Innovation and Entrepreneurship
Dona Olimpia: Launching a Business in Your FiftiesPublished: June 07, 2011
Dona Olimpia turned 78 years old last year, but her eyes are still vibrant, her voice is still soft and her appearance remains delicate. What's more, anyone who talks for just five minutes with Dona Olimpia perceives that behind her fragile appearance there still exist the power and energy that have driven a life marked by many changes.
Ever since childhood, Dona Olimpia has nurtured two great passions: cooking and writing. She has abandoned neither. Married at the age of 21, she had three children by the age of 25. At the time, being a wife was the dream of every young girl of the same age. Becoming a mother was considered the result of a natural instinct, and being a good housewife was the principal goal.
During her 20 years of marriage, Dona Olimpia devoted herself almost entirely to family life. Nevertheless, she viewed cooking as an activity that was not only pleasurable but also a way to express her emotions and her creativity. Food was always an important component of her life. Raised in Bahia -- a region of northeastern Brazil known for its cuisine -- Dona Olimpia lived in an environment that valued abundant, flavorful, fine food. Following a family tradition, the young housewife frequently prepared big meals for her friends.
After 20 years of marriage, Dona Olimpia's need for freedom spoke more loudly to her, and so she was divorced at the age of 42. That decision was just the beginning of a series of changes that ultimately led her down the path of entrepreneurship.
The Restaurant and Inn at Visconde de Mauá
In 1985, Dona Olimpia, her daughter Jussara, her son-in-law Fernando and her two granddaughters went to the mountainous Visconde de Mauá region of Rio de Janeiro State on the border of the state of Minas Gerais. They left the beaches for the mountains; left the heat for the cold; and left the structured cities of the coast for a place where, at the time, there were no telephones or public transportation.
The 1.2 million square meters of terrain in Mauá had no infrastructure whatsoever, only grasslands and three shacks. Olimpia, Jussara and Fernando resolved to invest in the ranch and turn it into something more than a local residence -- a profitable business. According to Jussara, "We had to make money; we needed to become businessmen, and we did not want to let go of our dreams." Jussara and Dona Olimpia thought the same way. They needed to make money, but by working at something they believed in and which gave them pleasure to do.
At the same time, Dona Olimpia began to work as the manager and chief cook of the first luxury hotel in the Mauá region. Her new job put her in contact with day-to-day food management. Now she had in her hands a book of French gastronomic recipes that improved her culinary skills.
In 1992, Dona Olimpia, already 60 years old, finished setting up her first venture inside the ranch that she owned: the inauguration of the Caças Restaurant. The food is based on the organic concepts advocated by Jussara, which are based on Bahian and French cuisines. Over time, the restaurant wound up attracting many of its customers to the fazenda itself.
Her intention was to create a unique sort of restaurant. At the time, Dona Olimpia decided to train herself by taking a course in French cooking in Rio de Janeiro. Shortly thereafter, she spoke with her son Amaruy, who helped her financially. That's how the Restaurante de Caças, The Hunt Restaurant, at the Fazenda do Mel, Ranch of Honey, was created.
Dona Olimpia stresses the effort and determination that were involved, and the importance of learning from her own mistakes when starting up a small business with a shortage of funding and preparation. "Businesses function in a cyclical way; they begin with courage and without experience, but then after a period of not making much money, one has the feeling of being frozen in time." She understood the importance of always thinking about improving and growing her business. "It takes years and years to develop a small business that is looking to prosper," she says. At the Caças Restaurant, "it took us two years to begin to have some profit."
Regarding the dream that was realized and materialized in her restaurant, Dona Olimpia describes her feelings this way in her book, The Cook and the Viscount: "Finally, I have a restaurant: The candelabras provide a touch of intimacy to the rustic tables and the red flowers of a bougainvillea on the edge of the window panes bathed by the setting sun. It is a temple; that's how I feel."
The Caças Restaurant and the Pousada do Mel
In 1993, the following year, they inaugurated their "Pousada," or "inn," as something complementary to the restaurant. At the time, there were few inns in Visconde de Mauá, and a few chalets were being constructed. They called their inn the Pousada do Mel, or the Inn of Honey.
Between its ecological and its mystic attractions, Visconde de Mauá wound up being well known for its natural and gastronomic attractions. Gradually, as time passed, many inns were established in the region. But Dona Olimpia and her family would continue to stick to their principles despite the increased competition. Dona Olimpia's morning coffee, famous among her guests, continued the same principles already adopted by the restaurant: fresh products obtained from the animals and the vegetable gardens of the ranch, distinguished by the abundance of whole-grain breads, yogurts, jams and cheeses.
Both at the restaurant and the Pousada, the service has always been something different -- warm to the point where Olimpia, her daughter and her son-in-law were considered like an extended family not only among their friends, but by first-time visitors to the Pousada. Today, everyone anxiously awaits Dona Olimpia's appearances. What pleases people the most about her dishes is her creative way of mixing French cuisine with the cuisine of her native Bahia.
Twenty-five years after it was constructed, the Fazenda do Mel is considered one of the prettiest and most luxurious pousadas in Mauá. In the case of Dona Olimpia, this all came about as the result of a process of liberation that began even during her marriage. Romantic, mystical and gifted artistically, Dona Olimpia says, "I climbed this mountain, searching for myself." She likes to live a life involved with nature, its mysteries and its energies. Simply seeking to make money would not have brought her pleasure. Things only made sense when she managed to transform her art into her profession.