“We want anyone to have paella anywhere,” says Carol Vanegas-Schuster, cofounder of the new frozen food brand Got Paella. “That’s our goal.”
Based on recipes developed by her husband, Ben Schuster — who was raised by German parents in Madrid and Barcelona and has run S.B. Paella Catering for the past half-decade — the company launched out of a shared kitchen in Goleta in February. Their first sales were to Draeger’s Markets in the Bay Area, followed by California Fresh Markets along the Central Coast, including El Rancho in Solvang. But they’ll finally start selling in Santa Barbara at Bristol Farms on December 1, and — thanks to winning a competition hosted by the national distributor KeHE — will soon be in frozen-food aisles across the country.
“It’s a really proud moment,” said Vanegas-Schuster of their entirely self-funded project. They’re investigating other facilities if they need to expand down the road, and they would like to hire another chef. “But for now,” she explained, “we can do it ourselves.”
For the uninitiated, paella is the saffron-spiked, fried-rice dish from Spain that comes with veggies, meat, and/or seafood. Fierce pride surrounds paella, which is simmered for a long time, typically over open fire, with ingredients that vary with each region. Cooks hold secrets close to their chests, most particularly in how they develop the socarrat, which is the word, derived from “singed,” for the crusty rice that forms on the bottom of the pan.
Translating that guarded, multi-hour process into a frozen form that allows amateurs to do the same at home in just 10 minutes is a bit magical. Some folks, including a few of my close friends who’ve lived in paella’s ancestral home of Valencia, find the idea a touch sacrilegious. “Arroz con muchas cosas,” texted one of them when I sent him a picture. “That’s what I’d call that.”
But I’ve had my fair share of paella — from the kitchens of talented chef friends and in restaurants like our own Loquita as well as a few times in Spain — and can report that Got Paella does the trick for a midweek meal. With just a couple tablespoons of olive oil, strategic stirring, and the slightest attention, I was able to turn both of their flavors, “Seafood” and “Vegan,” into dinners perfectly sized for two people. The ingredients are fresh and snappy, and the yellow rice is rich with those familiar saffron flavors. I even achieved a socarrat of my own, and on a nonstick pan.
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“It wasn’t easy,” said Vanegas-Schuster of developing the recipe, testing it, and getting it approved by the FDA. “It’s a very lengthy and laborious process.”
That part is mostly her husband’s job, while she handles sales and marketing. They developed their working relationship through the catering business, which they launched in 2015 while living in Los Angeles with L.A. Paella Catering.
A first-generation American whose parents emigrated from El Salvador a half-century ago, Vanegas-Schuster was the first in her family to attend college, and she used her Cal State Fullerton degree to build a successful career in medical and retail sales. She met Schuster through a former roommate while enjoying a drag show brunch at Hamburger Mary’s. “I put him in the friend zone,” she said with a laugh, but they grew closer when his dog died.
Schuster grew up in Spain because his German dad is the famous footballer Bernd Schuster, who won championships playing midfield for FC Barcelona and Real Madrid, which he later coached. The younger Schuster was sent to Missouri for college to study finance and wound up as a global cost analyst for a top law firm in Los Angeles.
In an aspirational move, the couple got married at the Santa Barbara County Courthouse. “This is where we wanted to live,” said Vanegas-Schuster. “We just knew this is where we wanted to be.”
L.A. Paella Catering started a side job for Schuster, but Vanegas-Schuster — who’d shifted from career woman to full-time mom — saw much more potential. “He comes up with the ideas, but not everybody who is an artist can sell,” she said. “He was giving it away for free, pretty much.”
She took over the money side, and the business thrived. In 2016, they launched S.B. Paella Catering, still intent on moving here. Eventually, they had their own kitchen in Long Beach, a second chef, a food truck, and the shared space in Goleta. “We were set,” she said. “And then the pandemic hit.”
Events ended, and the catering business was hammered. Schuster immediately called their top clients, offering to deliver food. “‘You’re crazy; that’s weird,’” she told her husband. “But all of the sudden, the calls are coming in.” They served 3,500 meals in 45 days. Still, they’d eventually lose their Long Beach kitchen, lay off the second chef, sell their food truck, and scale back the original catering model.
Meanwhile, they dusted off the frozen paella idea that they’d first thought of in 2017, when she trademarked the Got Paella name. The only American competition was a Trader Joe’s product, which is one of the chain’s top sellers. But it’s not that great, according to Vanegas-Schuster, and the versions in Europe are full of fillers and preservatives. “When we go to Spain, we try to find a better one than ours, but I haven’t,” she said. They began jumping through the approval hoops but were soon running into issues that they didn’t know how to navigate.
“I needed support,” said Vanegas-Schuster, who was finally able to move her family to Santa Barbara in May 2020. “I was at the end of my rope.” She discovered Women’s Economic Ventures, and was connected with mentors like Kristina Erikson, the CFO of The Good Bean and former CFO of Balance Bar, and restaurateur Sherry Villanueva, who opened countless doors. Vanegas-Schuster gets emotional talking about their help, explaining, “All of these women are so strong. It’s been extremely amazing.”
With dogged determination, Vanegas-Schuster pushed her way into the Draeger’s deal, but she believes that is all due to the quality of the product. “If it wasn’t this good, I couldn’t sell it,” she said.
Then she submitted the product into KeHE’s Diversity Trendfinder competition, in which about 200 food purveyors gave 20-minute, Shark Tank–like pitches on their products. Got Paella was one of the 20 “Golden Ticket” winners, which puts the product on the fast-track for distribution in stores like Whole Foods, Gelson’s, Erewhon, and others.
Got Paella is now on the frontlines of fighting the stigma that frozen food is somehow subpar, even though the freezing process ensures freshness, retains vitamins, and preserves flavors, all while fighting food waste. “Frozen food has a terrible perception,” said Vanegas-Schuster, who admits to harboring those same feelings about the Hungry-Man TV dinners of yesteryear. “But the market is growing. Frozen food isn’t bad.”
She believes Got Paella will help publicize the historic dish to new fans. They’d like to do a meat version one day, but the regulations on that are prohibitively pricey right now. Beyond that, she hopes there aren’t any more ideas coming from her husband anytime soon.
“I told him this is the last idea — I don’t want to do another one,” she said. “This seems like the good one.”