With the exception of college, Simon del Alto has lived in Corpus Christi his whole life. Growing up in a Mexican household, his family has always been close. When he lived in McAllen for 3 and a half years during college, he said the community was more open-minded. "I grew up with that Mexican, family-oriented mentality. We get to know our neighbors, we know the people down the street, and we say good morning to everybody."
How would you describe Corpus?
Stuck. This is my city. I love it. But I feel like Corpus is stuck in many ways. We haven't seen a lot of change, really my whole life. I feel like every time we get something new, people don't appreciate it, don't take advantage of it, and go back to same thing over and over again. We don't give people opportunities because we're stuck in the same mentality. You know, it's not just breakfast tacos and Whataburger. There's more to Mexican food than carne guisada and cheese enchiladas. I guess I just wish we were more open-minded.
You know, it doesn't surprise me that you said that. One of our locals said, "clique-ish," another said "traditional," and someone I spoke to before said, "It never changes." What do you think we can do to change that?
Expand, be adventurous, and not be scared to try new things. It's a comfort thing because you go to the restaurants down your street where you know the people there. You know the waitresses, you know the cooks, and you refuse to go anywhere else because that's your restaurant -that's your family's restaurant. When a new restaurant opens up you need to go and support it. You need to give them a chance. Hopefully they can stay up for more than six months because lately I've seen a lot of restaurants that, within a year, are gone. I just feel like we need to be less scared, be more open to trying new things and letting new things come into the city.
What is it that you do?
Provide charcuterie and custom assortment platters for people here in Corpus. Cheeses, cured meats, fruits and vegetables, dips. We have anywhere from the smallest size that feeds one person up to a tray that can feed up to 10 people comfortably. I am a teacher, so Madera Charcuterie started around the last day of school.
So you're fresh? You are killing it dude!
Thank you. I never expected it to get this big so fast. May 28th I think was the start of our first weekend.
Looking at its current following, it certainly got big, fast.
Where did you come up with the name?
Madera means wood in Spanish. I was in between a couple of names with something associated with the beach in Corpus like "bay" or "shore." But right before I hit submit, I said, "You know what? Let me change it to Madera." I didn't want people to think it was seafood or only beach-related. I chose the word Charcuterie because if I called it something else like platters, people wouldn't know the focus of it. It was right before I hit submit with my business cards that I thought to change it. I didn't think twice.
What made you get started?
I've always liked food. Cooking and creating in the kitchen has always been a hobby I've enjoyed. I wanted to do something different in Corpus or something that we didn't have a lot of. And you know, charcuterie is a business that's trending right now. The weekend before I started I was laying in bed, tossing and turning all night with everything that's going on with COVID, all my school -I'm also a graduate student. So at 3 in the morning I remember looking at my phone, looking up ideas. I said, "I'm going to start a business and I need to start it soon because people are going to enjoy it." That following week I ordered supplies. Boxes were coming in of platters, platter covers... My wife was asking me, "What is all this?" I hadn't really told her yet. I told her the idea, but hadn't told her I had started. So all these boxes are coming in and I said, "I think I have everything to start." That's how my idea came to be.
My wife and my parents were the three that were supportive since the very beginning. My wife, who was my fiance at the time, asked, "Are you sure you want to do this right now?" She was concerned with COVID, the lock-down, stores running out of food, people going crazy at HEB... I said yeah, I think this would be the perfect time to start because I have time to do it. That was one of the biggest reasons- because I had the summer to do it. My parents were in 100%. There were no buts or ifs, they just said go for it. "If you want, we'll help you with deliveries, we'll be there in the morning to help you make them." All three of them were very supportive. There was no doubt that I would ever be alone in this.
HEB shortages didn't stop Simon from starting Madera Charcuterie.
You had a lot going on. You said you were a student working, a teacher, you were getting married, and all during COVID. Was there anything else?
There was a lot going on. We bought our house last July and this thing was a time machine from 1978. The lady that lived there did not remove even a single curtain. Everything was original from the house. We moved in December and it was a complete gut. I mean everything. The only thing that's original from the house now is the chimney brick. Everything else is brand new. We're still filling in the house with furniture and doing some minor things. That added to stress with graduate school, my online teaching, planning a wedding that was going to be much bigger with a different date, and then starting the business... All that kinda came together.
You never thought maybe this isn't a good idea?
No. The reason I wanted to start was because it was during my time off. I thought, "This is the only time I can start where I can dedicate all my time to it." On the other hand I was thinking, I don't want to go to the stores, I don't want people to be worried that somebody's making their food when there's a pandemic going on. I remember thinking, "My family would be buying, they know who's making the food. As long as I get one or two orders, it'll be okay." You know, I was expecting maybe 10 orders on a weekend, but we just had 40 orders. Now that I'm established, it's easier for me to teach somebody how to shop, how to make the orders. Since I went back to work, I have two people who help me. My wife works all day 8-5 so we needed help. Pretty much it's getting taken care of while I handle my real job.
Ready to-go date night boxes are sold out in minutes, a common occurrence for Madera Charcuterie.
Have you ever owned a business before?
Never. Never never never. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I was going to be a business owner in any sense. All of my ideas, creations, website, anything -I have to do at 3 or 4 in the morning otherwise I lose it when I wake up. My wife wakes up with my phone light on my face going through notes. I used to never open my notes on my phone. Now I have endless notes of ideas, grocery lists, order lists, things I need to do, things I can't forget. I never, never never thought I would be doing this.
Have you faced any challenges?
I see other businesses popping up providing similar services. When I started there were a couple here but not in the immediate Corpus area. But there's enough for everybody. There's like 25 Whataburgers and Taqueria Jalisco's and they're all full. By no means am I worried, everybody has their own clients. I like that I'm not the only one. I appreciate that there are more options to choose from but that might be a problem when it comes to like, "Are they copying the menu? Are they doing the same thing I'm doing?"
Hardly exaggerating, there are more Whataburgers in Corpus Christi than there are McDonalds-the largest fast food chain in the world. Similarly, Taqueria Jalisco is the leading restaurant in town.
Also overbooking is something I do. One time, we were cutting it close and people were starting to show up. Thankfully, we've never had a problem where we don't have it ready but it does get really stressful when I overbook. I want to say yes to everybody because I don't like saying no. Otherwise they have to wait for the next weekend and sometimes they need it for that weekend. I try my best up at 6:30 in the morning making these. And I don't mind at all as long as the customer is happy.
It's a challenge every weekend. I have to say I can't, I have to say no. That's hard for me as a people-pleaser. It's always been one of my weaknesses. I dislike when people are upset, mad, or annoyed because there's no need for that. The last thing I would want is to ruin somebody's weekend. For them to be excited about this platter and I say no I can't do it. Even with my students, I am probably the most patient teacher they will ever have.
You said you were up at 6 in the morning. How much work goes into making boxes?
Now that we know what we're doing the smaller boxes take less than 30 minutes to make. There's a lot of prepping, cutting, and organizing to make it pretty. There's also a lot of going back to the fridge because I want to keep everything cold. I'm a control freak in that sense. Everything has to be cold. I also wash my hands constantly. I lose a lot of time washing my hands because every time I touch a door knob or the phone rings, I'm running to wash my hands. It's a lot of back and forth. A small box can take anywhere from 15-20 minutes if we're really rolling with it. It takes anywhere to 45 minutes for a big box because even if we're rolling with it, even though we have a design -they asked for extra cheese or the dip didn't fit, so we have to move things around to accommodate everything they ask for. We've taken up to an hour one time when we made one of the big boxes because of everything that goes into it. For those we have to plan better, we have to prep a lot the night before. It's a giant cake box 19x14 inches. We put a lot of food in it because because I don't like the bottom of the board to be showing at all. We cover everything.
Can you see the bottom of this ginormous piece? We can't!
What would you say your strengths are?
My strengths? I'm a perfectionist. I like quality work for myself, my own things, my house. If I'm going to buy something, I'm going to buy it one time. It's the same thing for my clients. If I'm going to do something I'm going to do it right. I know I offer great products, as far as my business. As far as myself, I'm very understanding. I feel that's a strength a lot of people don't have nowadays. They get really frustrated or have a short fuse and react really fast. I'm understanding and I feel like that gets me far with a lot of people.
What do you think makes a good business?
Well, I've only had 3 months of experience but friendliness and communication skills are very important. You should know what you're saying and how you're saying it. Customer service, really. Does the staff make me want to come back to them? Because I don't have to. But do I want to?
What would you tell someone who's thinking about starting a business?
Know your market. If it's something that's not needed, it's going to disappoint you because if there's no demand for it, it's not going to work. You need to know your market, know it's not over-saturated. Play around with numbers to make sure it's worth it so you don't invest all that money. What makes you different from the rest? Why would they come to you when there's already 10 other places providing the same service? My biggest suggestion is know your market. Have something that's needed or wanted where you plan on opening your business.
What's been your favorite part of the journey?
Meeting people. I talk to everybody. I go to the store, talk to the person choosing apples, the lady behind the cheese counter. At the cashier I talk to the person in front of me, the one behind me. Everywhere I go I talk to people. I really enjoy that and I feel like this has really introduced me to a lot of neat and interesting people that I would have never had any sort of communication with. That's really been my favorite part. Getting to meet new people in the city where I live.
I would go to networking events where you meet people that day but then you never hear from them again. If there's not a service you need from each other you kind of go your separate ways and that's just how it works. This helps me keep connection because people keep coming for my services or I keep offering my services. It's helped me keep lasting relationships with people in my community.
Have there been any parts you haven't liked?
Not really but the part I like the least you could say is probably the shopping part. Sometimes things are not in stock and it's like, "I should have came sooner. Now what am I going to do?" Especially now that companies aren't producing or distributing enough. When they don't stock a product I have to go different stores. Sometimes I have to pay more for the product, sometimes I lose money, but that's just the way it is. I promised a product and I'm going to deliver it.
What's something valuable you've learned in since starting?
That things are not always going to work out the way you expect them to. You have to learn to accept the things that happen and just keep going.
When people do last minute changes we have to reconfigure it. Customers may get upset at me even though I'm doing everything I possibly can to keep them happy. You know, I'm human and there's no manpower. I wish I could do 1000 of these boards but I can only do 10. I can't control a person's emotions. Going back, I want to say, learning not to take everything so personally. I try to do the best I can to keep you happy and if it doesn't work out I'm sorry. We're humans, we have feelings, we get just as tired and frustrated.
I feel bad because there was one time I ordered a cake and got upset. I didn't take it out on the person, but behind closed doors I thought, "How hard is it to do it if I'm paying you?" Now I know that sometimes you just can't. I don't think people really know until they're in that situation.
Where would you want to be in the future?
Somewhere people can stop by any day at any time and pick something up. Open 8-5 so if you need a last minute gift or surprise for somebody it's ready for you. Right now I can only fulfill weekend orders Friday through Sunday. That's 4 days out of the week I just can't do it and people do reach out to me but I can't.
Do you think next year you'll do this full time when you get the chance?
Yes. I will try to be as involved as I can. My dad owns a landscaping business and I've learned that if the guy in charge isn't there, the quality goes down. They're never going to care as much as you do so I think I would want to be there as much as I can. Never just fully let it go and let other people work it. It's very special to me because never in a million years did I think I would be even remotely close to where I'm at now.
How do you define success?
When you're happy doing what you're doing.
What are your dreams?
My degree is environmental engineering. The way we're going with pollution, contamination, and usages of resources is something that gets to me. So my dream is to have a successful career doing good with my degree.
How can people help?
It's just consuming less. Stop getting things you don't need. Because even though you're buying a Yeti and you don't have to buy water bottles, it'll end up in a landfill eventually and take years to decompose. You don't need ten Yeti cups, one is good. And if you can go without one, then don't get it. Less consumption is a solution.
You can support Simon del Alto by following Madera Charcuterie on Facebook and Instagram. You can see their listing in Food. To support more passionate locals, visit our directory or shop.