By Rowland Stiteler
When Brooklyn-born Lenny Charnoff visited Cuenca in 2011, it was love at first sight. The first moment he put his feet on the brick-paved streets, he knew he wanted to live here.
“I almost couldn’t believe it,” says Lenny, who was 65 when he came south. “Suddenly, I was in a place that reminded me of the Brooklyn of the 1950s where I grew up. Friendly people, eager to say hello to you as they pass you on the sidewalk; a distinct sense of neighborhood in every area of the city. It was the perfect place to de-stress from the work I had been doing for decades in the U.S.”
Lenny was a successful executive at a tech company in the Pacific Northwest, but the job was burning him out. He was in Cuenca, a 500-year-old Andean city, with his wife, Sharon, on a search for solace.
Just six months after first setting foot in the UNESCO World Heritage City, they had made up their minds to stay.
“When we first decided on the idea of moving abroad and creating a more tranquil life for ourselves, we thought it would be a multiyear process: visit various countries and cities, assess them, and then come to a decision on what would be our ultimate home,” Lenny says. “But the appeal of Cuenca was so strong for us, we pretty much decided on our first visit that this is the perfect place for us.”
Though Lenny left his lucrative sales job to go live in Cuenca, it didn’t take him long to find himself on another business venture — one he hadn’t even sought out.
Just over two years ago, Lenny attended a tech conference that was organized by some successful expat business people in Quito. One was a fellow Brooklyn native who has a solidly profitable business selling fresh frozen seafood from Ecuador’s Pacific Coast. The Quito fishmonger was so impressed with Lenny’s sales and marketing acumen that he drafted Lenny in to be the Cuenca distributor for the operation. Lenny accepted, and once he saw the demand for his fish, particularly the Pacific salmon, he decided to see how much he could grow the business.
Part of his plan was to sell the fish at a kiosk — at what expats call “gringo markets”— on weekends. It was there that he found himself being constantly set next to a bread-seller named Kelbert Bertone. He noticed that shoppers who bought bread often opted for fish as well, and vice versa. Soon the two men decided to become partners and Loaves & Fishes was formed. Aside from selling at the market together, a key piece of their strategy was to combine their marketing and delivery efforts through their website. By joining forces, Kelbert and Lenny expanded their business in Cuenca.
Unlike Lenny, who had built up good financial resources in his long career in the U.S., and could have lived quite well in Ecuador on his Social Security check and his pension from his work, Kelbert arrived with his family from Venezuela with almost no resources.
When Kelbert came to Cuenca just over two years ago, he built a kiosk from which to sell the bread on street corners, and bought a used bicycle to ride around town doing deliveries, while his wife baked from their kitchen. The demand for the bread — which ranges from whole wheat loaves with chia seeds, to baguettes and cakes — grew quickly and exponentially due to word-of-mouth in both the expat and Ecuadorian communities. Soon Kelbert had to buy a car to make deliveries throughout the city. Like Lenny, he discovered that Cuenca offered plenty of opportunity to grow. Lenny attributes the success of Loaves & Fishes to several key factors, like the fertile entrepreneurial atmosphere he feels Ecuador provides; the favorable cost of living; and his productive partnership with Kelbert.
Lenny says another ingredient in their partnership’s success is the low start-up cost for a new business in Ecuador. “We started this business for a song…and a short song at that.”
Join Kelbert and Lenny Thursday, January 31, from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. for the Loaves & Fishes Second Anniversary Party at the Chocolate Factory (Gran Colombia y Benigno Malo). There will be music, wine tasting, new products to taste, and prizes to win.
Credit: International Living