Cafe Nena’i is tucked away on the east side of Austin. Elena Sanguinetti and Gladys Benitez, mother-daughter duo and owners of the bakery, chose the location because it was raw and largely untapped at the time they opened in 2017.
Sanguinetti, the mom, was raised on a farm in Paraguay. Daughter Benitez grew up in Miami. When they arrived in Austin, they wanted to share the food of their heritage and melting-pot experience in Miami.
Hearty Pastries and Delectable Confections
Looking for a meal, dessert, strong coffee or refreshing fruit juice? Cafe Nena’i has all of these, and Sanguinetti makes the food and coffee fresh each morning.
For me personally, a single empanada or arepa makes a great snack or light meal. But for a heartier appetite, layer up! The fun part is mixing and matching empanadas, of which there are several types: beef, ham, chicken, or spinach and cheese, which is vegetarian. Cafe Nena’i also features a few different sandwiches to choose from.
I love the variety of desserts. The countertops hold everything from tarts to cookies, to rice pudding and donuts. I tried an alfajor, which is a dulce de leche cookie sprinkled with coconut flakes. I couldn’t believe the texture was real. It was like eating a puffy, coconut-caramel cloud. It melted in my mouth like butter.
And, as a coffee enthusiast, I can plainly state the Cuban coffee is excellent. There is no disappointing watery or burnt coffee here. Both the flavor and strength are on point, and the coffee perfectly accompanies any of the food items.
Behind the Name Cafe Nena’i
Nena’i means “little girl” in Guarani, an indigenous language of Paraguay. Growing up in Paraguay, “Nena’i” was Sanguinetti’s nickname. Today, the name has taken on new layers of meaning, as it pays homage to women fighting stereotypes as girls in the world–and especially entrepreneurial young women.
To Benitez and her mother, “Nena’i” also refers to the childlike wonder young girls and boys have as they face the world, and the sense of adventure they enjoy while pursuing their passions. This can turn into a fear response if we become jaded adults. “Nena’i” speaks to the hope that fearless child still lives in all of us.
In reference to facing stereotypes as a first-time business owner, Benitez said, “Every day was a practice in showing up and being as strong as I could. I wanted to make sure I was well-informed.” As the social media manager of the cafe, she also faced criticism online for choosing to have her photo taken. Followers would pick apart her appearance or tell her to “get a real job.” “What they don’t understand is that this is my job!” she said.
More recently, Benitez has chosen to stay behind the scenes, especially on Instagram. But she still loves photography and curating images, promoting the cafe with beautiful photos of food and drink.
Benitez and her mother have always been best friends. They knew they wanted to build something together, as well as share food from their roots in Paraguay and Miami. They found an abundance of delicious Mexican food and bakeries in Austin. However, they experienced a bit of a culture shock when they couldn’t find much South American food.
Cafe Nena’i is, officially, the first South American bakery to grace Austin.
What these business owners want others to understand is the Paraguayan cultural identity cannot be forced into a box, and their food reflects that. Argentina and Paraguay have similar food. So it seemed natural not to limit the cafe’s cuisine to other people’s ideas of what Paraguayan food might be.
Sanguinetti’s and Benitez’s experiences in Miami were also invaluable. The mix of Cuban, Venezuelan, and Argentinian food you can find at Cafe Nena’i is very common in Miami, especially as far as bakeries go.
Inside Cafe Nena’i
Another aspect of Miami bakeries is they are made to be grab-and-go environments. In Miami, it’s typical for customers to load up boxes of baked goods to take home to their families.
When Benitez and Sanguinetti were planning the space at Cafe Nena’i, they wanted to create a similar to-go environment and knew they didn’t need a lot of room to do so. However, they did add comfortable seating for customers wanting to enjoy the sights, smells, and Latin music a little longer.
Benitez is an avid traveller. When she was studying international relations and business at The University of Texas, she would make time every month to travel, either within the states or internationally. She was inspired by the aesthetic of different shops and cafes all over the world.
For example, during a visit to New York, she went into as many little shops as she could, taking notes. She also derived abundant design inspiration from Pinterest because the power of the Internet is never to be underestimated.
From the start, Benitez and Sanguinetti used all the resources they could drum up to design the space. They painted everything themselves, including a mural of the South American continent: a shining gold focal point on the wall.
Though you may never drive past Cafe Nena’i during your daily routine, it’s time for you to seek it out purposely. We love the cultural depth it adds to our city of Austin.
1700 Montopolis Dr. - Website