When Coco Sotelo pulls up a seat at the table, there’s an instant warmth and familiarity that emanates from her. The mother of three girls (13, 10, and 3 years old) has a tendency to make everyone feel like family, and as she talks about the path that led her to create Gaona Granola, a line of handcrafted, healthy granola cereals, it becomes clear that her friendly demeanor is as effortless as her delicious baking abilities. The business is deeply rooted in the notion of family – not only is it a labor of love to feed and nourish her family as well as families throughout the Charlottesville community, but Coco actually drew the idea’s inspiration directly from her family, specifically her startup-minded daughter. The eldest Gaona daughter, now 13 years old, possessed an innate entrepreneurial desire from a very young age – perhaps a subconscious legacy from Sotelo’s business-owner parents back in Mexico. She begged her mother for years to open a family cupcake booth at Charlottesville’s local farmer’s market, but Sotelo had a few concerns. Not only was she opposed to starting a business that provided her children – and others – with sugary, low-nutrition snacks, she also worried about fitting in a baking business amidst the family’s already-hectic schedule. “For years, I was telling her no, it’s not our time, we’re too busy,” Sotelo recalls. The three girls, all avid dancers, already spent hours at ballet classes each week, and as they got older, the demands of their dance training became even more intense.
A few years ago, the family schedule got so crowded that it came to a point at which, some nights, Sotelo’s oldest daughter wasn’t making it home until around 9:30pm. “I started thinking about how the girls could get a healthy snack or meal even when they’re not with me.” In addition, the tight-knit family was accustomed to catching up with each other over family dinners each night. Now that their schedules had changed, Sotelo was looking for a new way to spend quality time with her girls, and baking had always been a ritual they’d all enjoyed together. Much like Sotelo’s infectious energy and spirit, what started as a simple family hobby and healthy snack slowly spread to other families they encountered during their daily routines. Her daughter began bringing bags of granola to her fellow dancers and eventually started sharing it with classmates at school, many of whom became trusty customers for the budding business.
In the spring of 2016, the whole family rallied around the launch of Gaona Granola’s artisan products at the Charlottesville City Market, the culmination of Sotelo’s daughter’s long-held dream and a new, growing entrepreneurial aspiration for Sotelo herself. When she speaks about the future of her business, she first shares the hope that they will soon be able to expand their reach within Charlottesville and join the shelves of a few local retailers. But then, she turns to a more personal ambition, and the familiar warmth quickly seeps back into her voice. Originally hailing from Mexico, Sotelo’s ultimate vision involves bringing other members of the Latino community into the fold, giving them a pillar of support and a financial opportunity that can often be hard to come by. “These women come in and have a lot of barriers…I know too many women having trouble finding jobs here, and I know how they feel staying home all day. I want to offer them the possibility to work but still feel ‘at home’ at their job. I want to have them feel like they’re a part of the family.”
Ultimately, both her business and her granola recipes reflect her own unique blend of Mexican and American cultures. While some of her products pull heavily from traditional Mexican flavors (for instance, Abuela Isabella’s Nut-Infused Granola) and even contain nods to Mexico’s Mayan heritage (in particular, her Chocolate Chia variety), others are decidedly more American (Pumpkin Spice) and reflect the U.S. view of granola as a mix-and-match snack rather than solely a traditional breakfast meal. Soon, Sotelo hopes to launch a Charlottesville-inspired recipe as a tribute to the town she calls her “second home.” The idea, which originally came from her husband (the business is truly a full-family affair), shows the deep roots they’ve developed here – “we love growing our family here. We owe something to Charlottesville and want to do something honoring [the city].”
New ventures often seem to struggle to find the perfect name to encapsulate their product, and for Coco, it was no different. She remembers tossing around tons of variations, but for a while, nothing felt quite right. But the name she ultimately settled on, Gaona, which is the surname of her husband and daughters, is not just an arbitrary label, it is an acknowledgement of the deep roots that brought this family together around the oven, and it’s also an invitation they extend to everyone who tries this product – come join our family.