Guatemalan businessmen are gay, married and successful

Sounds like a movie script. A gay businessman in Guatemala launches a cookie company in 2012 from his mother’s kitchen. He meets another Guatemalan businessman, also gay, who joins the business. They get married, emigrate to the US in 2019 and, overcoming a series of obstacles, relaunch the company from their base in Austin, Texas, achieving success.

The company is called Wunderkeks. The entrepreneurs are the founder Hans Schrei and her husband, her co-owner, Luis Gramajo.

I recently spoke with them. Our conversation touched on much more than selling cookies.

The full audio of that interview is embedded below. The transcript is edited for clarity and condensed.

Eric Bandholz: Tell us about Wunderkeks.

Hans Schrey: In December 2011 I was living in my home country, Guatemala. I had 30 days off from work, so I decided to bake one type of cookie from my mom’s kitchen for each day of Advent. By the 18th, he had a thousand cookies. Those became my Christmas presents that year. So people started telling me, “You should sell this.”

That was the beginning of Wunderkeks. The name means “wonderful cookies” in German. It took me a while to be successful, and it was a lot for me to handle. A few years later I met Luis. His training was in marketing. I was about to throw in the towel, but he came in and helped me. Over time, we got our cookie dough from Costco and Walmart in Latin America.

Starting Wunderkeks was my creative outlet and a way to express myself, which I couldn’t do because being gay in Guatemala is not ideal. I built a pink box and stood behind the counter, selling my cookies at our physical store. It became therapeutic and part of my identity. I’m not an extrovert, but the business was a great opportunity to talk to people. People can feel your passion when talking about your brand, providing credibility.

My relationship with Luis evolved. He is also gay. We got engaged. But getting married in Guatemala was not going to happen. So we traveled to California. We drive along the coast from San Diego to San Francisco. We saw queer couples with children everywhere. That, for us, was very new and refreshing.

That is why we decided to emigrate to the United States. We chose Austin, Texas. We sold everything in Guatemala, packed our dogs and two suitcases, and started doing farmers markets here selling our cookies.

Louis Gramajo: I’ve been good at selling since I was a kid. Hans loves to analyze and investigate. We work well together because we are opposites in our qualities. I am a people person who loves networking and selling. Hans loves numbers. When you mix those two, you start to trust each other. The key is to know your limitations and strengths.

Bandolz: Your cookies were a huge hit here in Austin.

Gramajo: Yes. Our background is in retail. Hans used to work for Procter & Gamble. I worked for Beiersdorf, the skin care company. We were brand managers for those businesses in Latin America. We knew how to meet our sales goals and how to explore an opportunity.

Schrei: Many people do not understand that it is necessary to promote a new product. Often the expectation is, “I’ll have my product on the shelves and everyone will be excited to buy it.” That doesn’t happen. No matter how good your display is, it’s all about promoting and talking about the product, its benefit, and what it will do for people. That’s why we started at a farmers market because we had just moved to the US It was our business and we needed the income, but it was also an opportunity to talk to people one on one. That’s very easy to outgrow as you grow, but it’s been a core part of our brand.

Our big break came in March 2020. We had baked 25,000 cookies in preparation for the South-by-Southwest festival. But it was canceled due to Covid. So there we were, stuck with a ton of cookies. Fortunately, the actress Busy Phillips found out about our situation and tweeted about it to her 2.2 million followers on her Twitter. During the night we received hundreds of orders.

Covid forced us to emphasize online sales. So the long-term effect was positive. We have a Shopify store and we ship our cookies all over the world from our bakery here in Austin.

Bandolz: You immigrated to the United States and opened a business. What is the process?

Schrei: It is difficult because the immigration system is complex and archaic. The United States has limited views on who can live here permanently. In our case, the only reason we could come was because I have an Austrian passport. That’s a long story. But I have an Austrian passport, which allowed me to apply for an entrepreneur visa. Only about 35 countries, mainly in Europe, have that arrangement with the US, and that visa requires an undefined “significant investment.” It’s a soft number. We invest $100,000.

Gramajo: It helped that we had a good relationship with the US Embassy in Guatemala. Also, our business had an excellent reputation there.

Schrei: Right. But in general, the system is very archaic. If we did not have my Austrian passport, our visa application would probably have been rejected. Also, Luis and I were married, which helped with his situation.

Gramajo: It all happened quickly in 2018. We took that road trip in California in April and had several additional visits to the United States later. We then applied for the visa in Guatemala in July and received approval in September. And in January 2019 we moved to Austin.

Schrei: We got married in Austin that previous July 2018. In order to receive the visa, it was easier to get married before applying than after.

Gramajo: Hans loves to read and investigate. He put together hundreds of pages that we had to submit to the US Embassy.

Schrei: There were so many details. We had to show that our company was established and the $100,000 was at risk. Getting established in the US (banks, taxes, regulations) is much easier with a social security number. Luckily Luis had one to work in New York for a year.

Everything is doable but, again, very complex.

Bandolz: A gay married couple from Guatemala immigrated to the US, opened a business, hired employees, and found success. What a story.

Gramajo: Our mission goes beyond business. We want to build safe spaces for everyone: gay, straight, minority, white. Wunderkeks was in the closet in Guatemala. When we got here, everything happened organically. The brand evolved without us noticing. A year and a half after moving to the US, we realized that our brand is queer.

That has become our mission: to make the world a better place through cultural change, having conversations, and providing a safe space for all.

We also want to grow the company. We just launched a crowdfunding at Republic.

Bandolz: How can listeners connect with you?

Schrei: Our website is business is up and running Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. I’m on LinkedIn.

Gramajo: I’m on LinkedIn, too.

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