to the program, has perfected her plan, and is one of the first participants to start a sustainable business.
“I call La Cocina ‘la madre’,” Besher laughed. “They help the businesses from zero to five years old, like a mother raising kids to deal with the outside world… It wouldn’t have been possible to start this business without La Cocina.”
Though Besher isn’t the typical Latina trainee—she’s college educated and studied English before emigrating—she easily met the financial requirements.
“When I came here, I started at the bottom,” she laughed. “And I’m still there.”
On a Tuesday afternoon last fall, the Brazilian baker finished the latest load of Kika’s Treats, a 20-case order of chocolate-covered sweets wrapped in fashionable packaging. She had begun work at the lofty studio space at 23rd and Third streets before 8 a.m.. Now, eight hours later, with machines whirring in the background, the hallway smelled of spiced chocolate. With her dark hair swept back in a vibrant bandana, Besher stood beside the Enrober, her latest machine. As it coated handmade honeycakes in a smooth shield of chocolate, spitting them out through the blower, Besher plucked each for individual inspection. Only the perfect made it to packaging; the rest would be hand-fixed.
Before an investor purchased the $37,000 machine for Besher, she was coating chocolates by hand, a labor-intensive process that sucked up so many hours, she was forced to turn down new accounts.
“The difference is exponential,” Besher said. “I can make 100 times more now.”
Drawing from recipes used by her late mother in Brazil, Besher’s line of sweets—including Brazilian honeycakes, espresso cardamom shortbread, and caramelized graham crackers—is sold in stores like Bi-Rite, Rainbow, Andronico’s and Whole Foods. A five-ounce package of chocolate graham crackers retails at $7.50.
Besher never imagined she would own her own business.
In college, she studied economics and marketing. Her first job after graduation was for an American company that produced pesticides—a move the environmentally conscious businesswoman laughed off as “ironic.”
Kika’s Treats combine talents inherited from each parent. Besher’s father—who gave her the nickname Kika as a child—is an entrepreneur who started his own Teflon business, while her mother was a housewife and avid baker.
“Even though she was a housewife, she disliked cooking,” Besher remembered. “She had too much energy; she was frustrated. She cooked three meals a day—I would kill myself. But baking was something she really enjoyed.”
As the afternoon wore on, Besher experimented with new flavors, combining sweet and savory, crunchy and smooth. Always on the lookout for product improvements, Besher brainstormed aloud about the future of the line.
“I might add a couple products, I might remove one,” she said. “Shelf space is something you have to fight for, so I’m playing with some ideas.”
Sales have been slowest for espresso cardamom shortbread, a dessert Besher might retire.
“People don’t buy what they don’t know,” she reasoned. “And people don’t know what cardamom is.”
Besher’s nearly vegan, organic treats use only locally grown and manufactured ingredients and packaging.
“It’s a concern of mine—making this a viable company in every aspect,” she said. “I’d love to leave the smallest carbon footprint possible…I could be using cheaper ingredients, but you get what you pay for.”
After landing in San Francisco, Besher skipped from job to job in the restaurant industry: a prep cook at La Mediterranee on Fillmore Street, a pastry chef at Indigo Restaurant on Mcallister Street, and a baker at Miette Cakes in the Ferry Building.
These days, working for herself, Besher has discovered how difficult it is to make a living off high-end products. She only recently began paying herself a $1,000 a month—a salary that doesn’t go far in the Mission District, where she lives in a rent-controlled apartment.
Kika’s Treats has yet to make a profit. Pricy rents, startup costs, supplies, and two part-time employees have Besher barely making ends meet. Still, she said, it’s worth it. Starting out, Besher overcame one of her greatest challenges—securing a line of credit—and was eventually approved for a small business loan from Working Solutions, an organization that offers microloans to Bay Area startups. The $4,000 loan coupled with $8,000 in savings enabled Besher to put her business plan in action.
“Having your own business, it’s such a good feeling of self-fulfillment, of accomplishment,” she said. “Even if I go bankrupt, it’s worth it. Oh, I hope I don’t go bankrupt.”
Besher recently began renting a corner of her large studio space to Anastasia Hagerstrom, owner of Sweet Revolution Caramels. Hagerstrom also applied for a spot at La Cocina, but was denied.
“She helps me,” laughed Hargerstrom, as she sampled a piece of Besher’s chocolates. “She went through the training program, so she gives me lots of advice.”
Caleb Zigas, Director of Operations at La Cocina, said Besher’s relative success is an inspiration to program participants.
“Her business bridges the best of both worlds,” he said. “She manages to combine a focus on bottom-line and self-sufficiency, with a care for the world that’s often at odds with plans for profit.”
Though 2007 was a relatively good year, May through August of 2008 brought slow sales and not a single new account. After hiring a distributor to peddle her product, Besher said sales are improving. Last month, she filled an order of 90 cases of sweets—her largest ever.
Kika’s treats—originally only available in select stores the in Mission District—can now be found as far south as Santa Ynez. Soon, Besher predicts her sweets will be in specialty stores in West Coast states.
“San Francisco is a culinary mecca,” she said. “People come from all over and bring back what they like, so it has some cachet.”