From the outside, the ’80s ranch-style home on a cul-de-sac in Southwest Austin looks like any other, but follow a dirt path lined with raised beds of nasturtiums, Swiss chard and Turk’s cap to the backyard. Instead of a lawn, you’ll find a space overflowing with beds of fragrant edible herbs and flowers. Welcome to La Flaca.
Before Alejandra Rodriguez Boughton became an urban farmer, she had a promising career as an investment banker with one of Mexico’s largest financial institutions. She moved to Austin from her native Monterrey, Mexico, in 2012 to attend the University of Texas at Austin’s McCombs School of Business, but while completing her MBA, she had an epiphany: The world of big business was just not for her anymore.
While figuring out what was next, she sought comfort in cooking, but instead found frustration when she wasn’t able to find the Mexican ingredients she needed. Inspired, she decided to grow hard-to-find chiles and herbs for personal use on the small balcony of the apartment she lived in at the time. It occurred to her that perhaps other home cooks and even restaurateurs may be having similar frustrations, and might be interested in these elusive products. “I thought…can I sell to restaurants? Can I make a business out of this?” she recalls. “Restaurants started buying, so I said, ‘Okay, this works out.’ Now I need [more] space and someone to help me.”
At a mushroom convention in Seattle, a fellow attendee handed Rodriguez Boughton the résumé of Ben Carroll, who had just completed his horticulture degree in Connecticut but didn’t know what to do with his life. Grad school wasn’t an option, so instead, he passed his résumé to everyone he knew. It was kismet that one made it into Rodriguez Boughton’s hands, and it brought him to Austin for a potential opportunity.
“I came over to see what she had,” says Carroll. “She had a few restaurants, and a few starter plants (‘minimum viable product,’ interjects Rodriguez Boughton), but not much else. We started looking for [additional] property. My job was to find a space where the soil wasn’t contaminated and that I could convert [into a working farm], and hers was to dodge HOAs and make sure the City was okay with what we were doing. She did a lot of footwork—everything was very well thought out and placed out.” Today, the duo grows over 150 varieties of herbs, edible flowers and chiles from 25 different warm-weather countries both in the half-acre lot behind the original house and at the offsite property located at Texas Keeper Cider in Manchaca.
A typical day for the La Flaca team starts before sunrise. Rodriguez Boughton checks email and messages for restaurant orders, compiles them and sends them to Carroll, who stays onsite at the Manchaca property. He picks herbs and she picks edible flowers (she has smaller fingers and picks fast; he’s better at making herb bunches) and makes the flower arrangements to send to restaurants. While Carroll makes deliveries, Rodriguez Boughton does whatever needs to be done depending on season, such as starting seeds. “We finish the farm day when it starts getting hot—usually around noon—then we do indoor work,” she says. “I do all kinds of office work, from accounting, marketing and accounts receivable, and regular running-a-business stuff.” Carroll builds worktables, cleans the garage or the shed, “pretty much anything I can get away with indoors,” he says. They also dry herbs and chiles to make tea blends and flavored salts to sell at farmers markets.
In the summer, they take weekends off, but for the most part, “if restaurants are open, we are open,” says Rodriguez Boughton. And they service plenty of them, such as The Brewer’s Table, Lenoir, Puli-Ra, Suerte, Olamaie, L’Oca d’Oro, Guild, Confituras, Aviary, Royal Fig, Lucky Robot, Swift’s Attic and Emmer & Rye. “Sometimes our list is forty items long, with all kinds of herbs in large quantities,” she says. “We sell thousands of edible flowers year-round—including fourteen varieties in August. We really work hard to maximize the space.”
Fall weekends get much busier with farmers markets, classes and community events they host. Also, production increases due to the cooler weather. “You can cut garlic chives down to the stalk and they come back in a week or two,” says Carroll. During this season, they harvest and sell 5,000 to 10,000 flowers per week, including bougainvillea, Moringa flowers and cucumber blossoms. They grow at least 15 types of chiles and 13 varieties of basil—with unusual offerings like white-stemmed Thai basil and Tulsi (Indian) basil—and Mexican herbs such as epazote and hoja santa are staples. “I always like to grow new things,” says Rodriguez Boughton, “but they have to meet three qualifications: they must grow well here, have an interesting flavor and produce high yields.”
By Claudia Alarcón • Photography by Andy Sams
Find out more at laflacaatx.com or call 512-571-3349.