Robert Willson hates the idea of a perfect square or a precise circle, at least when it comes to his baked goods.
His slightly rustic scones, shortbreads, brownies and cookies are clearly hand-made, and just to underscore that point, Willson has named his new enterprise MANO, or “hand” in Spanish. Even the logo was made by hand, and so are the labels, but more about that later.
“The pastries that are made here in Mérida have a very different flavor than many of us are used to in the rest of the world. The butter has a very different flavor profile, even the water, the flour sometimes,” Robert says. “There are some things I taste that just taste like Mérida to me.”
He experimented with his own flavor profiles before introducing MANO to the community.
“Traditional but with modern flavors” is how Robert describes his line. “I make a lemon tart but it’s with olive oil, for example.”
Peanut butter cookies have roasted peanuts and dark chocolate and are dusted with sea salt. The flaky shortbread is “The Queen Mother’s Recipe,” but it’s not the famous Scottish brand. He named the brownies for a Mrs. Walker who lived down the street when he was six years old. No cocoa, just chocolate and they’re cakier than what might be expected. His spiced oatmeal raisin cookies have dark chocolate chunks, just because.
The best-sellers are the green-tea raisin scones, which hit on a gap in the market for high tea’s most famous accompaniment. “It’s not only for expats, everybody likes this,” he tells us.
Robert launched the line three weeks ago at La Epicure Boutique Gourmet, which recently moved from Santa Ana to a much busier location in Santiago. “We got a good response,” he says. On Monday, MANO baked goods will debut at Voltacafé in Santiago. He expects to roll out the product to more locations in the future.
Many of us first learned about Willson when he and partner David Serrano were featured in Architectural Digest, back when it was still a little unusual for Mérida to get that kind of attention. They ran Downtown, an eclectic showroom in Los Angeles’ La Cienega Design Quarter for 23 years. Downtown once even hosted some other local notables for a “Dream Life in Mexico” roundtable discussion.
“It’s a big city that changed, and life in the big city is not easy,” Willson says, on their departure from LA. “We’re in a very competitive business and a very demanding business.”
Once here, Robert assumed he was at the very least semi-retired. But no.
“I just had a lot of time to cook again and I fell back in love with cooking,” he says, while sitting in his all-Viking, light-filled kitchen, which has been featured in more than one décor magazine.
Going into foods isn’t the radical career change that it might at first appear.
“My two loves in life have been food and design,” Robert says. “I started in the food business in Los Angeles when I was in my early 20s. By my mid-20s I was a partner in a very large catering business. Did lots of Hollywood film premieres and celebrity weddings, you know, the whole thing.”
By the early 1990s, he got a job at a billion-dollar international food retailer and he worked with the Ritz Hotel in Paris on developing a product line aimed at the United States market.
“I traveled every week, so it was kind of a burnout situation and the food business can do that to you,” he says. “It’s a really tough business.”
Robert catered a few parties, including a sit-down dinner for 80 guests. ”Those are 18-hour days,” he says. After asking himself “can I still do this?” it turns out he could, “and I had a good time.”
Then the pandemic happened and catering was naturally sidelined. The pause gave him time to think about baked goods instead.
The design expert in him has served him well. To work on MANO’s very clever branding, he commissioned a linocut by Manuel Taure, who happens to be known as the Graphic Baker. For years, Manuel has opened his studio each Friday to introduce his prints alongside his freshly baked bread loaves.
“It’s all hand cut out of linoleum, and then he hand-presses the letters, so it went along with the brand,” Robert says.
“None of the product should look like it was made by a machine. Actually, I try to make them look more handmade. When I’m forming the cookies, I try to make them not look even, so I think it’s more appealing. You eat with your eyes.”
La Epicure, Calle 59 between 72 and 74, 9:30 a.m.-3 p.m Monday-Saturday. Voltacafé Santa Lucía, Plaza Carmési, Calle 53 at 62, 9 a.m.-10 p.m. daily. Instagram: @mano.mid.yuc.mx