Karla Ugarte and Juan Palma were coming off nine solid months of new business success when they reached for more in opening their second Keto Sweets & Treats.
The husband-and-wife team were building from solid ground with the customer and revenue gains from their Alamo bakery along Expressway 77/83. Moving into the bigger McAllen market with a location near the always busy intersection of 10th Street and Trenton Road was the right move in their business plans.
It was March 1 when they swung their doors open in McAllen with a nice ceremony to commemorate the event.
Two weeks later, COVID-19 reached the Rio Grande Valley. Shelter-in-place orders went out from county governments. The Keto Sweets bakeries stayed open as an essential business, but after a promising start in McAllen, the customers stopped coming during those perilous weeks in March and April.
“No one saw the virus coming when we were getting ready to open (in McAllen),” Ugarte said. “We had to take on the challenge and keep it going and pay our bills.”
Ugarte knows about dealing with challenges. Four years ago, her weight was over 300 pounds. She was a diabetic who felt “very tired, very sick and my sugar levels were out of control.”
She recalls a doctor sitting her down and saying, “Karla, you’re a prime candidate to have a heart attack. You need to make a major change.”
She did. The fifth-grade teacher from the Valley View school district near Hidalgo followed the lead of a colleague and tried a ketogenic diet. It’s a low-carb diet that drastically reduces carbohydrate intake. When done properly, the diet can significantly bring down blood sugar and insulin levels.
Keto is high on seafood, meat, eggs, avocados and nuts. The pastries of a keto diet avoid flour in its ingredients and instead, substitute it with almond flour and flax seeds. Avoiding sugar and processed foods are also key to being keto friendly.
For Ugarte, the results of going keto were dramatic. She lost nearly 150 pounds. Her health and appearance were transformed. Ugarte’s fellow teachers asked for her secret to weight loss and better health. Keto, she said, and her husband’s cooking.
Growing From Scratch
Palma has a background in the food business. Cooking for his wife’s new diet would lead to making similar meals for his wife’s teacher friends. Cooking keto-friendly meals out of the kitchen of his Hidalgo home proved to be popular. It was 45 customers and counting when Ugarte told her husband, “we need our own place.”
It all led to a June 2019 opening of Keto Sweets & Treats in Alamo. By then, Palma had taken culinary courses at South Texas College and was further adjusting traditional recipes to the keto style.
“Trial and error,” he said of the process. “With keto, you have to be very precise with calories, carbs, ingredients, because our customers really watch what they eat and measure it.”
At his Alamo bakery recently, Palma highlighted an array of pastries, including keto versions of popular Mexican treats like empanadas and conchas. The freezer up front has keto-friendly pizza and lasagna for sale that Palma bakes in his Alamo kitchen.
“I’m good with numbers and he’s good with food,” Ugarte said of their partnership.
She expects a gradual recovery in business as more local residents seek to stay healthy and lose weight.
“I’m seeing more people who are truly willing to invest in themselves to improve their health,” said Ugarte, who keeps a connection to her customers via texting, videos and a strong Facebook presence with 10,000 followers.
Ugarte has seen COVID-19 reach her own family. She tested negative but had symptoms of the virus. Her husband showed antibodies connected to having COVID but was asymptomatic. Another member of her immediate family tested positive and was going through flu-like symptoms. It has added another challenge to running their business.
“The virus is so real, but we’re on our way,” she said of overcoming the challenges. “We’ve come too far to turn back.”