This is an installment of Shop Talk, an occasional series of interviews with business owners in Alaska, typically focusing on the state economy and how it is affecting them.
Carolina Vidal didn't exactly set out to have a piñata-making business.
It started last year, when her 7-year-old daughter wanted a piñata for her birthday (one designed like the character Cloud Guy from the movie "Trolls" — basically a big cloud with lanky limbs). After that, Vidal wanted to make something a little more challenging, something distinctly Alaskan. So she made a pink salmon piñata.
Now, Vidal's hobby is a burgeoning part-time business, which she calls The Piñata Shop and operates out of a makeshift workshop in her South Anchorage home. Customers find her through word of mouth and on social media — her Instagram shows vibrant piñatas designed as ornate sugar skulls, the Eiffel Tower, a trailer, a tent, an owl and more, ranging from about $45 to $380 so far. (Customers provide the filling.)
People have commissioned her to make piñatas for weddings, birthday parties, all kinds of occasions — she recently made a piñata styled after the iconic neon palm tree that used to mark Spenard's Paradise Inn, for the launch party for hyperlocal news outlet The Spenardian.
Vidal is originally from Tabasco, Mexico, and she and her husband moved around the U.S. before settling back in Alaska (his home state) nearly three years ago. She talked to the Anchorage Daily News about her work while crafting a sushi roll piñata one recent morning.
So tell me a bit about your business.
Still not quite sure if it's considered "business" business. I've been doing this for several months, probably since May last year. Everything started because of my 7-year-old (who wanted the "Trolls" piñata). … I looked on Amazon, I looked in town, I knew already what Target and Walmart and Partycraft and Party World — (places) that carry piñatas, and I know they're real tiny and super fragile, made pretty much out of very thin cardstock.
I was like no, I want something well-made and a good-quality one, and I want all your friends to have a turn at least because with those, by the second kid, they whack and they're done and I feel bad for the kids that didn't get a chance. I grew up in Mexico, we got piñatas since we're 1 year old.
Are they specifically a Mexican thing?
Well, the Mexicans made it more into a fun thing. It all started in China. …
(In Mexico) I still remember breaking those clay piñatas. They would be filled with mandarin oranges, peanuts and confetti and pretty much that — just dry fruits, stuff that would have a peel.
How did you learn to do this?
Pretty much just self (taught) — tutorials. I knew the basics because we did a bit at school. My paternal grandfather in Mexico has a birthday on Christmas, so I remember maybe twice as a teenager we would help my grandma make the traditional star piñatas, we would make two of them for my grandpa to break on Christmas Day because it was his birthday.
Can you tell me a bit about how you turned this into a business?
I guess just word of mouth pretty much, and social media, because that's all I have. I've been getting to know people now through this. My neighbors have been placing orders. There's so many kids in this neighborhood, it's wonderful. And yeah, that's how — they email me or send me private messages asking for piñatas. This past January, I did a wedding show at the Dena'ina (Civic and Convention) Center, it was the wedding fair.
Are there other people in Anchorage who make piñatas?
I haven't met anyone. I have met a couple Mexicans who have told me, "Oh, my grandma used to make them for me but she doesn't make them anymore," or, "My mom made it for my kids, but it's been years."
How long does it typically take you to make one?
I'd say six hours (for simple piñatas). They are pretty labor-intensive.
It seems like for marketing, you focus on Instagram?
Instagram and Facebook, pretty much that, and again, people just sharing the word. …
There's a bride that's going to have a wedding this summer and she's like, "My wedding is going to be super Alaskan, I know I want your salmon for sure, the humpy — what else can you make?" I said hey, I can make a Dall sheep, I can make a goat, I can make a moose.
What are your thoughts on growing the business?
I think it's got a lot of potential and it will be — I hope it happens in the near future. … Right now, it's just busy with the house, the kids, and everything around it. I would like to eventually have a shop somewhere. …
Even though I miss a lot of things about California, doing this, I don't feel so much like an outsider. … I have met wonderful local business owners and just locals. … It's been great to feel welcome that way and to feel part of Anchorage and part of the community. So that's why, I really wish I could probably go bigger with this and I'm trying to get the help I need. Because it's a good feeling. I don't love it when I don't feel like I'm part of those places. I like to belong. That's what I knew in Mexico. …
I'm learning, too, who to cater to. It's probably a special event they're going to be celebrating and they want it to be meaningful and they have an exact idea of what they want. That's who I really want to cater to. It really gets me excited to do piñatas for grown-ups.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.