(Milena Burnquist-Ziober | Photo Courtesy of Bella Baker)
When Brazilian-born Milena Burnquist-Ziober received a hand-made stone and ceramic doll from her step-grandma, she cherished it like any 15-year-old girl would. Today, that special gift from long ago continues to bring a smile to Milena’s face. Not only has the successful entrepreneur held on to the doll, but she has made it the face of her growing business.
“My mom drew the doll and my sister put it into a digital format from the drawing. It became Bella Baker — a fictitious character that represents the culinary culture of Brazil by how she looks and how she dresses,” Milena explained.
Together with her husband, Luis Ziober, Milena founded Bella Baker in 2014, bringing authentic Brazilian cheese bread to Bend and hoping it would have the same success here as it had had more than a decade earlier when she featured it in her restaurant in Encinitas, California.
The cheese bread had been a tremendous success right from the start back then, so hopes were high when Bella Baker launched. It quickly became evident that this was a product people loved and despite a somewhat slow beginning, by 2017 Bella Baker’s sales doubled, a trend that has repeated every year since.
Balancing the business growth with family life has proven challenging at times over the years, but together with their two daughters — Brisa, 17, and Makaya, 15 — Milena and Luis see their success as a reflection of their family values and dedication to one another.
“Things are simpler now than when the girls were little; now they’re becoming independent young adults, and they’re really proud to be a part of Bella Baker,” Milena said, adding that the whole family has always been involved with the business from the creation of the logo to developing and perfecting the cheese bread recipe. “They participate in many aspects of our operation, but the task I think they most love is selling at markets. They’re pretty good at it, too!”
Brisa and Makaya also love tagging along on road trips with their mom when she travels to food shows and markets outside of Central Oregon promoting the Bella Baker brand.
Her dedication to growing the business has led to Bella Baker being featured on shelves in every Market of Choice location from Portland to Eugene to Corvallis and has prompted Milena to invest in machinery to support production. What once took five to six hours is now done in 45 minutes.
While Milena and her family are excited and inspired by the continued growth of Bella Baker and want to continue expanding at a healthy pace, offering their products to new markets, they’re thankful each and every day for the support of the stores that first offered them a chance to follow this dream.
“Bend is a very special place and markets such as Central Oregon Locavore and Newport Avenue Market are very receptive to local companies, not just as a way to help them get into the market, but also as mentors,” Milena said. Retail, she added, is hard and requires truly understanding your customers and offering the best quality at a great value.
“Putting together a retail-ready product takes a lot of knowledge and we’ve learned so much from our supporters at these local stores,” Milena said.
For Joe Anzaldo, chief operating officer for Newport Avenue Market and Oliver Lemon’s markets in Sisters and Terrebonne, supporting local companies is a simple choice. Even if he is not personally excited about a product, as long as the company owners have done their due diligence and are operating legitimately, he’ll give them a chance and let the customers decide. That, however, was not the case with Bella Baker.
“We said we’d try Milena’s cheese bread, and of course she gave it to us right out of the oven so it was hot and all gooey on the inside, truly amazing,” Anzaldo recalled.
But it’s not just her bread that impresses Anzaldo when it comes to Milena.
“She is such a hard worker, which I really admire,” he said. “She’s always out supporting her product with demos, teaching customers. She didn’t just create it and get out; she keeps going year after year.”
Milena’s interest in helping customers understand Bella Baker cheese bread made an impact with Barb Wehrle, who found the bread when searching for a gluten-free dough for a special party appetizer she wanted to bake.
“I contacted Milena and told her what I wanted to do. She was so gracious,” Wehrle said, noting that the appetizers worked out perfectly and were a hit with her party guests. “It’s wonderful to have access to an excellent, tasty, gluten-free baked good.”
Bella Baker cheese bread just happens to be gluten free; Milena didn’t set out to create it that way. It’s also sugar free and yeast free and is made with all-natural ingredients purchased locally in Bend.
“The cheese bread is the most popular Brazillian delicacy,” Milena explained. “The greatest challenge with it, is also the greatest advantage — the product is still in its infancy in the U.S. market with many people who don’t know what it is. We hope that as people learn about it, they’ll associate it with our family brand, Bella Baker.”