During a recent weekend, I was leisurely reading The Visitor, Panama’s English newspaper. Within it, I discovered a story about an expat who has a cupcake business – Hola Cupcake – in Panama. Since I’m always interested in bringing my readers stories of expats who have found success in Panama, I contacted Jennifer Luna right away for an interview. I was also personally interested because I ADORE cupcakes,and have since I was a child. They’ve become all the rage in the U.S. over the past six years, as many of you know, but are just now starting to hit Panama. Plus, most of my general experience with sweets and baked goods in Panama has never measured up to my high taste standards. So, I was curious.
An interview seemed the perfect opportunity to find out if these cupcakes were really as good as reported…
The following dialogue is from that conversation on May 15, 2013.
Elizabeth Vance: Jennifer, first, I’m dying to know the origin of your last name – Luna. It sounds so mysterious. Where is it from?
Jennifer Luna: Actually, Luna is my married name. My husband is Panamanian.
Elizabeth Vance: Okay! Well, that probably answers the first question I had to ask you, which was what brought you to Panama?
Jennifer Luna: (Laughs) Yes, you’re right. I met my husband when we were both in college at the University of Florida, and we were both studying business. After graduation, we both found jobs in Tampa, Florida and lived there for eight years. He’s in banking, and I was in property management. Our two children came very close together – just fourteen months apart. It’s very difficult to have two small kids and two full-time jobs when you live in the States.
Elizabeth Vance: I think it’s hard no matter where you live, but yes, when you’re in the States, it’s a juggling act to have a balanced life with both kids and full-time jobs. And most Americans can’t afford a nanny or a full-time maid.
Jennifer Luna: My husband kept telling me, “We can go to Panama, and we can have a simpler life. If you don’t want to, you won’t even have to work. Plus, we can afford help for the kids if we live there, like a nanny and a maid.” Honestly, I took a lot of convincing before we made the decision. We were living very close to my parents in Florida, which I really enjoyed. But, we did make the move three years ago now, and we’re very happy we came. Moving to Panama has been the best decision we’ve made.
Elizabeth Vance: Jennifer, tell me a bit about you, your family, and some of your history. Had you been to Panama before, or lived outside the U.S. before you moved here?
Jennifer Luna: I’m originally from Florida. I’d been to Europe on vacations – Italy, Paris, and Mexico, but never to other places in Latin America. My husband and I had been coming to Panama for ten years to visit – usually for the New Year holiday. Every time we came here, I felt like at some point we’d move here, but I thought it would be during our retirement years, not when we had small kids.
I always saw how happy retirees were here – for example, in Boquete. We’d visited Boquete many times on our visits; we both fell in love with the area, and knew that we would want to be in Panama one day.
Elizabeth Vance: Once you decided to move to Panama, what type of research did you do? Or did you need to, since you had visited over that ten year period so many times?
Jennifer Luna: Because my husband is a native Panamanian, we already knew a lot. Actually, I think the first time I came to Panama with him it was 2001. At that time, the construction on Figali (the current convention center) was not even complete yet. The Costa del Este neighborhood did not exist at that time; nor did Multiplaza (the high-end mall). The Punta Pacifica neighborhood was just starting out.
Elizabeth Vance: Wow! You’ve seen a lot of changes then since 2001. We’ve been here now close to six years, and it’s amazing how much Panama has changed in that time.
Jennifer Luna: I have photos of the Panama City skyline from that very first trip. In 2001, the only existing mall was MultiCentro. And that’s actually located where my husband’s high school used to be – St. Augustine. The Hard Rock Hotel is now located atop the field where he used to play football!
But to go back to your question about research, I did do a lot of research about the individual neighborhoods. Though we had come to visit, I had never driven by myself in Panama. When my husband drove me, I was always lost and had no idea where we were.
So once we decided to come, we planned a trip to come see the grandparents, and to go look at different neighborhoods. We went out with a real estate agent. At first, I really wanted to live in Costa del Este – it felt more comfortable to me, more like a suburb in the U.S., easier to drive in, etc. At that time, there were no high rises in Costa del Este yet, and all the new homes were just starting to be built, so it was kind of the newer area of town. But my hubby really wanted to live in the city, because living in Costa del Este means you will have a long commute. So I did a lot of research, and we ended up Punta Paitilla, which was an amazing choice for us. It’s funny…my husband told me that when he was little, he used to drive through Paitilla, and that he always wanted to live there.
Elizabeth Vance: Jennifer, what was the timeline – or how long was it – from when you first started thinking about moving to Panama to actually moving here?
Jennifer Luna: I believe it was 18 months. When we first started thinking about it, my son was about six months old and we moved when he was two.
Elizabeth Vance: When I first contacted you a few weeks ago, you mentioned you were moving. Did you stay in Paitilla or did you choose another area within the city?
Jennifer Luna: We just moved to San Francisco, near Parque Omar (one of Panama’s large parks). With the kids getting bigger, it made sense for them to be able to ride bikes in their neighborhood, etc. We loved Paitilla, but we needed more outdoor space.
Elizabeth Vance: What has been a surprise for you – living in Panama as an expat, now that you have been here three years?
Jennifer Luna: The biggest surprise I had was the number of people I found that speak English here. When we visited Panama for vacation, we were always around Spanish speakers (mostly my husband’s family and friends), and I was always trying to keep up with that. Unfortunately, because a lot of people do speak English in Panama, it can make it really hard to learn Spanish, because you can usually find an English speaker close by.
Elizabeth Vance: And, how is your Spanish? Are you fluent, after three years?
Jennifer Luna: I can read almost everything. I can understand about 75% of what people say, except for the slang, or if there’s a big group talking rapidly – that can be hard.
Elizabeth Vance: Since you’d visited Panama several times before you moved here, tell me what was different than what you originally thought it might be?
Jennifer Luna: Well, my husband had lived in the U.S. for some time before we came back, so it was actually a surprise to both of us at how the technology is still a bit behind. Neither of us expected the inefficiencies we still encounter, still today, in a country that’s growing so quickly. This was a big shocker coming from the U.S., where everything is so efficient, not just in simple tasks, but for scheduling things. For example, here in Panama, people don’t always show up when they are supposed to, and nor do they call as a courtesy if they can’t make the appointment. That’s a good thing for people to know when they are moving here.
One of my friends was the first person to live in a new apartment in Punta Pacifica. And, you know, when things have to be fixed here, it often takes multiple trips and workers coming in and out of your personal space for months. This was the case for her with the new apartment over their first year here, and it really ruined Panama for her. They ended up leaving the country, as a result.
When we just moved a couple of weeks ago into our new home in San Francisco, I really tried to be realistic with my own expectations about getting settled in, and things needing to be done after we moved (taking a while).
Elizabeth Vance: So, let’s get down to your cupcake business – aptly called Hola Cupcake – I’ve heard they are yummy! How did you get that started?
Jennifer Luna: We had been living in Panama about 6-7 months when my sister-in-law also relocated here. She was not working at the time, and my sister had sent me a Hello Cupcake book for making cupcakes with fun candies and different recipes. (Note: Hello, Cupcake! Is a New York Times bestseller for irresistibly playful creations that anyone can make!, according to their website.) Remember that movie – Julie and Julia – about a gal who cooked Julia Child’s recipes every day for a year and blogged about it?
Elizabeth Vance: Oh, yes! I loved that movie.
Jennifer Luna: Well, that movie inspired me. So, I decided to do a blog with cupcakes from the Hello, Cupcake! book, but our first round, which we did at Christmas two years ago, was horrible. They melted because of the heat.
Meanwhile, my sister-in-law got a job. My husband had a Christmas party at his office and asked me to make my grandmother’s carrot cake. So, I did. Well, he came back with glowing compliments, and several of his staff asked if I might consider making carrot cakes for their holiday celebrations.
Elizabeth Vance: WOW! What a compliment! That must be some recipe.
Jennifer Luna: Yes, well…EIGHT people later. Then, they all came back from their holiday celebrations, and were asking for what else I made. So, that was the beginning.
Elizabeth Vance: I am making myself a big note to have you make a big carrot cake for me for our next social event!
Jennifer Luna: I created a menu based on my mom’s cookbook. She has a recipe for a buttercream icing that does not melt, and I used that to make a menu of flavors. From there, my husband took the menu back to his office, and the word spread.
That was about two years ago, and now I don’t really know where my clients come from – I just keep getting calls. Soon after, I started my Facebook page, and took photos of the cakes and the cupcakes so that people can see them, etc.
Elizabeth Vance: All right, so obviously you’ve got the best cupcakes in Panama! I can’t wait to try them.
Jennifer Luna: I think you have to try one to really round out the story, Elizabeth! I have 18 cupcake flavors on the menu, and a few other things too, like an oreo truffle, shortbread cookies, marshmallow pops, brownies. But, really I prefer just to make cupcakes – those are my favorite.
Elizabeth Vance: Okay, my mouth is watering, just hearing about all of these yummies! I can’t wait to try them. Do you have a retail location, and do you run Hola Cupcake full-time?
Jennifer Luna: No, at the moment, it’s part-time, and I bake from home. I bake three or four times a week, and I only bake when someone orders. My kids are four and five and they have afternoon activities, so they’re really my priority.
Elizabeth Vance: Understood. They’re why you came to Panama after all. Do you do any marketing at all? Cupcakes are such the rage now in the U.S. – well, they have been for several years now – and they’re just now really hitting Panama. How do people find you?
Jennifer Luna: I really don’t do any marketing except for social media. Most of my clients come from word of mouth. Even the article in The Visitor was from word of mouth. I baked cupcakes for the editor’s birthday and his office loved them, so they did a story. If I choose to market more than what I do now, I might get overwhelmed and then have to get more serious, and I’m not ready for that yet.
Elizabeth Vance: Jennifer, I get asked a lot about what it’s like to be an entrepreneur in Panama. Are there any ups and downs you’d to share in terms of what it takes to get started here?
Jennifer Luna: Honestly, you just have to be patient with the processes of Panama, in terms of getting your Visa to work. It was easier for me, given that my husband is Panamanian. But because of how inefficient some of the processes here can be, it can be stressful. So I’d say, just be patient.
Elizabeth Vance: What are your top three recommendations for new expats considering Panama?
1. I recommend visiting Panama more than two times before you decide to move here permanently, and to stay an extended amount of time – there’s plenty of places to you can rent for a month. I’ve heard a lot of stories of those who have jumped in too quickly, and have not found Panama to be a fit.
2. The best thing that happened to me after I moved here, was meeting another English speaking mom in the park with my kids. We struck up a conversation. Through her, I met a mommy group, which literally changed my overall experience of the country. So that’s my second recommendation – find a connection for yourself, especially with English speakers.
3. Get out of the city when you can – go to Boquete, Pedasi, San Blas, the Pearl Islands – in Panama, you can travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific in a two-hour drive. It’s important to get out and explore the beautiful country – because it has a little bit of everything.
Elizabeth Vance: Great advice, Jennifer! Thanks so much for sharing your story, and that of your business – Hola Cupcake – with me today. It’s exciting to hear that Panama has become a great fit for you and your young family, as well as the good news that Panama is embracing your cupcakes! (As am I, WOW! I can’t say enough good things about Jennifer’s baking. This family will definitely be on the permanent ordering (and eating) list!)
For more on Hola Cupcake, visit their Facebook page , or contact Jennifer for a menu locally here in Panama at +507-6920-0958 or email her at email@example.com.
(Panama skyline and Hola logo courtesy of Jennifer Luna.)