When she emigrated to the United States from Peru more than 20 years ago, Belen Bailey never imagined she would one day run a successful pastry shop in Houston’s Gulfton neighborhood.
Bailey, 50, is a Spanish-teacher-turned-entrepreneur who came to Houston in 2000. Peruvian cuisine was scarce here, and Bailey missed rich, all-natural flavors from home. So she decided to take matters into her own hands.
She began baking South American pastries in her house during after-school hours and any other spare time she could find. She started with alfajores—soft, crumbly sandwich cookies covered in powdered sugar that have a dulce de leche filling.
“Alfajores are very dear to my heart because that is a very popular cookie in Peru,” Bailey said.
She began selling her alfajores to neighbors and friends and they quickly became a hit. Soon, Bailey found herself selling them in local restaurants, festivals and farmers markets across the Houston area.
Her hard work eventually gave way to Sweets by Belen, the women-run store she owns near I-59 at 6001 Hillcroft, Suite 400.
For Bailey, however, the store is not only about sharing the flavors of Peru and South America with her community. It also pays homage to her loved ones, especially her mother and late grandmother.
Bailey grew up in a loving, bustling household as the oldest of six children. During her youth, her mother and father owned a concession stand on the beach along the coast of Peru where they would pack up the family to spend summers.
Her job was to assist in the kitchen with a variety of duties, from peeling potatoes to squeezing lemons.
Through the rest of the year, because she was the oldest, Bailey was in charge of making aguas frescas drinks during dinnertime for the entire family. She also assisted with making baked goods that her mother prepared at home to sell to neighbors and friends.
Her mother — the daughter of a woman who could not read or write and had worked as a housemaid — instilled in Bailey and her siblings the importance of receiving an education.
So, when Bailey came to the U.S. in 1997 and began teaching Spanish in Louisiana, her mother beamed with pride.
At first, according to Bailey, it was difficult to break the news to her mother that she wanted to leave her career in education to pursue baking Peruvian desserts full time. But eventually she
got her mother’s blessing. Bailey resigned from teaching and opened a food truck in 2013.
“Latinos, we are very creative. I didn’t have a lot of money so I bought a van and I converted the van as a food truck,” Bailey said.
Business boomed and within a mere three years, it was time to expand to a permanent establishment. Bailey said that while the transition was difficult, she has never been one to shy away from hard work.
“You really have to work hard if you want to achieve things,” Bailey said.
She was especially blessed to count on the support of her father and one of her brothers to open the store. They traveled all the way from Peru to Houston in 2016 to help with everything necessary to open a storefront, from obtaining permits to ripping out the store’s original carpet. The store opened a few months later.
“This is why Sweets by Belen means a lot to me. It’s not only paying homage to my grandmother and my mother, you know, it’s more than that. It is for my family, it means that somebody like me, that looks like me [an Afro Peruvian], is the owner of something,” Bailey said. “It means a lot to my family. They are part of the success [that Sweets by Belen has] right now. The store belongs to them, too.”
Among the store’s confectioneries are the alfajores, which now include two types: traditional and nut-based. The traditional one is her grandmother’s recipe and contains a dulce de leche filling made on site.
Bailey’s inclusion of nuts in the other choice is a nod to Texas and its bountiful pecans (the pecan tree is the official state tree of Texas).
Other best-sellers include macaroons and — her mother’s favorite — chantilly cake made of strawberry and mango.
Bailey emphasized that although macaroons are not a South American pastry, she attributes their popularity to the Latin flavors she infuses them with. These include coconut, guava, mango, cafe con leche, raspberry, and more.
Cakes made with fruit are very popular in South America, so it comes as no surprise that her savory passion fruit cheesecake (which I had the privilege of sampling along with alfajores, macaroons, and tres leches) also made it to the upper echelons. It can be purchased as an entire cake or as an individual slice.
Last but not least is the tres leches cake, which comes in three flavors: classic, five leches, and with pisco, a South American spirit. The cakes can be purchased as a cup, full cake, and smaller cake square perfect for one or two people.
All in all, Sweets by Belen is an excellent choice for anyone who wants to shop locally, indulge in fresh-made pastries that use natural ingredients, and support a minority-owned business.
Open Monday – Thursday, 10 a.m. – 6 p.m., Friday – Saturday, 10 a.m. – 7 p.m.
— By Liliana Rodriguez