Sugar and Spice Boquete brings fresh breads and Euro-American pastries to Panama’s highlands
Sugar and Spice Boquete first crossed our radar at our hostel in David, Panama. Two new friends who had just come from Boquete weren’t talking about hiking or hot springs, they were waxing lyrical about Sugar and Spice Boquete. After 10 minutes of recounting every single bite of food they managed to consume from Sugar and Spice in their week-long stint in Boquete, we were salivating.
Owned and operated by husband and wife team Richard & Yarina Meyer, Sugar and Spice Boquete takes their breads, pastries, sandwiches, and service seriously. Richard has over 25 years of experience as a pastry chef, and was the Executive Pastry Chef for a high-end Atlanta-based restaurant group for many years before moving to Boquete. Classically trained and professionally tested, he met and fell in love with Yarina while she was on vacation in Atlanta. After some long distance dating, Richard decided to lace up his whites and head even further South in 2009. Boquete is grateful he did.
For going on four years, Sugar and Spice Boquete has put out amazing fresh European style bread, pastries, and sandwiches. After sampling our fare share, we got to sit down with Richard.
Rich, you spent decades baking in the South. How did you arrive at Sugar and Spice Boquete in Panama?
My wife [Yarina] is Panamanian. We met in Atlanta while she was on vacation. We starting dating shortly after that. We would travel to see each other often; going back-and-forth and back-and-forth until eventually, I decided to move down here and do something different with my life. I spent a full week going to every top hotel and resort in and around Panama City, talking to all the executive chefs. At that time they either weren’t hiring or they were hiring below my level. The last three or four executive chefs insisted, “Why don’t you open your own place…Nobody here knows how to bake bread the way you bake bread.” With that, we switched gears and started to look for equipment, supplies, chocolate, flour, boxes and everything that we would need to open a bakery.
How did you decide on Boquete as your destination?
Originally it was going to be in Panama City. About three days after I went back to Atlanta from that trip, I was on Craigslist and this small “commercial” bakery was listed for sale in Boquete. It was actually in an apartment that an older gentlemen owned. All he was making were muffins, brownies, and little empanadas. All out of a kitchen not much bigger than this table [we're sitting at]. He was baking, and had a few customers that really followed him, and a few pieces of solid kitchen equipment—most of which I’ve replaced by now—and he was looking to get out of his business. He wanted to get a little money for the time and energy that he had put into it. I called my wife, told her about it, asked her opinion on Boquete, to which she said, “Boquete is beautiful!”
About a month later, I flew down, came up and talked to the guy, looked at the possibilities, and decided that I couldn’t run it out of a small apartment. I asked the gentleman, “If I bought your business, would you help set up your equipment in a new location, get the basics going, the electrical, plumbing etc?” he said, “Yes”. We shook hands. On the last day in town we found a building and hit the ground running. By the time I returned to Boquete, I had a bakery with the basics.
You have some amazing industrial ovens, something we haven’t seen in most bakeries in Central America. Was it difficult to find professional baking equipment in Panama?
We bought the ovens in Panama City, surprisingly they are Japanese manufactured. They’re designed for pastries but I retrofitted them by putting a granite slab in the bottoms to simulate a stone. They actually work very well because they have independent top and bottom heat controls. I had to import a few select pieces from the States myself; bread slicers are almost impossible to find in Panama.
Was catering to the expat community part of the plan from the get-go?
The plan to was to bake from my background. My specialty is European style breads and what I call Euro-American pastries. Panamanians aren’t really into sweet desserts—they like desserts, but they’re not accustomed to them being so sweet. Butter, sugar, and chocolate are expensive ingredients. You have to have the economy to support them. But over the last few years the Panamanian community has really come around. They’ve started to realize that you can get better bread than you can buy in the grocery store at the same price. For so long they’ve been accustomed to the cheap bread at the grocery store that doesn’t taste like anything. Now they come here, take it home, talk to their friends, take it to a party, and tell somebody. We used to serve about 95% gringos to 5% Panamanians, now it’s like 55% to 45%.
How has being “Boquete’s bakery” shaped how you bake?
There has been a lot of trial and error. I’ve been a pastry chef for over 25 years. There are deserts that are big hits and some that have been flops. You do the ones that people like and you set the others by the wayside and maybe later on go back and tweak them. When I first came down here, I really thought the pastry side of things was going to be the direction this went. But after being here and realizing I couldn’t keep the bread on the shelf, I was like, “Ok, well I can see where the huge demand is.” At that time I didn’t have a good display case for the pastries. I’d have my Coca-Cola on the top shelve and my cheesecake right below it, not ideal. Now we have a nice big display case and pastries have really taken off.
How does sourcing work for you? Are you able to work with local farms here in Boquete?
I get stuff from all over the place. There are a couple of companies that deliver in the area, but I have to make a run to David once a week. My car looks like a lowrider coming back. It’s the only place you can buy the bulk restaurant grade stuff in the area. Finding the ingredients that I’m accustomed to is very difficult. Every time I go back to the U.S. and take a stroll through Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, I’m like, “If I could only have this or that. Why can’t I have two full suitcases of this stuff?!” But I can’t. Down here, when you see something new, like a new chocolate bar in the grocery store you’re like, “WOW, that sounds cool” and you buy 10 of them to make sure you have extra, just in case.
How has the food scene in Boquete and Panama evolved since you first arrived?
It’s changed a lot. There are a lot more high-end restaurants than there were three years ago, and they are constantly changing hands and changing menus. I think my wife and I counted—just in Boquete—from the roadside 4-burner operation to the Hotel Panamonte there are over 63 different places to eat in Boquete. In this little community [of about 19,000 people] that’s pretty impressive.
Panama City has really stepped it up in the last three years. Every time we go, we try to find a new restaurant we haven’t been to, or a new cuisine. This is just my observation, but compared to the US, Italy, France, and Germany or other countries in the EU, three years ago Panama was ten years behind when it came to culinary culture, now they’re maybe five.
Your price points are incredibly competitive given your popularity and quality of products you put out. How does keeping your prices low play into the Sugar and Spices Boquete ethos?
We want everybody to be able to come in and get a good sandwich. Even though Boquete has a large expat community, a lot of people here are retired and live on fixed incomes. We didn’t just want to put out a slice of cheese and a slice of meat and call it a sandwich, which unfortunately a lot of people do. After a trip back to Atlanta I told my wife that I’m giving the same portion of meat that you get at the café I used to work for, but they’re charging $12.95 for the sandwich and here we’re charging 3.50–4 dollars, and on fresh-baked bread, made fresh every day.
Something a former mentor taught me early on is “consistency and quality”. If you have a great sandwich today and then you come back tomorrow and it’s bad, you’re not going to come back that third time. In a small community like this, where everyone knows everyone, people talk. You have to be 99% or 100% every single day.
Are you experimenting with anything outside the shop?
I’ve started getting into curing my own meats. I make all my own pastrami now, because it’s not available to buy locally anymore. There used to be place in David that made it, but they stopped carrying it, so I make my own. I’ve starting getting in to curing hams as well, in all different flavor profiles. I’ve done a three-chile pepper cured ham, rosemary scented hams, and the traditional Christmas ham with ground cloves and brown sugar. I cure them for a week in a brine, then bake them off, slice them on my deli slicer, and run a special on them. It’s fun. I wish I could do more, but I don’t have the space for it now.
Is there anything on your menu that you can never take off?
One sandwich that people get really upset about if we take off is the Volcano. It’s made with smoked chicken breast, pepper jack cheese, red onions, red pepper aioli all hot pressed on a fresh Ciabatta roll. Sometimes, like all things here, the chicken company will run out of chicken. I’ll give the driver a hard time: “How can you be a chicken company and run out of chicken?!” Now I always try to keep a little extra on hand, just in case.
What is your team like? Yarina runs the front of the house, do you have trained bakers helping in the kitchen?
My two bread bakers were “Panamanian bakers”. They knew the basics of how to roll and how to shape, but I had to teach them how to do this style of baking. I told them, “This bread takes time, it’s not rush, rush, rush go, go, go, do it as fast as you can. This bread comes from the heart.” It took a little while for them to understand that I would rather have them make 10 loaves of bread that looked and tasted great than 30 that were OK in the same amount of time. They come from a background where speed and volume production is the aim, at places where they roll out the same bread sticks all day long. I had to teach them the different European techniques, the different temperatures, different consistencies, etc. but they got it.
How have you intermingled with the coffee industry?
We like to sell the little boutique farms’ coffee. You’re not going to find the stuff we have here in the grocery stores, or anywhere else. It’s nice actually. I barter with a lot of them. The coffee farmers and roasters have an account here. I’ll call them up and request 10 bags, that gets credited to their account, then they come in and have a sandwich and a couple of loaves of bread and we debit it. It really works out great for both of us.