Two Brothers and Two Decades of Peruvian Flavor in Brooklyn  

Martín and Fernando Tisoc, two Peruvian brothers who will celebrate 20 years at their Park Slope restaurant. (Photo by Ana B. Nieto via El Diario)

Having a business is like a long ride on a roller coaster. The 20 years the Coco Roco restaurant has been open have led the owners, brothers Martín and Fernando Tisoc (45 and 42, respectively) through a number of ups and down that must have caused them a great deal of vertigo at the time.

Still, time passes, and now, in an interview with El Diario, they can smile as they remember the good times and also look back without bitterness at the inevitable stumbles they have encountered along the way.

Coco Roco was one of the first restaurants to open on Brooklyn’s Fifth Avenue in the late ’90s and a pioneer of Peruvian cuisine in the heavily populated neighborhood. “When we came here,” remembered Fernando, “this was a very tough area.” While today Park Slope is one of the priciest quarters in Brooklyn and the city, when the Tisoc brothers opened their restaurant there, it was a long shot.

When they took the gamble, they had already spent years working in New York’s hospitality industry.

Their own parents encouraged them to come to the U.S. In those days, they did not think that Peru could offer their children a future whether they went to college or not, so they pushed Martín and Fernando to try their luck.

Martín and his mother, an export entrepreneur, came first. Thanks to her and to the fact that his parents had sent him to spend time with an uncle in Guayaquil who had book import enterprises across Latin American and Spain, Martín had acquired business knowledge. At 16, he opened his own bookstore in that Ecuadorean city.

Alongside his mother – who was here temporarily – Martín arrived in Miami. However, they did not find it the ideal place to look for new opportunities and, eventually, the two brothers ended up in New York. They worked at restaurants, particularly in classic Italian ones. Fernando remembers that he would have to wear a tuxedo and that he earned good money in the 1990s.

It was when the first Europa Cafe opened in Manhattan that they were able to see a business flourish from the start.

(Photo via El Diario)

On the eatery’s inauguration day and Martín’s own first day, despite having other chores to do, he offered to cover for a chef who failed to show up. “It wasn’t complicated because it was a coffee shop,” he explains.

Both brothers admit that they like to eat and that their family warned them that the best they could do was work at a restaurant. Fernando enjoyed cooking from an early age, another skill he got from his mother, while Martín became interested later, after seeing Spanish chef Karlos Arguiñano’s television shows.

To save some money, Martín started buying and selling cars and jewelry. “You should always have something saved. I was getting ready,” he said.

Around that time, an acquaintance took them to a place in Brooklyn where sports fans met to watch soccer matches. “It was an ugly neighborhood, full of crime and drugs.” With his savings and some money his mother invested, Martín turned the soccer hangout into a chicken eatery and Peruvian restaurant in March 1998. His brother joined him on the weekends.

“We started out with chicken from Monday to Friday. No one knew what ceviche was, but we were sure that chicken would work,” said Fernando. “We slowly educated people on Peruvian cuisine, but then they started requesting it every day.” The brothers soon began offering popular Peruvian dishes adapted to the New York taste.

The first few months of Coco Roco were a roller coaster. A gas inspector came by on opening day and shut down the service because one of the pipes in their kitchen was too narrow, and they were unable to open as scheduled.

However, shortly after they finally opened, as they waited for business to pick up to hire more staff, The New York Times published an article praising the restaurant’s food. A customer who was buying chicken told them about it. Overhearing the conversation, the restaurant’s Argentine beef supplier Claudio Ramos, who was arriving at that moment, asked: “Are you ready?” “Ready for what?” asked a naïve Martín.

Ramos looked at him with a mix of surprise and concern and said: “You’re in the Times and you haven’t prepared?” He ordered a dark espresso, stood behind the counter and told Martín that he would stay and help out.

Customers did not stop pouring in. The restaurant was full. They could barely keep up. “We worked 17 hours straight. We ran out of literally everything we had.” Martín admits that he hid behind the counter on several occasions to punch the air for joy the way basketball players do when they score a 3-point shot.

Everything changed at the restaurant. Park Slope also started to change, becoming more attractive to middle- and upper-income families, which in turn brought competition from Manhattan restaurants moving to Brooklyn to escape the prohibitive rental prices. In addition, more Peruvian restaurants cropped up in the city. “The competition snatched a few of our cooks a couple of times,” said Fernando.

One thing the Tisoc brothers never worry about is rent, a significant burden to other small businesses. They bought the building where the restaurant is located, as well as other properties in the area. Purchasing the space was as exasperating as anything related to New York real estate. The price doubled as the owner considered other offers, but all the while he continued negotiating with Martín because he wanted to sell it to him.

Coco Roco underwent tense times when Martín divorced. Still, since the contentious process ended – during which he was unable to pay as much attention to the restaurant – the brothers have been able to put their passion back into it. “We want to improve it, react to the competition and keep it open for another 20 years,” said Fernando.

“We are going to grow old in here,” Martín jokingly protests with a smile.

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