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. I said, ‘I have an idea, why don’t we unite, form a cooperative?’” Morocho said in Spanish.
Morocho calculated 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 amongst 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 Ecuadorean 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 co-op 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 as new development moves into the community. This summer, the cooperative said it wants to expand to other areas of the Bronx and Manhattan as well.
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 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 of the immigrant entrepreneurs 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 nonprofit 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 about 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. They’ve also given four loans to owners to remodel their operations 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.”
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 later 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 5-6 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 co-op 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 Bronx, particularly our backyard here, 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,” SoBRO’s Diaz said.
Another goal of the co-op is to bring more fresh and local produce into the area. The group received a $25,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to take the first steps in helping members incorporate more local produce into their menus.
The South Bronx has some of the highest obesity rates in the city and the lowest consumption of fruits and vegetables. More than one in three adults is obese, compared to one in four New Yorkers overall, according to a 2013 New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene community health survey. And 25 percent of people reported eating no fruits or vegetables on a daily basis, double the rate of New York City overall.
“I want to add more vegetables to my menu,” said Morocho, whose restaurants El Delicioso and El Nuevo Delicioso are known for their rotisserie chicken. “People will order broccoli or asparagus.”
Business owners Ruperto Morocho and Eva Diaz said they are constantly reaching out to other area entrepreneurs and telling them about the benefits of joining the cooperative, especially with the Styrofoam container ban taking effect July 1. This summer, the group will be canvassing the Bronx and northern Manhattan formally recruiting more restaurant, bakery and juice bar owners to apply for an annual membership. Jamila Diaz, the SoBRO representative, said she’s looking forward to helping more small businesses grow and stay in the community as larger chain restaurants move in.
“We want to make sure that we strengthen the small business owner to provide them the opportunities that maybe the bigger person that’s coming in now are taking advantage of,” said SoBRO’s Diaz. “We need to make sure that we keep the fabric of our community.”