They’re almost all Colombians and Venezuelans. Most of them had worked for years in the restaurant business, some of them as owners, before arriving in Cuenca. Today, they compete in a rapidly growing niche of the city’s fast food market, selling pizza and a soda for a dollar and, in some cases, 75 cents.
A recent survey of El Centro and neighborhoods surrounding it turned up two dozen of the dollar-a-slice pizza sellers at lunch time, some working from mobile food carts but most with small street-front shops.
Venezuelan Yurai Topolñak is one of the pizza sellers. “When I came to Cuenca a year and half ago, I had no idea of what I would do or how I would make a living,” he says. “I came with nothing.”
Because he had worked in a restaurant in his home town of Barquisimeto, he knew how to cook – and how to make pizza – and after a lengthy job search, was hired by a popular Cuenca pizzeria.
“I worked hard and saved my money and after a year was able to open my own business,” he says. Today, he works with his wife and sister-in-law in his Padre Aguirre Street pizza shop.
Like other pizza-for-a-buck sellers, Topolñak says he has lots of competition and has to work hard to make a living. “Being successful means offering larger slices and more soda. It means we have a narrow profit margin but if we sell enough, we do okay.”
Business is slow in July and August, according to Topolñak. “It’s the holidays and school is out and people leave town. We have to wait until September and things will get better,” he says.
Two other Venezuelan pizza makers, Kerick Aricuco and Roberto DeBrito, say they are constantly experimenting with spices and ingredients to compete. “There are a lot of us selling, so we have to make our pizza different and more desirable,” says Aricuco, who sells slices on Calle Larga. “We have to work hard to set ourselves apart from the others.”
Some of the low-cost pizza sellers work without permits, which angers the established pizzerias. “It’s not fair but I understand that some of them are desperate,” says Italian-born Filippo Fraddanno, owner of Filippo’s on Benigno Malo. “Most of them don’t have the proper registration to work. They also don’t use the correct ingredients and they sell to customers who don’t know the difference between good and bad. I can’t compete in their market and I don’t try.”
Fraddanno explains that he imports much of his ingredients from overseas, including olive oil from Italy and flour from Canada. “I pay more for tomatoes because they give the best tastes and I leaven my dough for 24 hours,” he says. “I will continue to make pizzas that are high quality and because of this, I will charge more for my product. The dollar-a-slice pizza is not for me.”
Despite the low profit margin and hard work, almost all the foreign pizza makers say their lives are much better in Cuenca than they were back home. “It is so sad to see what has happened to Venezuela,” says DeBrito. “Life is so difficult there, so hard. My father died because there was no room in the hospital. Two cousins were killed by gangs. There was no other choice than to leave and we are fortunate today to live in Cuenca.”