Editor’s note: This story was produced in conjunction with the Latino Communities Reporting Lab.
MERIDEN — Premium Coquito owner Zuehailie Gardner started her business in early December after she found herself selling her homemade coquito, a traditional Puerto Rican holiday drink, to coworkers at her part-time job.
“During the holidays I gave my coworkers some coquito and I would get great responses, so I discovered that I could actually sell it. I sold them to some supervisors and everyone ended up wanting to buy some,” Gardner said.
Gardner was born in Puerto Rico and raised in a Puerto Rican household. She learned to make traditional dishes and drinks such as coquito from her mother.
Meaning “little coconut,” coquito is a creamy drink layered with coconut, spices and usually rum, though Gardner’s products currently do not contain alcohol. Sometimes called Puerto Rican egg nog, coquito is mostly consumed between November and January.
Gardner always wanted to own her own business, she said, but wasn’t sure what product to sell until she saw the demand for coquito.
“Coquito is something most Hispanics make themselves,” she said. “Once in a while, you will go and buy from someone if you don’t have time. I wanted to offer a different approach where you can come to me and just buy it.”
Ingredients for the drink surged in popularity in New York City last year, according to the New York Daily News, as the city’s Puerto Rican residents longed for a connection to holiday celebrations they weren’t be able to experience in person.
“We’re barely keeping up with the pandemic and demand for coquito,” Joe Perez, a senior vice president at Latin American foods giant Goya, told the Daily News. “We’re growing at a rate of 20-30% on these ingredients.”
Coquito can be consumed with various desserts or by itself. Gardner looks forward to eventually collaborating with bakers by incorporating coquito into their pastries, she said.
“You can infuse it with cupcakes, pancakes, creamer for coffee or use it as a mixer,” she said. “I feel that my coquito is a dessert in a bottle.”
Although Gardner is selling her coquito without alcohol, she hopes to eventually make it the way it is traditionally made with liquor.
“My ultimate goal is to co-pack with a spirit distillery so we can eventually create a coquito that has rum in it and can be sold on the market to everyone,” she said. Co-packing refers to working with a contract packager that handles packaging and labeling of products.
Gardner, who works out of a commercial kitchen, took the recipe she learned from her mom and made her own changes to it as she went along. She eventually started to incorporate different flavors like strawberry, pistachio, chocolate and espresso, as well as making vegan and fat-free versions.
Ana Rodriguez, 43, tried the coquito a month ago and said she recommends it to her friends.
“What I like is each flavor is delicious and on point,” Rodriguez said. “You can tell she takes her time to make the quality product that she does.”
Premium Coquito is currently being sold on Etsy and can be shipped anywhere.
For more information contact 203-443-1712, or check out Facebook @premium1coquito.