This London, Ont., startup serves up Venezuela's answer to the bagel

After being laid off from their jobs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, two Venezuelan women started their own delivery business specializing in arepas, a staple from their homeland.

Carla Calderon and Maria Avilan created Arepa Ink., a Venezuelan eatery specializing in arepas

Carla Calderon (left) and Maria Avilan (right) said it's a dream come true to be able to bring a traditional Venezuelan meal to Canadians. (Submitted by Carla Calderon and Maria Avilan)

Maria Avilan calls her and business partner Carla Calderon's situation "a perfect storm." 

Like many Canadians, both women lost their jobs when the COVID-19 pandemic hit back in March. Avilan worked in supply chain logistics and Calderon worked in sales. 

The experience of losing their jobs is what pushed the women to take a leap of faith and start Arepa Ink, a take-out and pick-up food business specializing in arepas – Venezuelans' answer to the bagel. 

"We always wanted to do something like this, but you know, you get in your comfort zone and don't dare to do it. And then, this time, we got together and we just went with it," Avilan said. 

Arepa 101: 'Eat them just with butter or stuff them up with ingredients'

An arepa is a cornmeal dish that can be eaten alone or stuffed with other ingriedients, such as butter, cheese, veggies and protein of your choice. The dish is a staple in Venezuela and Colombia where it's eaten during any meal. Pictured is Arepa Ink's Camila arepa filled with chicken salad and avocado slices. (Submitted by Carla Calderon and Maria Avilan)

Arepas are made with a pre-cooked cornmeal dough and are then typically grilled. They can be filled with all types of ingredients, including butter, cheese, veggies and protein. They're a prominent dish in Venezuelan and Colombian cuisine where they're eaten during any meal of the day. 

Avilan and Calderon's said they're excited to bring a part of their culture to London, Ont., through arepas. 

"We want arepas to become the new taco, the new shawarma. We want it to be a healthy and good option for people to eat, and we want people to know a little bit more about Venezuela through the arepa," Avilan said.

"As cheesy as it sounds, we want to create arepa lovers and to make people feel who we are by eating our food," said Calderon. 

These arepas also come with a twist, she added.

The women 'inject' some of the dough of their arepas with vegetable purees to hide vegetables and level up on nutrition. 

Creating a business around COVID-19 restrictions

The duo admit that starting a business from scratch during a pandemic has been anything but easy.

With hundreds of restaurants struggling to make ends meet, they said it's been difficult to round up support from banks or the government when it comes to loans, meaning they're running the business entirely on their own dime.

However, they said coming into the industry knowing about COVID-19 restrictions has helped them prioritize certain things when it comes to how they run their business. 

The women have also created arepas that are outside of the traditional combination of ingredients that are typically used. (Submitted by Carla Calderon and Maria Avilan)

"We had the benefit that, we're not adapting to COVID; we started in COVID," Calderon said. 

"So we started the business knowing, for example, that we wanted to focus on delivery and pick-up and that we needed to be really strong on social media and understanding that most people don't know what an arepa is, so how do we transmit what it is?"

"Do we explain it in writing or with images? So we were really meticulous about thinking what we wanted to do and what we wanted people to feel," she said. 

Noticeably absent at Arepa Ink. is a brick-and-mortar shop. The startup has to do without because the business partners said they were unable to find a place to lease, despite their best efforts.

"We thought that some people would be looking for new tenants, but that hasn't actually been the case," Calderon said. 

The duo said that they've been able to go without the physical storefront for now because their business model was focused on working with delivery platforms and offering pick-up as well as making occasional pop-up appearances at places like the Covent Garden Market.

For now, the women operate out of a community kitchen which they've secured for two days each week.

"The goal is to have many locations and share our culture with the rest of the world," Calderon said. 

"As a Venezuelan who has been here for over 20 years, people say things like, 'Oh, but you're Canadian now' and I'm very proud [to be] Canadian, but I will never not be Venezuelan."

"This, for me, is also a way to say 'thank you' to Canada by giving it something from what makes me, me."