Mosaic Stories

    Inigo Gondra

     

    Photos by Virginia Harold

    From Bilbao, Spain to St. Louis, Missouri, Inigo Gondra knows what it is to have pride in his city. Inigo is the founder of The Croquetterie,  an artisanal, Spanish-cuisine catering company that specializes in croquettes and paella. He moved to St. Louis in 2010 from his hometown of Bilbao in the Basque region of northern Spain after his wife’s company relocated her to the city from Barcelona. Having a previously established career in Human Resources, Inigo’s eye for the future and lifelong love of cooking helped fuel his transition to catering full time in 2017. The Croquetterie also maintains a presence at the weekly Tower Grove Farmers Market as well as at many festivals held in Forest Park throughout the spring and summer. By sourcing locally-grown ingredients and through participation in local fundraisers and charities, Inigo’s community-minded business demonstrates all of the reasons he is proud to call St. Louis home. 

    Though The Croquetterie was officially launched in 2017, its inception and development go back much further. “All my life,” Inigo says, “I participated with my friends in paella contests and Spanish culinary contests.” This was in large part due to a cultural tradition in the Basque region of Spain where men typically do the cooking. As young adults, Inigo says that “one of our friends had a basement with a kitchen, a big house, and we used to go there, cook for the whole group, but just the men were in the kitchen. We’d close the door, drink some wine while cooking, and then when food was ready, put it to the table and we had dinner with our girlfriends at the time. And then we clean up everything afterwards.”

    This practice of cooking for social gatherings continued when Inigo and his wife moved to St. Louis, where they frequently brought paella to friends’ backyard parties in the spring and summer months. In addition, Inigo and a friend began representing Spain and Spanish cuisine every year at the Festival of Nations in 2013. Throughout this time, the idea of establishing his own future business was always in the back of Inigo’s mind: “You need to do what you love, and I always cook for this festival, I always cook croquettes for friends, and people like it. So even before I started doing the festival, I thought if someday in the future I become unemployed, what I will do? And I thought maybe a croquetterie would be a good option.” Beyond his passion for cooking, Inigo believed that basing a catering business on croquettes would be a profitable venture for several reasons. First, the appetizer is enormously popular in Spain -- the “queen of tapas.” Inigo believed that this popularity was transferable to American tastes because croquettes, at the basic level, are a fried “finger food” that are easily adaptable to any kind of dietary needs or flavor preferences. “Being able to adjust all the flavors of just one single product to every single customer that will show up in your store is quite unique,” Inigo says. So, in 2012, he began paying the annual fee for the web address “thecroquetterie.com” in the hopes that his foresight would someday pay off.

    And, as of 2017, it did. Now in its third year, The Croquetterie offers many catering options for pickup, delivery, and on-site cooking. When cooking paella for catered events, the presentation of the food in special “paella pans” is extremely important. “Many people will ask me to go with my paella table and paella pans and will cook in the backyard for the guests,” says Inigo, “so it’s like a performance.” He also cooks on-site at the Tower Grove Farmers Market every weekend and participates in various events in addition to Festival of Nations, such as the annual Earth Day Festival.

    As an entrepreneur, Inigo emphasizes that doing your market research and understanding your product are the two most important things for starting a business. He says that “you can have a really good idea, but you can fail because you don’t understand what people are looking for.”

    In other words, “it’s not what you want to sell, it’s what you think that people would like to buy.” After that, Inigo stresses the balance of “keeping the quality and the produce and the ingredients you want to use and the quality that you want” while maintaining the most affordable production process. He would encourage immigrants to become entrepreneurs in St. Louis because the diversity of businesses and attractions immigrants create are integral to the growth of the city.

    For Inigo, the people he has met on the road to establishing his business have played an important role in The Croquetterie’s development. The Business Counselor at the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Gabriela Ramírez-Arellano, was critical in helping his business get off the ground. She also provided him with resources to secure crucial things like commissary kitchen space and advised him to utilize the St. Charles County Library databases. These databases gave Inigo access to information about the specific geographic area he was interested in, such as what types of businesses are operating in that area and how many, as well as demographics like age, gender, and purchasing trends. “This is such great information … and I think this was key to developing my project.”

    Inigo has also found the business assistance staff at   St. Louis City Hall to be essential in helping him successfully navigate and communicate with the necessary departments. The last person Inigo credits with helping him start his business is Estie Cruz, who sells Cuban beans at the Tower Grove Farmers Market. She was critical in helping him understand “how the market behaves … what people wanted to buy, and how I should approach my products,” an education that allowed him to be “successful from day one.” Altogether, the support system and resources available within the St. Louis small-business community has been instrumental in the successful launch of The Croquetterie.

    In addition to having ample people and resources aimed towards helping establish fledgling businesses, Inigo has enjoyed several unique aspects of St. Louis which continue to nurture his company and vision. One important example of this is the city’s high accessibility, which is especially important for timeliness when transporting food products like paella to catered events. St. Louis also has a thriving food culture, which Inigo sees reflected in the proliferation of local food magazines, in the proximity to local farms, and the availability of fresh, local produce at farmers markets. “This opportunity to be here, surrounded by those fields and all those farmers that produce for you, makes things easier and gives you opportunity to do things healthier with produce you know where they are coming from,” he says. “I think that this is a very unique situation of the city.”

    Inigo finds the welcoming, collaborative, and family-like quality of both the farmers market and Hispanic communities in St. Louis to be another uncommon feature of the city that makes it a great place to run a food business. At the markets, Inigo says he tries to trade with other vendors for ingredients as much as possible because it “gives you opportunities to explore new things.” It also helps foster a sense of family at the market, something that Inigo thinks “is quite unique in the Midwest.” He says, “I don’t know if I would be able to do the same in Miami or New York City. The friendliness of the people here, I think, is a huge opportunity to do these things.” Inigo feels similarly about St. Louis’ Hispanic community: “We are very social. Extremely social … the huge community around you is like an extended family. You don’t need to say too many things -- just because you speak the language, it’s a huge opportunity.”

    Inigo’s love for the sense of community in St. Louis is evident in his commitment to participating in local fundraisers and charitable events and organizations. “I do it as much as possible,” he says, “because I think that being involved in the community is very important. And this city has goods and bads. And one of the bads is that there are a lot of people under need of food, and I think helping the city to improve this is a must. It’s not a ‘you could do it,’ I think you must do it.” Charitable organizations that Inigo has been involved with include Hope of Wings in Chesterfield, Missouri and the Ronald McDonald House Charities St. Louis. He also frequently donates leftover food to church kitchens.

    Beyond markets, festivals, catering, and fundraisers, Inigo is always thinking of what the future could bring for The Croquetterie. While he still wants to be involved in the cooking moving forward, Inigo also has a deep appreciation for the creative development and marketing work. For example, Inigo wanted to come up with creative and unusual names for his croquettes that would pique customers’ interest and give him the opportunity to explain what croquettes are, like the “I Am Not Boring” croquette. “So, this vision about the product, all the marketing that was behind this, social media, I love this part,” Inigo says. He is also always thinking of new and creative ways to present and deliver his product. This innovative spirit extends to his vision for the growth of St. Louis as well. In particular, he believes that encouraging immigration to the city is beneficial because it would increase the diversity of what the city has to offer. “When you offer, people will try,” Inigo says. “If you don’t offer, people will stay in their comfortable area. But offering, increasing people’s exposure to new things is very important for the future of the city.”