Young mum Francine Pinhal tells Liz O’Reilly how she is turning her love of cooking into a unique, 100-per-cent expat-owned, business.
Brazilian Francine has been supplying friends and word-of-mouth customers with her homemade Brazilian cheese buns for around a year and a half but when demand went from 150 pieces a month to more than 2,000, she knew it was time to expand.
The mum of two came to Bahrain 10 years ago and has been involved in the food and beverage industry for around 15 years. She was initially working with a Brazilian restaurant franchise before making the move into real estate, where she met her husband, who is also Brazilian.
In time she became pregnant with her daughter Lilie, now five, and the couple took the decision that she would be a stay-at-home mum. But, says Francine: “I found myself with a tiny bump and a lot of time on my hands.”
It was the first season of the Amwaj Marina Markets and she decided to bake some Brazilian cheese buns – an everyday food in her home country that is not found here in the Middle East – and, since then, she has never looked back.
She says: “I came home with a lot but I also sold a lot. I did five or six markets and, before long, I became known as the Brazilian cheese bread lady.”
She built up a following both at the markets and on Instagram but thought business would die down when Lilie started school and the family moved to Saar. However, orders in fact went from strength to strength.
Francine explains: “I started off making between 100 and 150 cheese buns a month but by the time my little boy Enzo, who’s three, was starting nursery 18 month ago, I was producing 2,000, all in my home kitchen!
“I had reached the point where I was just overwhelmed. I sat down with my husband and said ‘We either have to expand properly or accept that it can’t get any bigger.’ We decided to expand.
“Initially I thought I needed a Bahraini partner to set up a business. I had a partner but he had to pull out. However, at that point, there was a window in which non-Bahrainis could apply for a licence and I was very lucky to fall into that category – I believe this has now changed but my application was already in process.
“It’s been a long journey. Because it’s food you have to deal with virtually every ministry to make sure all the regulations are covered. But we got there in the end and I’ve now launched a factory in Salmabad.”
Francine’s buns are currently sold in Words Bookstore Café but she is also talking to supermarkets and still has many individual clients. She also wants to grow further and take her Brazilian cheese breads across the Gulf via her new company, Chipa.
She says: “I do other things but the cheese buns are the main thing. They’re not new; if you speak to any Brazilian, they know them. In Brazil, if you have a coffee, you have a cheese bun; if a guest arrives at your home, you take a packet out of the freezer and put them in the oven.
“But I have developed my own recipe and I love it that friends who travel to Brazil tell me mine are better than those of some of the biggest companies selling them there.
“I think you can taste that what I do in the kitchen comes from the heart. I can’t describe how I feel when I am cooking but that energy comes out in my food. I was very privileged to realise my passion quite early; my happy place is in the kitchen. It’s a big family thing; I have Italian on both sides and the kitchen is where we all get together.
“I believe I was put in the world to bring happiness through food, and that’s what I do.”