Eva Diaz and her husband, Wascar Santos, opened their restaurant to teach their kids about their Caribbean heritage. Now she’s a board member for a cooperative that’s helping immigrant entrepreneurs in the food industry strengthen their businesses in the face of development. Video by Jack D’Isidoro
Two years ago, Ruperto Morocho left his wife in charge of their Hispanic restaurant at East 148th Street in the Bronx and traveled to Manhattan to protest. New regulations were banning Styrofoam takeout containers in the city, and dozens of small business owners were on City Hall’s steps saying they couldn’t afford the change.
“Then I looked around, and I thought, ‘Here we are together – 30 restaurants,'” Morocho said in Spanish. “I said, ‘I have an idea, why don’t we unite, form a cooperative?’”
Morocho started calculating potential savings if the restaurants bought the more expensive, non-Styrofoam takeout containers in bulk, he said. Then he started calculating their buying power if they bought everything – from sugar to chairs – collectively. He estimated a shared savings of $100,000 a month. That’s when the idea of a cooperative among these owners – who were all immigrant entrepreneurs mainly from Latin America and the Caribbean – took off.
“Alone I can’t, but united we can. I’ve always had this way of thinking,” the Ecuadorian native said. “We’re a group of Mexicans, Dominicans, Colombians, but we’re coming together because we’re stronger that way.”
The United Business Cooperative is now a formal group of 30 restaurant, bakery and juice bar entrepreneurs in the Bronx and northern Manhattan. Since its launch, the coop has expanded its scope. In addition to acting as a collective, it now helps businesses learn best practices and is working to bring more fresh, local produce to their menus. The goal is to help strengthen members’ operations as new development moves into the community. This summer, the cooperative said it wants to expand in the Hunts Point area as well.
“We’re a group of Mexicans, Dominicans, Colombians, but we’re coming together because we’re stronger that way.”
Henry Obispo, the cooperative’s president, who is also launching his own café-juice bar, said the group is open to all small restaurants, but has found a niche with immigrant owners who face an extra set of obstacles. Many lack English skills, are fearful of technology and don’t understand how to work with institutions in the city, he said. Obispo, a Dominican native, grew up in the South Bronx and watched his mother struggle as an immigrant entrepreneur too.
“They might not necessarily have the know-how but they have the grit, the might, to be successful, and they are successful,” Obispo said.
Immigrants are one of New York City’s most entrepreneurial demographics, according to a 2012 report from the city’s Fund for Public Advocacy and ACCION USA, a capital-lending organization that targets low-to-mid-income and minority business owners. But the same report showed almost 90 percent of more than 600 immigrant small business owners surveyed didn’t have a website, compared to 51 percent of all small businesses nationally. And nearly 80 percent wanted support in areas like financial assistance, legal guidance and marketing.
Puerto Rican Eva Diaz had no restaurant experience when she opened Calientito on Lincoln Avenue with her husband, Dominican Wascar Santos, two years ago. But her fluency in English allowed her to seek out resources and build up the couple’s Caribbean restaurant. She is now a board member of the cooperative.
“It has been a big challenge to do this,” Diaz said. “But we wanted to share our cultures with our kids growing up in New York.”
Diaz was introduced to the cooperative while she was taking business classes at the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation, or SoBRO. SoBRO is a non-profit community development center that has been in the area since 1972. The organization helped the cooperative formalize and expand its services since the founding members first asked for help two years ago.
“Little by little we’re growing,” Diaz said. “A lot of immigrants don’t trust institutions. But SoBRO has been here so long.”
With SoBRO’s help, the cooperative has offered training in financial literacy, technology use and how to accept credit cards. The group has also given four loans to owners to remodel their stores for a new wave of clients moving to the community.
“We saw this coming,” Diaz said, pointing at the new apartments being developed across the street from Calientito. “We wanted to get in on it.”
“Now this isn’t the southern Bronx, it’s like a suburb.”
Pablo Martinez, a founding member of the cooperative, said he sees the demographics of the South Bronx changing too. Martinez moved to New York City from the Dominican Republic 25 years ago and opened Don Sabor Dominican Restaurant with his wife, Maria, eight years ago. Back then, there were many empty lots near his spot on East 156th Street, he said.
“Now this isn’t the southern Bronx, it’s like a suburb,” he said while standing outside his storefront and laughing. “They’re putting up so much, in the next five-six years, everything is going to be different.”
With the area changing, Martinez said he is grateful SoBRO has helped the cooperative become a known economic force.
“Now we’re known in the press, we’re known at city hall,” Martinez said. “They’ve helped us in many ways.”
Jamila Diaz, assistant vice president of business services at SoBRO, said her organization will keep the coop under its wing for a few years before it launches independently. She said she wants to see all the members succeed, about half of whom have owned their businesses for over 10 years.
“These are the business owners who are dedicated to the South Bronx. They’ve already invested. So it’s only a right for them to receive the benefits now, of what’s going on in the Bronx,” Diaz said.
“We need to make sure that we keep the fabric of our community,” she said.
The cooperative has won $125,000 in THRIVE grants from New York City’s Economic Development Corporation to fund its work. It also received a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture for $25,000.
“We need to make sure that we keep the fabric of our community.”
The USDA grant is being used to study how to get more local produce onto members’ menus. The South Bronx has some of the highest obesity rates in the city, and a low consumption of fruits and vegetables. In Hunts Point and adjacent areas, one in three adults is obese, compared to one in four New Yorkers overall, according to a 2013 New York City Department of Mental Health and Hygiene survey. And 25 percent of people reported eating no fruits or vegetables on a daily basis, double the rate in New York City.
“I want to add more vegetables to my menu,” said Morocho, whose restaurants El Delicioso and El Nuevo Delicioso are known for their roasted chicken. “People will order broccoli or asparagus.”
The cooperative plans to partner with GrowNYC for logistical help and advice. GrowNYC is a non-profit established in 1970 that operates community gardens and 54 farmers markets in the city. Olivia Blanchflower, the group’s director of wholesale and distribution, said she is excited to work with the coop.
“It is one of the biggest ironies in the city that all of the food in the city really comes through the Hunts Point neighborhood, and that the neighborhood is in such dire need for good food access,” Blanchflower said, referring to the city’s massive meat, fish and produce distribution centers in Hunts Point.
The Hunts Point area has over four dozen restaurants that could apply for membership in the cooperative, according to referenceUSA.com. Cooperative president Obispo said he’s looking forward to helping small businesses there grow as larger chains move in.
“I think that starting this process is really revolutionary, I would say in the city, the entire city, to kind of think ahead before it comes to you,” Obispo said. “I don’t know if any parts of the city have had that sort of opportunity.”
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