A gentle sea breeze is carrying a delicious scent out of Pan de Vida. Carrot breads, sourdough and cinnamon-raisin loaves are piled on an antique wood table. Chocolate-chip and peanut butter snicker-doodle cookies entice customers from behind glass shelves. This is the only brick-oven bakery in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua. And its owner, Eric Slater, knows that timing is everything.
Four hours is how long it takes to ready the oven. Noon is when the focaccia bakes. Breads and cookies that haven’t sold in 24 hours—and there aren’t many—are marked half off.
In 2008, the time felt right for Eric and his wife Stephanie to leave their Chicago jobs—his in an auto body shop and hers in human relations. They spent nine months traveling Central America, from Panama to Belize, from beaches to mountains. “But we never found good bread,” Eric says.
That gave them the idea to open their bakery. Eric and Stephanie chose to settle in San Juan del Sur, on Nicaragua’s southern Pacific coast for its growth potential, and for what Eric dubs its “small-town, big attitude.”
San Juan, population 18,500, seems to linger in a perpetual coming of age. Even as foreign investment grows, unnamed streets mean that official addresses are often marked by proximity to the sole church or gas station. Travelers from around the globe trickle in steadily, creating an intersection with the locals between an old world of ox carriages, and the new one of mobile phones and Internet.
The first step for Eric and Stephanie in starting their business was to establish residency. Though it is not necessary to establish residency in order to own a business, the alternative is to register the establishment under a Nicaraguan’s name. Eric and Stephanie wanted to own Pan de Vida in their own name, and traveling out of the country every 90 days to renew a tourist visa isn’t good for business.
Once the Slaters found a place to rent they built a kitchen and storefront. To save on costs, they traded services, bartering baked goods in exchange for carpentry work and drawing on his background as an artist, Eric designed and built the brick oven.
Pan de Vida opened its doors in 2008. In the early months, the Slaters got bake times wrong, burned breads and had to change recipes to more closely match consumers’ demands. Stephanie recalls the challenges of those early days as “adventures.”
Things started picking up as they let go of their original ideas for multi-grain and flax breads and responded to the tastes of their customers—most of whom turned out to be Nicaraguans.
“We had awoken a sleeping giant,” Eric says, referring to the unaddressed craving for quality sweets and breads that now brings customers to his door.
Today, Eric goes to the capital Managua every other week for special ingredients. Many staples, like flour, are delivered by vendors, and most of his other ingredients can be found locally.
The bakery carries daily varieties like wheat, French and sourdough breads along with specials like cornbread. Two years after opening, Pan de Vida is a local favorite. The bakery’s customer base includes middle and upper class locals and Nicaraguan vacationers, commercial establishments such as restaurants and resorts, expats, and tourists who learn about the “special bread” on the streets or from the local newsletter.
There is now talk of expanding to Managua, where the demand for Pan de Vida-quality bread is strong, spread through word of mouth by Managuans vacationing in San Juan del Sur.
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