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A sweet mentor: Sugar & Scribe offers start-up bakery some space, and a chance

Maeve Rochford (left) and Claudia Sandoval at Sugar & Scribe, where Sandoval's Cochi Dorado goods will be sold through June.
Chefs Maeve Rochford (left) and Claudia Sandoval stand inside Sugar & Scribe, where Sandoval’s Cochi Dorado goods are being sold through June.
(Elisabeth Frausto)

Chef Maeve Rochford is offering something new at her newly reopened La Jolla cafe and bakery: a chance for another local chef to succeed.

Sugar & Scribe at 7660 Fay Ave. is giving half its retail section through June 30 to Cochi Dorado (Spanish for “golden pig”) in an attempt to help chef Claudia Sandoval find success after suffering a setback.

Sandoval, a “MasterChef” winner, was set to open Cochi Dorado, a modern Mexican bakery, this spring in National City. But in April, Sandoval learned her bank would not grant final approval for her loan.

“We were another casualty of COVID,” she said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic in which many businesses were crippled amid government-ordered shutdowns and other restrictions intended to stem the spread of the virus. “We were waiting for our loan to fund, but the bank diverted all new business loans into rescuing existing businesses.”

Closing her business before it opened was “heartbreaking,” Sandoval said. “We pour our lifeblood into this business.”

Sandoval created an “emotional, candid” video for her crowdfunding supporters to explain the closure.

Rochford, who met Sandoval last year at the San Diego Bay Wine & Food Festival, saw the video as it was shared across Facebook. Within minutes, Rochford called Sandoval to offer assistance.

“Maeve said, ‘I love you; you’re going to be fine. I have this crazy idea; let’s chat,’” Sandoval said.

Rochford and Sandoval worked out a plan for Sandoval to sell her pastries, which she describes as “elevated old-school Mexican pan dulce favorites,” out of Sugar & Scribe from Wednesdays to Mondays through June.

This isn’t the first time Rochford has helped Sandoval. After the two met in 2019, Sandoval consulted Rochford about starting Cochi Dorado.

“She was already a resource for me,” Sandoval said. “I look up to Maeve a lot; she’s a powerful, strong female, doing essentially what is my dream.”

Rochford said coaching Sandoval was her way of paying it forward. “I had really great mentors, like chef Bernard [Guillas] from the Marine Room,” she said. “I think we have a responsibility to try our best to help other people. I was happy to share all the times I fell on my face.”

“There’s a lot of moving parts [to owning a business] that you don’t know about until it’s too late,” Rochford said. “We talked not about food but about business — staffing, how many ovens, sales tax, all the ugly non-food things that often lead chef-owners to stumble because no one taught us the business part. That’s the biggest heartbreak.”

Especially important to Rochford was helping a fellow female chef. “I got turned down by seven banks,” she said. “I was told specifically by one local bank it was because I was a female and seven out of 10 female-led restaurants go out of business. I knew what [Sandoval] was up against.”

Sandoval said Rochford’s help has been invaluable. “One of the cool things we’re doing here is ... women supporting women,” she said. “When you’re in the trenches, you don’t see the light. Maeve was that light.”

Rochford hopes giving Cochi Dorado a temporary home at Sugar & Scribe boosts both businesses. “We can’t look at it as competition,” she said. “We’ve gotta look at it as a unified success.”

Success, Rochford said, means realizing the value of what female chefs, and pastry chefs in particular, bring to the table.

“I don’t think [Sandoval] making money will somehow mean Sugar & Scribe makes less; I don’t think someone buying my cookie will make them not want to buy her cookie,” she said. “People who are afraid like that are insecure, and insecure chefs are a detriment to the business. We need more of us to say our work has value.”

“It’s not ‘Why does your croissant cost so much?’” Rochford said. “It’s ‘Why is it worth so much?’”

After June, Sandoval said, she’s “open to [going] anywhere.” She’s looking for an “angel investor” to help her finally open Cochi Dorado.

“I’m going to put it out into the universe,” she said. “My angel investor will show up; we’re going to start ramping up and doing the research and development for a new location.”

Rochford said she believes that investor is just around the corner. “You want to change the world, you want people to see the value in all cultures,” she said. “This is our moment. Claudia is that good.”

After a few weeks at Sugar & Scribe, things are looking up, Sandoval said, with many people traveling long distances to buy her pastries.

“The majority of my people are from southern San Diego; they’re driving 30 to 40 minutes for my treats,” she said. “I have people driving from Orange County and L.A. That’s huge. It goes to show this is a viable project.”

“The possibilities are endless,” Sandoval added. “I’m excited for the future.” ◆