EAU CLAIRE — Biting past the thin crunchy crust to get to the cheesy, chewy inside of a warm roll reminds the Pereiras of where they came from.
Pão de queijo are found in cafes, restaurants and grocery stores in Brazil as a savory treat to accompany a cup of coffee.
“Cheese bread is very special to us,” said Tanara Pereira, 34.
Using the family’s combined business talents and a recipe passed down through generations, the Pereiras started a company earlier this year that has brought the rolls to grocery stores in the Chippewa Valley.
Montebelo has sold pouches of its frozen, ready-to-bake cheese breads at local food cooperatives, a few area grocery stores, farmers markets and will open its online store this month.
A family recipe
In a commercial kitchen inside Banbury Place, Tanara’s parents, Geraldo Sr., 61, and Miriam, 60, prepare the dough they’ve made many times for their family, but in a batch big enough to feed dozens of customers. Cracking eggs by the the carton, mixing in tapioca flour, cheeses and other ingredients together, the married couple work in concert during the whole process.
The resulting dough is then fed into a hand-cranked machine that dispenses and cuts uniform dollops onto a sheet pan underneath it. Dozens of pans are put on a rolling rack and wheeled into a large freezer before the family returns later in the day to transfer the frozen dough into golden pouches ready to be sent to stores.
Eau Claire cooperative Just Local Food, 1117 S. Farwell St., was among the first to stock Montebelo’s rolls in its freezers.
“Our customers are always looking for something new in the mix, and it’s even better when it checks off the boxes for local and clean ingredients,” said Jordan Wolfe, the co-op’s merchandising manager. “But the most important thing is that it tastes great, and from initial sales, customers are coming back for more.”
Currently Montebelo’s product line has three varieties of rolls — original, garlic and Italian herb. There is a goal to create a vegan variety as well, which would need to be free of the eggs and dairy found in the regular rolls.
The Pereiras are a health-conscious family and only use organic, non-GMO ingredients in their rolls.
“We are very proud to keep it true to what it should be, which is healthy,” Tanara said.
She, her parents and her brother, Gerlado Jr., 30, are all vegetarians.
The rolls are naturally gluten-free as their key ingredient is tapioca flour, which comes from the root of the cassava plant. Though the plant grows abundantly in Brazil’s warm soils, it’s not found in the U.S., requiring Montebelo to get imported flour.
The rolls are made with the same ingredients that would be used in Brazil with one exception. One of the cheeses usually included in the rolls, minas, is native to Brazil and hard to find in the U.S. So for Montebelo’s rolls, cheddar cheese is substituted in.
The family hopes to grow the reach of their rolls beyond stores in the Chippewa Valley, and eventually expand the Montebelo brand to other Brazilian specialty foods as well.
It runs in the family
The business is a true family effort, bringing together talents of both the parents and their children.
“We are a family of entrepreneurs,” Tanara said.
Aside from their culinary talents, her parents also have many years of experience in business, having run their own bookstore and gift shop in Brazil.
Tanara sourced the kitchen equipment needed to produce large quantities of the rolls and secured the location for Montebelo. She now handles sales and marketing for the company, in addition to running her own business, Eau Claire Body Care, a cosmetic tattoo and skin clinic.
Geraldo Jr. worked on the business plan and is the company’s website expert. He is also currently learning computer programming at Chippewa Valley Technical College.
The siblings credit their parents with teaching them about business and having a solid work ethic.
“They are the reason it’s been so easy,” Tanara said. “They are not afraid to work.”
When Geraldo Sr. and Miriam aren’t working in the kitchen, they are taking English language classes at CVTC.
The company’s name is drawn from the phrase “beautiful mountain” in Portuguese, which is an homage to the mountainous state in Brazil where Geraldo Sr. and Miriam were born and raised.
Tanara was the first in the family to come to America, first in 2002 as a high school exchange student in Eau Claire. She returned several years later on a visa, opened her own business and became a U.S. citizen in 2010.
Her parents moved to Eau Claire last year and her brother followed, so they could create Montebelo together and establish themselves here.
The business started falling into place last winter with the right equipment and a ready-to-use commercial kitchen near home becoming available.
“Everything kind of worked out in the beginning,” Geraldo Jr. said.
Then the pandemic hit, which didn’t deal a disastrous blow to the burgeoning business but forced it to chart a new course into stores.
Originally hoping to quickly get their products into major food stores — Festival Foods and Woodman’s Food Market in the Eau Claire area — those plans were delayed as businesses coped with the onset of COVID-19.
When the Pereiras first approached the stores, supermarkets were mostly focused on keeping staple foods in stock as customers were buying large quantities during the early part of the pandemic. The stores weren’t interested in buying new products, Geraldo Jr. said, and in-store food sampling to introduce people to new foods was not happening then, either.
“We’re not going to lie, it was a little frantic right away,” Tanara said.
So Montebelo focused on Just Local Food and Menomonie Market Food Co-op, which endeavor to stock locally produced, often organic or natural foods and have customers with eclectic tastes.
“We love working with businesses like Montebelo that have a great vision, delicious product, and are retail-ready,” said Wolfe of Just Local Food. “Being a small business ourselves, we are more nimble in our ability to hit the ground running and can often get a new product on the shelves in minutes versus working with larger stores that need product approval from up the corporate ladder.”
The Pereiras also took their dough to area farmers markets, finding success among that audience as well.
That start in co-ops and farmers markets boosted Montebelo’s resume, Tanara said, so they were then able to get their cheese bread into the local large grocery stores.
With the farmers market season coming to a close this month, Montebelo is opening a new route for customers to get directly to them. Later this month, the company will start selling its bread online through its website, montebeloproducts.com.