Make It

How luck and hard work helped a Brazilian immigrant achieve the American dream

To hear Rodolfo Goncalves tell it, he's won the lottery several times over.

With little serendipity and lots of hard work, Brazilian-born Goncalves has achieved what most immigrants only dream of: He owns a successful business in New York and can call his own shots.

Today, the owner of Sweet Corner Bakeshop is known locally for his elaborate cake designs, which customers can watch him create through his store window. But a little more than a decade ago, he was living a very different life as a web designer in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Sweet Corner Bakeshop owner Rodolfo Goncalves poses at his New York City bakery on Friday, June 3, 2016
Sophie Bearman | CNBC
Sweet Corner Bakeshop owner Rodolfo Goncalves poses at his New York City bakery on Friday, June 3, 2016

His first stroke of luck was winning the green card lottery, a U.S. government-sponsored program that provides a path to citizenship. At age 24, he moved to New York — a place he'd grown up dreaming about.

"My sister told me about the green card lottery," said Goncalves, now 37. "Like 10 million people put their names in there."

"I was amazed," he said of winning in 2004. "So I left everything behind for a new beginning."

But that new beginning came with challenges. Goncalves struggled to find work in his old profession because he was still learning English. Not one to give up, he began working in the restaurant industry.

Over the next decade, he cooked, cleaned and even did floral design for Eleven Madison Park Restaurant in Manhattan, where he drew on the creative roots he developed as a child who loved to paint.

The Sweet Corner Bakeshop puts its intricately designed cakes on display. Owner Rodolfo Goncalves first began showing off his baked goods at his apartment in Astoria, Queens.
Sophie Bearman | CNBC
The Sweet Corner Bakeshop puts its intricately designed cakes on display. Owner Rodolfo Goncalves first began showing off his baked goods at his apartment in Astoria, Queens.

"I tried to learn with the pastry chefs over there, and learned a lot because of the customer service they give," he remembers. "They were very open in teaching me."

One day, he and his wife, Patricia, decided to make Brazilian honey bread after seeing it on a cooking show. They gave it to friends and co-workers, who couldn't get enough. Before they knew it, orders were coming in for deserts for parties and even weddings.

"It was my hobby for a year, when a customer encouraged me to enter a cake competition with Brides Magazine," Goncalves said.

His second big break came in 2011: His three-tiered pink floral cake was named one of the most beautiful cakes in America.

That's when the orders really started piling up. He and Patricia were filling requests for five to six large cakes per week, as well as thousands of small pastries from their Astoria, Queens, apartment kitchen, which was outfitted with three air conditioners in the window to keep the space cool.

Sweet Corner Bakeshop owner Rodolfo Goncalves poses at his New York City bakery on Friday, June 3.
Sophie Bearman | CNBC
Sweet Corner Bakeshop owner Rodolfo Goncalves poses at his New York City bakery on Friday, June 3.

"People were calling for tastings, and I knew I couldn't be doing this from home," he said.

Upon hearing he didn't have a physical bakery, one loyal customer, Priscilla de Barros, offered to front Goncalves the cash to open up a storefront in New York — sweet twist of fate number three.

"She saw my potential and knew I worked hard," he said. He scoured the city for the perfect spot, and in 2013 Sweet Corner Bakeshop was born, featuring a storefront window in Manhattan's West Village where customers can watch Goncalves in action.

Business was slow at first, and Goncalves was still working his second job at Madison Park when the store opened. But he was determined to succeed. He made sure his cakes tasted as good as they looked, and offered up tastings to win customers over.

The Sweet Corner Bakeshop’s signature delicacy is a sea salt chocolate chip cookie.
Sophie Bearman | CNBC
The Sweet Corner Bakeshop’s signature delicacy is a sea salt chocolate chip cookie.

Needless to say, it worked. Just three years in, the bakery is already profitable. It's become known for its unique spin on classics like Sea Salt Chocolate Chip and Red Velvet Nutella Bomb cookies. He's expanded beyond cakes, which are about 30 percent of Sweet Corner's sales, to ensure a more stable business outside of wedding season.

But true to form, Goncalves takes none of it for granted and remains thankful for his humble beginnings and the chances America has afforded him.

"Sometimes you look back at the decision you make — it can make a lot of difference in your future," he said. "If I said, 'No, I'm not going to work in the kitchen,' maybe I would just have a regular job in another place. But today, I have a business in New York — this is like a dream."

And the best part? His relatives in Brazil get to see him living out his own version of the American dream, something that seemed so out of reach years earlier.

"My mom thinks I am a superstar," he laughed.