Miami – In the Venezuelan port city of Puerto La Cruz, along the Caribbean coast, three young entrepreneurs were eager to start a business in a key space at their city mall that saw heavy foot traffic. They just could not decide on what exactly to sell.
"It was a very small and tiny location," recalled the head of the business Ariel Acosta-Rubio, who had partnered with his wife Maria Alejandra Bravo and his brother in law Miguel Bravo. "The entire place was 117 square feet."
A beauty parlor was considered and rejected. Then a travel agency, and even an American hamburger place. All fell flat after intense discussion between among the young trio. In the end, they settled on the churro, the iconic Spanish fried dough – long like a ruler and twisted like pretzel – that is ubiquitously served from Madrid to Miami to Buenos Aires.
There was only one problem back in 1997, according to Acosta-Rubio — they did not know how to cook them.
"We didn't know what we were doing," he said in an interview with Fox News Latino. "We had to learn."
The first few weeks were marred by frustration over the "churro-cooking process" and finding the right balance between the flour mix and the oil. Instead of the crunchy-hot exterior that makes the churro so delectable, it turned out, well, soggy.
Despite their early failures in creating the culinary comfort food known to millions of Latin American households, the fledgling churro-makers remained optimistic and determined.
"We saw the opportunity and necessity. We were eager of having success. We wanted to be successful entrepreneurs," Acosta-Rubio said. "We saw the churro business as a way to make something big."
Within a few weeks, long lines of hungry Venezuelan shoppers waited for their fried churros and the customary rich hot chocolate to dip them in.
Acosta-Rubio described that moment, when large crowds began clamoring his product, as the beginning of "Churromania" — the largest churro company in the world, with over 100 franchises that span the Americas, from Venezuela to Colombia, Panama and Puerto Rico, with Acosta-Rubio at the helm.
And then, the business ventured north, in pursuit of the American Dream.
The first U.S. franchise was opened in Miami in 2001, since then growing to with 20 locations now all over the country. After its success in Latin America, a strategic decision was made by the company to focus on expansion in the United States to target the booming Latino market, Acosta-Rubio said.
"Our strategy, to begin with, is to go to a very high Hispanic demographic," he said. "Why? Because Hispanics already know what the churro is all about. There is a huge market for us."
Last year, Churromania partnered with Walmart to open up inside the large retailer in Latino-heavy areas such as Tampa and Orlando. Acosta-Rubio is confident his product will eventually also gain crossover success in the non-Latino market. Future plans include opening 200 new U.S. stores in the next five years.
As a sign the company’s future is in the U.S., headquarters were relocated from Venezuela to Miami.
"The success of Churromania, which got its U.S. start in Miami, doesn't surprise me," said Evan Benn, food writer for the Miami Herald.
"For starters, churros are delicious. Fried dough sells well in America, because it's fast and fatty and inexpensive. And, as consumers, we like food trends that are somewhat exotic or foreign, like sushi, tacos, ramen, pho,” Benn said.
He noted that the crossover appeal for churros is that they could be marketed as an alternative to the donut or other pastries — familiar, yet new to the American palate.
"If your average Joe had a choice between Cinnabon and Churromania — similar flavor profiles, similar satisfaction quotient, my best guess is he’ll go for one he's been to dozens of times before and one he hasn't tried yet,” Benn said.
Despite their success in the United States, Churromania has seen dramatic changes where the company began, Venezuela, due to the turbo inflation and recent economic turbulence.
"I have suppliers that say to me, ‘please, you can't continue growing and expanding in Venezuela because we cannot promise that we can supply to you’," Acosta-Rubio says." I mean that is amazing. It is a different world. I mean, it is different from here."