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Amalia Moreno-Damgaard had already established a career in the banking industry when she decided to go into business for herself. The impetus for the change: She couldn’t bear to be away from her young son.
“I didn’t want to miss his first words. I didn’t want to miss his first steps. It broke my heart when I was out of town on sales calls,” recalled Moreno-Damgaard. “In the nighttime I would wonder, what I am doing here? That motherly instinct kicked in deeply.”
At the outset, the parameters of Moreno-Damgaard’s entrepreneurial gambit were not entirely clear. She knew it would have something to do with her passion for healthy, fresh foods. At the same time, she knew she didn’t want to run a restaurant.
So, over the years, Moreno-Damgaard has carved out a career as a chef, instructor, public speaker, food consultant to Fortune 1,000 companies, and all-around champion of Latin American cuisine and culture. She is also the author of two well-received cookbooks.
Her first, Amalia’s Guatemalan Kitchen: Gourmet Cuisine with a Cultural Flair, offers 170 recipes from her native country. The book won a slew of prizes, including a nod as best first book from the Midwest Independent Publishers Association, in 2014.
In her latest, Amalia’s Mesoamerican Table: Ancient Culinary Traditions with Gourmet Infusions, Moreno-Damgaard casts a wider net and features recipes from Belize, Honduras, El Salvador, south central Mexico, Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua (as well as Guatemala).
In 2021, Moreno-Damgaard was honored as the entrepreneur of the year by the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Minnesota. She is also a co-founder of Women Entrepreneurs of Minnesota, a nonprofit that promotes women entrepreneurs.
“It was a good choice to follow my heart,” she said.
If Moreno-Damgaard’s face is familiar, that may be because she’s a frequent guest on various Twin Cities television programs. These days, she regularly appears on Twin Cities Live, an afternoon show on KSTP-TV (Channel 5). On Valentine’s Day, for example, she instructed KSTP viewers on the art of making savory Guatemalan empanadas.
Those recipes were inspired by her late grandmother. Although Moreno-Damgaard spent the bulk of her childhood in Guatemala City, she lived in the small town of Quezaltepeque with her grandmother for about five years in the wake of her parents’ divorce. Her grandmother was an excellent cook, Moreno-Damgaard said, but also an entrepreneur in her own right, running a variety store that served a largely Indigenous customer base.
“She catered to the needs of the town. She sold candles for church, sewed dresses, sold shoes and horse gear, buttons and fabric. We—my siblings and I—helped her weigh and package salt, sugar, and beans,” Moreno-Damgaard said. “I would just observe her and I absorbed quite a bit. After she died, I realized how much she inspired me.”
About “Making It in Minnesota”: This ongoing Sahan Journal series will highlight the experiences, challenges, and successes of immigrant business owners—in their own words. We’d like to share your business story, too.
If you’re an immigrant business owner or entrepreneur, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org. (Feel free to suggest a favorite business we should write about, too.) Please use the subject line “Making It in Minnesota.”
After moving to the U.S. as a young adult, Moreno-Damgaard worked her way up in the banking world. She started out at an entry level “floater” position in Kansas City, where she met her future husband (an immigrant from Denmark), before moving on to a more senior role in St. Louis. Another change in jobs led the couple to the Twin Cities, where Moreno-Damgaard worked for Wells Fargo, before deciding to launch her business.
Moreno-Damgaard talked to Sahan Journal about her multi-pronged business model: a constant process of goal-setting and adaptation to changing circumstances. If you’re not a little nervous, she added, you’re probably not growing.
When you start your business, seek out good advice. When I left banking, I took a little time to think about what I wanted to do and how to start a business. I went to SCORE, a nonprofit forum run by retired executives who donate their time to people who have a seed of an idea. I had a wonderful mentor, a member of the Pillsbury family, who spent a great deal of time giving me advice.”
Take what you learned from your old job and apply it to your new enterprise. Banking was very beneficial to me. That is where I formed the strong business core. I learned sales, marketing,and business strategies that are very helpful to me today.
Self-doubt is normal. Deal with it. I had doubts at the beginning. I had doubts in the middle. I have doubts now. That’s part of human nature. When I have had doubts, that’s where my mentors have come in.
Let your business evolve. Getting clarity on what you want to do is challenging. But you have to start somewhere. I started teaching classes at Cooks of Crocus Hill. It was a good way to get my feet wet, to connect to people and build relationships and a client base. For a short while, I had a catering business with a shared kitchen at the Midtown Global Market.
As my business grew, I phased out the areas that were not as profitable. Businesses go through different phases, so the things you did five years ago don’t always work now.
Don’t stop learning. While I was working full time, I went to Le Cordon Bleu to take my cooking to a professional level. I wanted to have the credentials of the best school in the world and to learn the classic French techniques.
I also graduated from the National Speakers Association because public speaking has become a good part of my business. As I continue to educate myself, I continue to refine what I do.
A global pandemic will change your plans. COVID has been challenging for everyone. When COVID hit, I was writing my second book, which was probably a good thing because I was distracted. Writing the book allowed me to stay connected with what I love.
And COVID brought in new opportunities that allowed me to grow virtually. Zoom was there before COVID, but not everyone was really taking advantage of it. COVID pushed me into trying new things.