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Selling Veggie Burgers in South America

Santiago Travel
by Eileen Smith Aug 30, 2011
It’s not every day you see a tall blond man selling burgers on the street in Santiago.

Of all the things a gringo could do to make money in Latin America, Ben Seelig, a history major who recently graduated from Berkeley, has eschewed putting in his time as a lackey at a multinational corporation, and (for the most part) becoming a grammar drone at any of Santiago’s many language institutes. Instead, five days a week he sets up a beat-up cardboard box with handlettered signs and sells black bean and lentil burgers in front of the Universidad de Chile metro.

And they sell. In a city where street food is mainly sopaipillas (disks of lard-enriched dough deep fried), cold meat sandwiches, spring rolls, and the occasional “hamburguesa de soya” (soyburger), Ben has found a niche in cooking pots of lentils and black beans over a cramped-in stove in a miniscule kitchen in his apartment in Plaza Italia, ladling them over purchased buns and dressing them up with a couple of sauces he whips up while they’re cooking. He wraps them all in “alusa” (our version of cling film), and heads down to the university, having perfected his hawker’s patter.

Directo de California, receta de mi abuela, hamburguesas de lentejas, hamburguesas de porotos negros, a quinientos pesos” (Straight from California, my grandmother’s recipe, lentil burgers, black bean burgers, 500 pesos (about $1.10).

Ben arrived in Santiago a couple of months ago after a stint in the north of South America, and started plying the streets with his legume-on-bread combo after a scant three weeks here in Chile’s capital.

I stopped by on a hazy cool day to try the burgers and found them tasty, and business going well, though the other vendors nearby, particularly the soyburger vendors, weren’t exactly high-fiveing him. A young newscaster popped by to say hello, and took a lentil burger he gave her, perching for a Chilean-style goodbye cheek kiss as she left.

“I give lots of people free burgers,” he told me. “If there’s a group of them and they can’t decide whether or not to buy, I’ll give them one so they can all try it.” They’ll usually buy a couple.

Who doesn’t buy? Older people. “Older women will come by and ask a million questions” he says, “but they never buy anything.” And where can he find some great customers? The first Tuesday critical mass bike ride. They cleaned him out of 20 burgers before the ride even started last month, and he’ll be planning accordingly for future rides.

Chile’s economy is strong, and growing, at a time when much of the northern hemisphere’s economy is in crisis. Chile’s government offers a few startup grants to fledgling companies, and is also giving seed money grants to small businesses in the country. But Ben says he has no idea what he’d do with the $40,000 grant they give to startups. He’s got ideas, but not $40,000 worth, at least for now. Maybe a cargo trike, a catering business. And in the meantime, he’s developing a hummus burger which I tried a preview of one night in the apartment where he makes them. For a first run, he tried Chile-friendly avocado in the hummus for creaminess instead of expensive, imported tahini. The burger was tasty, spicy, oniony, and pretty innovative. I can’t wait to see what he dreams of next.

His green hummus sandwich is taking off, with more varieties to follow. He sells out quickly on protest days, of which there are many lately, because all that marching makes for hungry protesters. Follow Ben on twitter at @HamburgLentejas to find out where he’ll be on any given day.

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