It sounds like a movie script. A gay entrepreneur in Guatemala launches a cookie company in 2012 from his mom’s kitchen. He meets another Guatemalan entrepreneur, also gay, who joins the business. They get married, immigrate in 2019 to the U.S., and, overcoming a slew of obstacles, relaunch the company from their base in Austin, Texas, achieving success.
The company is called Wunderkeks. The entrepreneurs are founder Hans Schrei and his co-owner husband, Luis Gramajo.
I recently spoke with them. Our conversation addressed much more than selling cookies.
The entire audio of that interview is embedded below. The transcript is edited for clarity and condensed.
Eric Bandholz: Tell us about Wunderkeks.
Hans Schrei: In December 2011 I was living in my home country of Guatemala. I had 30 days of time off from my job, so I decided to bake one type of cookie from my mom’s kitchen for every day of Advent. By day 18, I had a thousand cookies. Those became my Christmas gifts that year. Then folks began telling me, “You should sell these.”
That was the start of Wunderkeks. The name means “wonder cookies” in German. It took a while to be successful, and it was a lot for me to handle. A few years later I met Luis. His background was in marketing. I was about to throw in the towel, but he came in and helped. Over time, we got our cookie dough in Costco and Walmart in Latin America.
Starting Wunderkeks was my creative outlet and a way to express myself, which I couldn’t do because being gay in Guatemala is not ideal. I built a pink box and got behind the counter, selling my cookies at our physical store. It became therapeutic and part of my identity. I am not outgoing, but the business was an excellent opportunity to talk to people. People can feel your passion when talking about your brand, providing credibility.
My relationship with Luis evolved. He too is gay. We became engaged. But getting married in Guatemala was not going to happen. So we traveled to California. We drove along the coast from San Diego to San Francisco. We saw queer couples with kids everywhere. That, for us, was very new and refreshing.
So that’s why we decided to immigrate to the U.S. We chose Austin, Texas. We sold everything in Guatemala, loaded up our dogs and two suitcases, and started doing farmers’ markets here selling our cookies.
Luis Gramajo: I have been good at selling since I was a kid. Hans loves analyzing and researching. We work well together because we’re the opposite in our qualities. I’m a people person who loves making connections and selling. Hans loves numbers. When you mix those two, you start trusting each other. The key is knowing your limitations and strengths.
Bandholz: Your cookies were a big success here in Austin.
Gramajo: Yes. Our backgrounds are in retail. Hans used to work for Procter & Gamble. I worked for Beiersdorf, the skincare company. We were brand managers for those businesses in Latin America. We knew how to meet our sales targets and how to explore an opportunity.
Schrei: Many people don’t understand that a new product needs pushing. Often the expectation is, “I’ll have my product on the shelves, and everyone is gonna be excited to buy it.” That doesn’t happen. No matter how good your display is, it is about promoting and talking about the product, its benefit, and what it will do for people. That’s why we started at a farmer’s market because we had just moved to the U.S. It was our business, and we needed the income, but it was also an opportunity to talk to people one-on-one. That’s very easy to leave behind as you grow, but it has been a critical part of our branding.
Our big break came in March 2020. We had baked 25,000 cookies to prepare for the South-by-Southwest festival. But it got canceled due to Covid. So there we were, stuck with a ton of cookies. Luckily the actress Busy Phillips heard about our situation and tweeted about it to her 2.2 million Twitter followers. Overnight we received hundreds of orders.
Covid forced us to emphasize online sales. So the long-term effect was positive. We have a Shopify store and ship our cookies worldwide from our bakery here in Austin.
Bandholz: You immigrated to the U.S. and opened a business. What is the process?
Schrei: It’s difficult because the immigration system is complex and archaic. The U.S. has limited views of who can permanently live here. In our case, the only reason that we could come was because I have an Austrian passport. That’s a long story. But I have an Austrian passport, which allowed me to request an entrepreneur visa. Only about 35 countries, mainly in Europe, have that arrangement with the U.S. And that visa requires an undefined “significant investment.” It’s a soft number. We invested $100,000.
Gramajo: It helped that we had a good relationship with the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala. Plus our business had an excellent reputation there.
Schrei: Right. But in general, the system is very archaic. If we didn’t have my Austrian passport, our visa application would have likely been rejected. Plus, Luis and I were married, which helped with his situation.
Gramajo: It all happened quickly in 2018. We did that road trip in California in April and had several additional U.S. visits later. Then we applied for the visa in Guatemala in July and received approval in September. And in January 2019 we moved to Austin.
Schrei: We got married in Austin that previous July 2018. To receive the visa, it was easier to be married before applying than afterward.
Gramajo: Hans loves reading and doing research. He put together hundreds of pages we had to present to the U.S. Embassy.
Schrei: There were so many details. We had to demonstrate our company was set up and that the $100,000 was at risk. Getting established in the U.S. — banks, taxes, regulations — is much easier with a social security number. Luckily Luis had one from working in New York for a year.
It’s all doable but, again, very complex.
Bandholz: A gay, married couple from Guatemala immigrated to the U.S., opened a business, hired employees, and found success. What a story.
Gramajo: Our mission goes beyond business. We want to build safe spaces for everyone — gay, straight, minority, white. Wunderkeks was in the closet in Guatemala. When we came here, everything happened organically. The brand evolved without us even noticing. A year and a half after moving to the U.S., we realized our brand is queer.
So that has become our mission — making the world a better place through cultural change, having conversations, and providing a safe space for everybody.
We want to grow the company, too. We’ve just launched a crowdfunding raise on Republic.
Bandholz: How can listeners connect with you?
Gramajo: I’m on LinkedIn, too.