Socialism in her native Venezuela steered Maria Da Fonte back to the United States, but it’s her human spirit that guided her toward being a business owner.
By Mike Beas
Hendricks County ICON
Dimensionally speaking, Maria’s Bakery in Plainfield is anything but daunting. Fifteen feet in width and a 60-foot trek from front door to the kitchen’s Northernmost reaches, Maria’s makes up for it with an early-morning quaint few area businesses can replicate.
Home to fresh donuts, muffins and one of the finest cups of coffee around, Maria’s Bakery is that and then some to its namesake, 36-year-old Maria Da Fonte. It’s independence, opportunity and a constant reminder of how the human spirit is capable of bulldozing the walls of debatable thinking.
Da Fonte, who opened Maria’s Bakery on July 15, left her native Venezuela in 2003 due to the political turmoil caused by President Hugo Chavez, whose anti-globalization has made him an easy target for criticism in Venezuela and abroad since he assumed office in 1999.
“We see the United States as a great country,” says Da Fonte’s mother, Laura, who resides in the capital city of Caracas, but travels seven hours by plane every so often to help Maria juggle the demands of her bakery. “My daughters have their lives here now and they’re happy. I wanted them to be happy wherever they happen to be.”
Older sister, Alexandra, 39, is a Speech Pathology Professor at Vanderbilt University. Like her lone sibling, Maria is well-educated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Industrial Engineering. Yet because of her refusal to support Chavez while living in Venezuela, Da Fonte essentially has been blackballed from any type of employment that parallels her education.
“I signed a piece of paper against Chavez because I felt he shouldn’t change the constitution,” explains Da Fonte. “It was held against you. It should have been a secretive vote. I searched for jobs in Argentina and offshore in Australia and in Dubai. Then one day my mom said to me, ‘You have to help me with the bills.’ ”
Maria’s father, Antonio, had passed away a few years earlier at age 53 after suffering a heart attack. Continuing to search for work, Maria was offered a night manager’s job at a Domino’s Pizza location in Caracas, but the $200 being offered monthly wasn’t going to be of great assistance.
Following her instincts, Da Fonte began selling baked goods out of her mother’s condominium. Eventually she realized this was by no means a long-term solution, so Da Fonte attended Purdue University in pursuit of a Master’s Degree in Analytical Chemistry. This decision in time paid dividends as Da Fonte landed a job at Predictive Physiology and Medicine in Bloomington.
The company eventually closed, leaving Da Fonte in search mode once again. It was around this time her boyfriend (now husband), Kevin McIlvaine, asked Maria to describe her ideal job.
The answer came quickly. Maria’s thoughts drifted back to a day when she was walking through a Caracas strip mall and noticed a small coffee shop that also specialized in baked goods. There were two tables, three at most, and the owner was serving a mouth-watering hunk of cake to two women patrons.
Just as impressive to Da Fonte was the familiarity between owner and customers. What they liked to eat. What day and time they normally would stop in. Business being conducted with smiles on a first-name-basis playing field.
Collecting unemployment and working assorted part-time jobs, Da Fonte in the irony of all ironies took a part-time job at an established Hendricks County donut shop. Eight months later, Da Fonte boldly decided to go into business for herself and born was the idea of Maria’s Bakery.
“I learned so much from working (at the donut shop). The owner there would blow my mind because she knew everyone’s name, how they took their coffee, what their kids’ names were,” says Da Fonte. “She just really knew her customers. She would say, ‘23 years, honey. Twenty-three years.’ I learned the importance of customer dynamics.”
Her biggest challenge as a business owner, reveals Da Fonte, is her name. Certain customers believe she’s Mexican and therefore immediately attempt to initiate dialogue in Spanish (a language Da Fonte speaks fluently); observing her darker skin and dark eyes, others might ask where she is from.
Da Fonte smiles through it all, knowing full well this is what she was born to do and where she is supposed to be doing it. With Jan. 15 marking six months in business, Maria’s Bakery has already eclipsed $60,000 in gross sales, though the mental and emotional benefits of what has transpired can’t be gauged in numbers.
Free from the dangerous and potentially lethal stronghold of Chavez’ radical socialism, Maria Da Fonte wakes each morning energized about driving to her bakery, unlocking the front door, flipping the light switch and making a difference by preparing the tastiest baked goods possible in a community she truly loves.
It’s the American Dream, alright, but with Venezuelan roots.