Too frightened to continue living in a politically turbulent Venezuela, Yessica González Ruiz and her mother, Veronica, fled to Spain without jobs or even a plan. What they did bring was a passion for nutrition and sustainability. In a starting-over story that’s a million miles away from the classic Bank of Mum and Dad tale, 32-year-old Yessica used her life savings to fund a new family venture called Colibrí – a zero waste bulk food store that’s disrupting Gràcia’s grocery shop scene. For eco-conscious customers, Colibrí is genuinely plastic-free grocery shopping. For Yessica, Veronica, and their family, Colibrí was the opportunity to feel free. But, like the beating-winged hummingbird that the store is named after, this mother-daughter journey involved the most unique of flights.
Losing It All
Before moving to Barcelona, Veronica and her husband, Ramón, ran the kind of picture-perfect family business that’s the stuff of career dreams. They owned a casa rural (known locally as a “posada”) – a sleepy, poolside weekend getaway built by Ramón, a civil engineer. On Saturdays and Sundays, when Veronica wasn’t working as a high school biology teacher, she would cook and care for the guests, who mostly came from the nearby capital city, Caracas. Over the summer, Yessica and her brother Alejandro took turns running the business so their parents could rest.
The only problem – and it was a catastrophic, unpredictable one – was that their family-centric idyll was in Venezuela. The country’s recent economic collapse, triggered by government corruption and failed policies, is considered to be the worst the world has ever seen outside of war-torn areas. In 2019, the inflation rate was a staggering 19,906 percent, forcing food shortages, electricity blackouts that led to businesses being ransacked, and violence by armed gangs.
Yessica felt the danger every day. She explains,
Friends were kidnapped with guns in their faces. When I opened my apartment door, I always thought someone would be there, trying to come in.
Ramon and Veronica’s parents were all born in Spain, so the family had Spanish passports as their safety net. Still, fleeing to Spain wasn’t an immediate consideration. “This was 2015 and Spain was moving out of its financial crisis, but there was still a lot of unemployment. My career is in HR in the technology and start-up sector, and my boss thought I was crazy, questioning, ‘Why are you going to Spain? You won’t find a job there’,” says Yessica. But with the threat of the unknown becoming increasingly less risky than the threat to their lives in Venezuela, in 2015 family left behind everything they knew, everything they had built, and embarked on their second life.
The Grain of an Idea
For Yessica, the shift was welcomingly straightforward. Being an English-speaker with a master’s degree, she found a job in HR within a month. For Veronica and Ramón, the original plan had been a temporary one – ride out the worst of the Venezuelan crisis in Spain, then go back. But six months in, with no sign of improvement back home and already having dipped into their savings, Yessica started worrying.
With my parents, it was always, what will they do? You panic that no one will hire them.
Veronica threw herself into casual jobs that had little connection to the years of study that she’d done in science, food technology and environmentalism. She started dog-walking and pet-sitting, she helped a family with childcare, and then – as if by fate – she got a part-time job in a granel. “And she really liked it,” enthuses Yessica. “She knows about nutrition and she saw that people were really listening to her advice.” Her mum’s happiness spurred an idea in Yessica’s head, who had some money set aside from her years working.
I thought, why not open a store ourselves? Being surrounded by start-ups in my own career, I was like, I want to be an entrepreneur! It turns out that it’s not as fancy as it seems. But I had the money, my mum had all this experience, and I thought, why not?
The granel store where Veronica had worked still sold some products packaged in plastic. To set Colibrí apart, the family dedicated themselves to avoiding plastic and waste. If they had to use packaging, it would be glass. After finding a retail space to rent – a former beauty salon tucked into the walk between Gaudí’s Casa Vicens and Lesseps metro station – they had one month to source all of the products and glass jars. They found regional and national producers, crafted tables out of old palettes, made little blackboards with the name and price of hundreds of different ingredients. “It was a lot of work just getting ready to open,” adds Yessica. And, as bad luck would have it, that was to be the least of their problems.
Colibrí opened in late October 2018. The Instagram-perfect shop showcased healthy foods sold “a granel” – meaning loose. Glass jars of autumnal-coloured spices, dried fruits, nuts, and pulses, plus sacks of alternative flours, sugars and salts, ecological eggs, artisan beers, and bamboo toothbrushes sat ready for purchase.
As if by clockwork though, their street – Avinguda de la Riera de Cassoles – fell under six months of large-scale construction that obscured Colibrí’s shopfront under scaffolding and drove everyone in the neighbourhood to take a different route to avoid the noise and dirt. For the few people who did venture inside, Veronica and Yessica had tailored their stock to what sold well in Veronica’s previous granel – but that was in a totally different part of town. Mum and daughter quickly realised that the needs of the Gràcia residents were not at all what they’d expected. For one, the barrio’s residents who came into the store weren’t actually that into cooking. So, while the nuts and sugar-free mango became an instant hit, Veronica and Yessica had to adapt from legumes to quick-soak alternatives for time-short locals. As Yessica noted,
One day the reality suddenly hits you: we are starting from absolute zero.
The enormity of that challenge – plus the sheer upheaval of the move from Venezuela – dipped Veronica into a period of stark depression. “My mum felt the stress of leaving everything behind, as well as the uncertainty of quitting the retail job here that had given her some structure and certainty,” Yessica explains. “There’s a huge difference between just working in a shop, selling something that isn’t yours, and the situation at Colibrí.
It’s the pressure of the family investment, it’s all the time and the energy it involves, it’s the panic of not knowing how to do things like set prices or use the cash till. Every single thing is new, and that is very daunting.
During this time, Yessica admits that she wondered if she’d done the right thing in starting Colibrí – feeling responsible that the added pressure of the business had triggered her mum’s depression. “I thought, oh my god, I created this business for my mum – to support her – and now she’s sick. Then there were moments when the finances were not good. It was a very, very tough start.”
A New Rhythm
Eventually, supported by a close friend of Veronica’s who offered comfort by simply standing beside her in the shop, things started to turn around. By April 2019, “I started feeling better, more confident, like the business was mine,” Veronica said, proudly. She enrolled in an online course in holistic nutrition, and hopes to offer in-store coaching sessions once she graduates.
Today, locals don’t just come for the products, but to have heart-to-heart chats with Veronica. “One man has a sore leg, so he pulls up a chair so he can spend more time here chatting with me. I recently had an operation on my hand and wasn’t in the store for a few days, so a beautiful older lady called me at home to find out if I was OK,” she says and smiles.
People tell me all about their lives and their problems. My daughter jokes that I’m now the psychologist of the neighbourhood.
As with their much-loved posada in Venezuela, Colibrí is a true family affair. Yessica is CEO, working on the business model, plus social media and marketing channels. Veronica runs the customer-facing side of things. And after a rough start in Barcelona for Ramón, who began as a Cabify driver but was laid off during the taxi strikes, he is now overseeing the administrative part – crunching Excel spreadsheets to refine cashflow and logistics, and carrying out ‘eco-deliveries’ – by foot or on public transport – for the growing online shop.
Of course, when you’re flying the plane as you build it, there are still blips. Influencers sometimes pump up a product so that it becomes a short-lived trend, which can affect inventory. As Yessica explains,
It happened with cacao nibs. One day, five people asked my mum for them, so she bought in 25kg! But the next day people want something else, so now we’ll have cacao nibs forever!
As a solution, if the store doesn’t stock something, they will make special small orders with local suppliers and be able to get customers their ingredient in a couple of days.
It’s perhaps ironic that a family of non-locals are so tied into their local community – but their adopted Catalan home is a huge source of pride. “Before, I missed Venezuela a lot,’ admits Veronica. “But now I’m here, working and studying. I would actually like to have been born here. It’s my home,” she shares. And if their time in Venezuela’s financial uncertainty has taught Yessica one thing, it’s how important it is to keep that local economy alive thriving.
“There’s this saying, ‘When you buy local, a real person does a dance’ – and it’s true,” she enthuses. “Buying local is the only way to keep the streets alive.” And that is a tune that we can all dance along to.
Yessica and Veronica’s Quick-fire Barcelona Guide
What dish or ingredient is particularly amazing in Cataluña?
Ingredient…thyme/Romesco sauce. Dish…Espinacas a la catalana – spinach, raisins and pine nuts. Plus, calçots, of course.
Where do you go to find peace in the city?
Walking along the beach promenade, breathing deeply.
What’s the most underrated tourist attraction in Barcelona?
MNAC, the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya.
What part of Catalan life are you still getting used to?
Sometimes people are a little serious. We are very warm; for us, it’s the Latin way to speak to everyone in the street. So, if people don’t even say hi, that’s quite hard.
And your favorite thing about Barcelona?
It’s a small city, yet it has many possibilities: the sea, the mountains, cultural activities, parks, good food, it’s multicultural, and the people are very conscious about the environment.
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