Picture this: You walk away from your creative biz (that you poured your blood sweat and tears into for years) and you move to a new country and start a new business from scratch. Oh, and in the process, you get married. Sounds like a lot, amirite? Well, our gal Andrea Alvarez Reno tackled all of that like a boss! She’s coming on the show today to share about her journey to opening ” Andrea Reno Calligraphy & Cakes” where she serves the Wedding and Event Industry with confections and calligraphed paper goods. Plus, she’s chatting about her newest adventure: opening a pizza and pastry cafe in downtown Chicago, along with her husband, where she will be selling custom confections.
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More about Andrea:
Andrea Alvarez Reno was born in Honduras, Central America where she started as a self-taught cake artist. Right after graduating college with a Bachelor’s Degree in Business and Industrial Administration she opened her first cake studio. Four years after opening the business she wanted professional training which led her to obtaining a Certification in Cake Designing at the world renowned “The French Pastry School” here in Chicago, where she studied under some of the biggest names in the industry such as Sebastian Cannone, Jacquy Pfeiffer and Nicholas Lodge. A year later Andrea got engaged and moved to the US for good. In Chicago she has worked as Lead Cake Artist in two of the most prestigious cake studios in the city. She has done cakes for many celebrities and has been on Tv shows for The Food Network and the Cooking Channel.
On the calligraphy side she also started as self-taught back in Honduras, ten years ago, after finding a book in her University’s bookstore, but has been doing lettering since she can remember. After moving to the U.S., she immediately started taking professional classes with some of the biggest in the industry, such as David Grimes, Yves Letterme, Harvest Crittenden, John Stevens, John Decollibus, Elmo Van-Slingerland and Mike Gold to mention a few, and started expanding her knowledge of letters and discovering new interests like Illumination, Engrossing and Illustration. She is also a self taught painter and illustrator and has had the opportunity of illustrating a book and working with brands like Crayola, Netflix, Cartier and others.
Today , Andrea owns ” Andrea Reno Calligraphy & Cakes” and serves the Wedding and Event Industry with confections and calligraphed paper goods but is also in the process of opening a pizza and pastry cafe in downtown Chicago, along with her husband, where she will be selling custom confections.
Andrea, you’ve obviously had businesses in multiple different locations. What situation has been the hardest to “restart” in and why?
That had to be, when I first moved here, it was so out of my comfort zone, I had to close my business in Honduras. Uh, when I was moving here, I knew it couldn’t stay open, so it was just closed. And then when I moved here, I had to relearn everything, everything, I mean from, you know, how to talk to people.
The laws here and then the laws changed by cities. So that was challenging. And then I was so afraid of taxes also. Uh, you know, I didn’t want to jeopardize my residency in any way. So I was like super careful of things, but then I didn’t jump into a business as soon as I moved because being a perfectionist, I just couldn’t.
I had, I was like, I have to learn everything first, before I even try. So that’s why I got a job. And, uh, in that job, I learned what people wanted, what the, you know, the standards are. You have to keep this in mind. I come from a country where people usually feel not good enough versus what’s going on here in the states.
I think every country in Latin America is. Pretty much. I’m not, I don’t want to say defined, but influenced a lot about whatever happens here in the us. Hm. Interesting. Yeah. So I thought, God, am I, am I going to be as good as the people there? Right. Cause I didn’t have any training. We don’t have schools like that.
You know, we didn’t have a cake school. We didn’t have art schools. So, there’s nothing available to train you or to get you ready. Right. So I knew that coming here, I was going to have to get to that level first. Uh, and I think I was doing pretty good, but my confidence definitely was not there.
And so anyway, so that’s why I got to go to the French pastry school and that helped me a lot. It showed me the American way of making cakes. Cause it’s definitely super different. Then how we do it in Latin America. Uh, so that helped a lot. But then on the calligraphy side, also, I had never, ever taken a class.
So I didn’t know about the guidelines. I was using the wrong name, uh, so many things, but I was just doing it. Right. So I started taking classes and taking classes and that was my obsession. I had to be as good as the best here. And, um, yeah, so that’s how it went. But then, you know, um, just having to go out and meet people for networking and all of that, that was super scary.
I knew English since I was in preschool, but the conversation I didn’t have a lot of practice with. Obviously we speak Spanish in my country. So speaking to a potential client in English was nerve wracking. It was like, oh my God, I go by done. I don’t mess up. I hope I didn’t say the wrong thing. I hope I didn’t sound like the typical stereotype of a aggressive Latina, you know?
What kind of paperwork have you had to fill out for each location?
So, back in Honduras, I had my uncle who is a lawyer, so he took care of most of it.I’m going to say that the three times I’ve had to do it two of the times I’m just hiring someone. So I’m not dealing with that a lot, but yeah, back there, there’s this document called like business constitution. It looks more like a deed of a house.
So that’s very formal. So he did all of that. And then I had to, it was required to register with the chamber of commerce and get all the tax papers ready, but it wasn’t, it wasn’t too hard. Then in Boston, I didn’t fully legalize it, but I did register with the city. So I was living in the city called Everett, which is like, basically, it’s like a neighborhood of Boston.
It’s like 10 minutes away from downtown. So you registered with each city. Right. But each city has their loss obviously. And this one did allow you to make cakes from home. So I just went to city hall and got it registered. And it was super easy. They just ask you, what do you do? And then, because I was selling food, then the, somebody from the sanitation department had to come into my house to basically say the kitchen is okay for making cakes.
But then the pandemic happened. So that guy never got to come to my place. Yeah. So what, so what happened? Like, because he couldn’t come, what happened? What did you do, what did you do? Well, the good thing is that because I have worked in bakeries, I already have a surf safe certification, which basically certifies you to handle food.
And, uh, it teaches you how about bacteria and things like that. And also because I had had the business, I had all the equipment I needed. Uh, so I just continued to make cakes and, you know, the wedding planners, they knew that I was working from home. It’s also a very, it changes by location. Like in Boston, it was very, very much okay.
What steps have you taken so far to get your shop set up in Chicago?
Yeah. So when we moved back, the first thing I did was changed the website. I was so stressed about that because you know how long it takes for the SEO to get somewhat good. And I don’t know a lot about that, but, um, That was the first thing. And that actually worked because some of my clients have been finding you through Google, but then the next thing I knew I had to do was get back on the, on my guilt membership.
So Chicago has like a huge, one of the biggest calligraphy guilt in the country. And I have to say, it’s the best one. So they have a members page. And I knew from years ago that a lot of my clients would find me there. So I knew I had to get that again. So now I’m back on the membership list. Um, I’m sorry, on the members list.
So those two steps, and like I said, I hired this person to register the business and networking. That was the other big thing. That hasn’t been going so good because the COVID restrictions here in Chicago are super, super strict. We lived most of the pandemic in Boston and it wasn’t as strict as here. So I didn’t know if people wanted to meet, but I have reached out.
So I’ve, I’ve made a few connections on the Instagram and they’ve sent LORIC, but mostly the work I’m getting right now, it’s, uh, either from a past client referral or a vendor referral from Boston or somebody, I made a connection with on Instagram. That makes sense for sure. I mean, it takes a lot of time to build that back up, especially like post pandemic, you know, as we’re still coming out of COVID and things, people are trying to kind of find their footing and find their stride again.
I mean, it’s going to take time to do all of that. I mean, networking was hard enough before the pandemic happened. And so then it just gets like exponentially harder with that kind of thrown in there. So. But it sounds like you’re taking some great steps. Yeah, that, that was actually one of the things when moving here, you know, most businesses start with a word of mouth.
Uh, some friend that bought something from you, some family members, and I didn’t have one single person that worked out great back in Honduras. That’s how I built my business. And I got to number one and, and all of that, but everybody knew me, but here I was like, who’s going to buy anything from me.
Nobody knows me. They’re not going to get any referrals from me. So I knew I had to go out swallow my pride and my scary feelings and network. Right. So that was super scary. And then you have to do it in the second language. So I was like, oh, but I have to do this. I think the dream is bigger than the fear.
What are the biggest hurdles you’ve had to overcome in your multiple businesses?
So the first time I opened the business, the one I had in Honduras, I had to struggle even with family members.
I didn’t come from a household where my parents were like, you can do this. I didn’t even grow up with my dad. So I didn’t have that. Right. The parents telling you you’re great and you can do this and you can do whatever you want. I don’t know where it came from, but I always tell myself that nobody has anything over me.
I can do whatever I want. I can be as great as I want. I can be great. And that’s the greatest, but I just have to, I just know I have to work hard for it. So that wasn’t like, like a big, like, I know a lot of art entrepreneurs have that. Like, am I good enough? But I guess I didn’t have that. So that was a good, positive thing for me.
Uh, I just knew I was going to do it and I always had an entrepreneurial spirit, I guess. Uh, everybody in my family is an entrepreneur. I think maybe one person had a job for somebody else, but everybody else had their own businesses. So I guess that helped. But the thing is that at that point, and this is very personal, but I guess I’ll share it just because I know a lot of people might go through this.
So, right before opening that shop, I had another business with my mom first in, uh, in that business, we were selling floral arrangements and cakes. So I would be doing the cakes and my mom would be doing the florals cause that’s her passion, the florals. So then we got into a fight because we never had a good relationship.
And um, we got into a fight. I ended up leaving the business. I was like, I’m done. I’m not going to work here anymore. So yes, I decided I was going to start my business, which was going to be focused on cakes. So I had to go back to her and I had to tell her, I am starting this business. And I’m selling cakes, but she was still trying to sell cakes, even though she didn’t know how to make them.
So she was the first hurdle I had to overcome because she basically told me you don’t have my blessing and you can’t do this. But, you know, I just told her, well, this has been my dream, my whole life, so I’m still gonna do it. And, um, so I basically had to go against my mom’s will.
And then, you know, the second biggest hurdle back then was, I was self-taught.
And so I’m all thinking your cake shop, where I’m handling food, where you could potentially make someone sick. Or, you know, I’m making a three tier cake and that cake might collapse if I don’t know how to build it. Right. And then how do you make a cake? 30 minutes before the wedding? Right. It’s like super stressful, but again, the dream was bigger.
So I just pushed then I, um, I started, uh, getting books and learning then again, when, I mean, it all went great. The business got really good. I was doing great. I was like, wow, I made it. It’s going to get better and better. But then eventually I looked for, for more professional training. So that was fixed.
And then the second biggest thing happened, or the third, I guess, by this time, which was, oh, you have to move because, so I met my husband in pastry school and so I went back to my country. You know, and, uh, I went back to work and then seven months later on his second visit, we got engaged. And so closing that business was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do.
Because it was my baby. Right. It was like I was coming from, from a person that didn’t have that close family or, you know, somebody telling you you’re great. That business was my way of telling myself, Hey, you’re great. You’re doing good in life. You know? So closing, it was definitely one of the hardest things
Are the stakes of running a business higher when you’re working with such big names?
I don’t feel like that’s the case. You know, it’s a representative from their marketing department and they send you the paperwork and they hire you.
They’ve already seen the pictures. They already know they liked the work and that’s it. But I don’t feel like that person would go on Yelp or. Bad mouth. You, you know, like corporations, right? Like maybe they don’t have time. I don’t know what it is, but I feel like your regular clients, the regular citizen person, that person can go to Google and write the meanest thing.
Who has been your favorite artist/baker to learn from and why?
That has to be my mentor, uh, Nicholas lodge. So he was my instructor at the French pastry school. And, u he’s a celebrity in the cake world. He is royalty.
I mean, it literally, he has made cakes for, uh, queen Elizabeth and, um, he basically invented tools and techniques that we use today that most cake artists use today. And, uh, I had the amazing blessing that he was my mentor and because he was coworkers, basically with my husband, uh, we also became friends.
So definitely him. He’s just amazing at what he does. Amazing. Like everything. He’s, he’s just an amazing craftsman. Like he doesn’t use tools and things. He, with his hands, he built things and I think that’s very admirable.
How did you book your illustration deal?
Yeah, that was a super exciting project. Something I had never done before in that once again, I just had to overcome my fears, but it was through a station, their friend that I met at a nice event. And, um, one day during the lockdown, her client wanted to self-publish.
So her client contact her and she’s like, can you help me get this book? Uh, ready. Right. So my friend contacts me and she’s like, listen, the book it’s going to have some illustrations, but this one, actually it was for illustrations. It was a scenery of a tree and it was supposed to change through the seasons.
So the fall, and it was the same scenery that you, we would have to change. Right. Uh, so you would see, you know, snow in one and then the other one more, uh, brown flowers in the summer, things like that. Um, and she was like, do you want to do it? And I was like, oh, I’ve never done it, but yeah, I’ll do it. And, um, I did it, I did it, and it was very stressful, but I just, I would just like sit and I would be like, you can do this.
Just think and now it’s just like, okay, think, think Upserve Upserve. And I did it, it was, uh, it was a line Lang drawing. It wasn’t watercolor. I think it would have been easier if it had been watercolor for me. Cause I had been working with it, but it was all pen and ink. So the shading and all of that was very stressful.
Uh, I was buying books and reading things to get me ready for that and yeah, that’s how it went. And then, you know, the book got printed and a few weeks later it was selling on Amazon and it was great. My family was very proud and had a very, very good experience.
What goal are you hoping to accomplish during the remainder of 2021?
I think the main one is stability. Uh, we’ve been moving the pandemic, changed everything, and I just want to feel stable. I just want to be like, okay, this is it. We’re living here. And we gotta make it work here and, you know, just get this cafe open, make enough money to pay back the debt and, and get my calligraphy business also thriving.
And on the calligraphy side, I really want to get better at engrossing and move more of my calligraphy, work into engrossing and not so much weddings.