It’s hard to beat Mom’s cooking – as many can attest – but the husband-wife team Gabriel Flores and Hiroko Takashima make it their mission to do just that by serving comfort food in Ithaca’s Press Bay Alley.
Flores and Takashima co-own and run Mama Said Hand Pies in downtown Ithaca, which recently opened on May 31. The menu is in the name; Mama Said serves hand pies filled with local ingredients with multi-cultural and international flavors, all designed to remind one of home, wherever that may be.
“Comforting flavors is really what we’re looking for,” Flores said. “Commonly, people remember their mother’s cooking or their grandmother’s cooking, and that is the comforting memory.”
Flores and Takashima have long had a love of food from a variety of cultures and traditions. Flores, originally from Queens, New York, had a multicultural family and neighbors and worked in hospitality for over 20 years, while Takashima, an Ithaca native, has studied and experienced cultures from around the world, enjoying food all along the way.
For many years, the two worked together at restaurants and often talked about opening their own café to share their love of food with their community.
“It just seemed like something we wanted to do in the end and not continue to work for others forever,” Flores said.
Hand pies, though, was a much more recent idea. Several years ago, the couple were going to apply for the Ithaca Festival, with a friend making arepas, a pre-Columbian dish made with ground maize dough. After their friend decided not to go, Flores and Takashima went to the festival themselves, taking inspiration from their friend by selling empanada-style hand pies.
Ten months later, they were invited to the Trumansburg farmers market to sell hand pies. That was three years ago, and the couple still enjoys being a part both farmers markets in Trumansburg and Ithaca.
Soon after, the couple landed in Press Bay Alley, with their first permanent storefront, making the hand pies so many had come to know and love. Customer reaction has been overwhelmingly positive, Flores said. Oftentimes, a group of people will venture to Press Bay Alley, with one member curious enough to try a hand pie. Five minutes later, every member of their group comes up to the counter, wanting a taste of what their friend said was so good. Kids, too, will want a taste from their parents.
“The second they get a bite, game over for that pie,” Flores said.
Flores said their strong, home-style flavors fit right in with the multicultural nature of Ithaca and Tompkins County as a whole.
“Ithaca has this metropolitan feel or vibe to it even though it’s so small. … There’s a global quality to it,” Flores said.
The best reward, Flores said, is when a customer says Mama Said food is a reminder of where they grew up, whether that be Ithaca or anywhere else around the world. He said it’s a quality people can’t find anywhere else but home.
Part of that quality comes from local ingredients, which the couple insists upon for both the taste and the sake of the community. Flores said he likes knowing exactly where their ingredients are coming from, and he likes forming connections with local farmers. That, he said, it why Mama Said will never become an assembly line.
“The second you start mass-producing, you lose some level of quality,” he said.
Flores and Takashima have been married now for over 17 years, Flores said, so there is a strong synergy between the two when running a business. She’s the idea person and the chef, while he’s the logistical person charged with bringing those ideas to life. Together, they make a great team, Flores said.
“There’s always a comfort between the two of us as far as making decisions and having more patience, and that’s a huge part of it,” he said.
To always give people a new experience when they come, Mama Said frequently changes up the menu, like coming up with bolder flavors to stuff into each hand pie. Flores said his kids are the main taste-testers for new menu items, and for good reason, too.
“If you put the food in front of them and it disappears, it’ll do the same in the shop,” he said.
Owning a business like this for the first time means there are still plenty of bumps in the road, Flores said. They are still getting used to how much to make ahead of time to keep the experience easy and convenient for customers.
“There’s too much to do many days where the patience has to be there for me,” Flores said.
Despite changing times making vegan and diet options popular, Flores said he is confident that their pies will never go stale.
“Pies have been around for centuries, millennia,” he said. “People have had dough filled with things as their food for how many years. … They are comforting, so I think we’ll be OK.”
No matter the challenge, Flores and Takashima have no regrets. Seeing the happy faces on so many people after tasting their pies makes it well worth it.
“It’s quite a ride. I’ve never owned my own business before,” Flores said. “It is being able to do it, and actually to achieve [it] is quite something.”
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