Hispanic small-business owners in Chicago reinvent themselves to face the covid-19 crisis

When the pandemic affected their businesses and livelihoods, Hispanics adapted their products or changed their activities to get ahead

Hispanic small-business owners in Chicago reinvent themselves to face the covid-19 crisis
His two mobile food trucks will help the Correa brothers weather the COVID-19 crisis. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)
Foto: Impremedia

Hispanic business owners in Chicago are reinventing themselves to withstand the economic crisis caused by the COVID-19 pandemic so they can save their businesses and sources of income.

According to experts, reinventing emerges from the need for change caused by an external event such as the current COVID-19 global crisis or also by an accumulation of emotional pressure.

COVID-19 has impacted not only public health but also the economy, significantly affecting small businesses. A study by researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Harvard University, and the University of Chicago published in April 2020 and titled ‘How are small businesses adapting to COVID-19?’  (https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w26989/w26989.pdf), surveyed 5,800 business owners. Forty-three percent of companies closed temporarily. On average, companies reduced the number of employees by 40 percent compared to January 2020. The study also found that many of those small businesses were already financially “fragile.”

Among the results, the researchers also indicated that many of these companies had little cash available, which meant that in the face of the crisis, they had to drastically reduce their expenses, take on additional debt, or file for bankruptcy. In the last week of March 2020, when the pandemic was raging, 38 percent of companies considered unlikely or only somewhat likely that they would be open by the end of 2020.

Yelp, a platform that provides online business reviews for restaurants, bars, and other businesses, published a report on the virus’ economic hit (https://www.yelpeconomicaverage.com/yelp-coronavirus-economic-impact-report.html) indicating that as of June 15, 2020, at least 139,339 companies had closed their doors. In the United States, ten major cities were taken as a sample, including Chicago, where 4,991 companies closed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Liz Rojas in her handcrafted quartz jewelry “Energía del Corazón Cósmico,” in the Pilsen neighborhood. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)

The making of handmade face masks saves quartz-jewelry business

Some may be skeptical that quartz may relieve certain ailments, but not Liz Rojas.

Her passion for jewelry began as a child when she would watch her grandfather, Rodolfo Campos, work in his jewelry store in the Tepito neighborhood in Mexico City. Raised by a family of entrepreneurs in the Mexican capital, Rojas decided to pursue a jewelry business since she was already familiar with this type of business.

When she left her native Mexico to immigrate to the United States, Rojas settled in the Pilsen neighborhood 25 years ago.

She worked in a factory for 20 years. Due to health reasons, she stopped working there and decided to start her own business and follow her passion: quartz jewelry.

Energía del Corazón Cósmico (Energy of the Cosmic Heart) is the handmade quartz-jewelry business established in Pilsen by Liz Rojas. She brings the mineral stone from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Mexico, and other parts of the world.

According to Rojas, each stone has its own properties that can interact with our bodies’ energy. “I love seeing how people can transform their lives with a small stone,” she said.

Rojas considers that in the Latino community, there are many myths and superstitions. Still, she assures that there have been studies on quartz that present scientific evidence. For instance, she says that citrine quartz or rose quartz are related to the energies of love, calmness, and tranquility.

When she started selling quartz at arts and craft fairs, she remembers people who came to see her merchandise complained of having headaches. She would suggest they wear an amethyst bracelet or necklace, and they would reply: “no, no, that is witchcraft, that is against God.”

Those kinds of responses led her to study more and become certified on the hard, crystalline mineral. She assures that quartz is a mineral composed of chemical compounds that interact with the physical body.

To educate the community about quartz and its qualities, she’s had an online radio program since 2014 and uses YouTube and other social media platforms to spread information about the stone’s benefits.

Rojas shares half the space of the premises that she rents with an artisan. She’s also given the opportunity to other artisans to sell their products in her store. Not many entrepreneurs in this type of business can afford rent in Pilsen because it’s expensive, she says. “Practically, what I did was to open a space so that more artisans can display their products here.”

Rojas’ business has been exclusively dedicated to handmade-quartz jewelry production, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, sales plummeted. That’s when she knew it was time to reinvent herself.

She continues to sell her jewelry but has added more items in her business and follows the same concept that characterizes her: promoting Mexican-authentic products.

Rojas dislikes that many Chinese imitations of Mexican crafts are passed off as originals because “they take away all that essence, all that magic of the real Mexican handwork.”

Based on her business experience, the businesswoman recognizes that with the pandemic, quartz is not a purchasing priority for people because they are not considered essential. “They buy some, but at a minimal level. People are looking to buy food and essentials.”

To help Mexican artisan communities amid the pandemic, who always contacted her to offer their products, Rojas decided to invest in masks, which turned out profitable, helping generate more income.

“The artisan masks have fed me in these months of the pandemic. At the beginning of the virus, it was the only thing that was being sold,” Rojas told La Raza.

Manufactured by Mexican artisans, the masks are entirely handmade, with embroidered flowers, and can be washed. The first shipment she received was 500 face masks. Because she sold them very quickly, she continues to order more merchandise.

Rojas is also selling handmade shawls but acknowledges that the handmade masks are the ones that have raised the sales of her store.

The type of shawl she sells has 3,800 threads and has beads attached to the embroidery. The shawls’ manufacturing process takes seven days and three people. The family of artisans that makes these shawls has been doing it for many generations. They are also in charge of even dyeing the threads of these handmade accessories.

The masks and shawls have gotten popular among her customers on social networks, Rojas says, who buy her products because people love anything handmade, original, and of good quality.

Before launching her business in Pilsen last June, Liz had been selling her quartz jewelry in different local incubators and through social media for 10 years.

At first, it was difficult for this small businesswoman to be accepted in the artisan community and be part of the exhibits. When she asked for an opportunity within that community, most of them said no “because you sell stones.” But she would reply: “I make my own bracelets and necklaces. I am an artisan.”

In addition to serving her customers at his location in Pilsen, Rojas continues to sell her merchandise in different shopping centers and arts and craft fairs in Chicago and the surrounding areas.

Rojas has received training through the Latin Women in Action’s Entrepreneurs of the Future program.

This Mexican jeweler believes that an entrepreneur has to take risks and learn to do different things. She said she was afraid to open the business in Pilsen in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and did not know if the City would give her a license to operate. Those were tough times, she said.

Despite the pandemic, new businesses continue to be created in the United States. According to data from the Census Bureau, more than 1.5 million requests for employer identification numbers were submitted in the third quarter of 2020, an increase of 77.4 percent compared to the second quarter of that same year.

For Rojas, closing her business was not an option because she could risk losing customers, and winning them back is hard, she said. “You have to take risks and do different things, which is what I did. If you take risks you can win or you can lose, but at least you will gain experience.”

For Alexis Esparza, executive director of the 18th Street Development Corporation in Pilsen (ESDC), the adaptation that business people have had to have under the circumstances of the COVID-19 crisis has been extreme, intimidating, and to some extent impossible due to how quickly the crisis negatively affected the economy and companies’ sustainability.

“I have always said that the small businessman is the backbone of the community, is the backbone of the city, is the backbone of the United States, but when the backbone cannot be sustained, what will happen to the economy itself?” Esparza reflected.

Mujeres Latinas en Accion (Latinas in Action) is a nonprofit organization known for its work in crisis intervention in domestic violence and sexual assault. Through its Entrepreneur Women of the Future program, the organization helps women pursue their dreams and goals, start their business, and have financial stability.

Not all of the women participating in the program are survivors of domestic violence. Still, most of them are, according to the agency.

“There is a high percentage of people who come from… domestic violence and sexual assault to this program, so we try to take all that into account, where our participants come from, and be conscious of it,” said Guadalupe Ceniceros, facilitator of the Entrepreneurs of the Future program.

In this program, which is taught in Spanish and in two levels, businesswomen can interact culturally. Today, due to the pandemic, classes are taught through Zoom.

The program focuses on starting a business, promotion, finance, credit, budgeting, marketing, branding, business plan, and personal development as an entrepreneur, among other fundamental aspects of owning a business.

When the pandemic began, some entrepreneurs believed they would have to shut down because their business models were based on selling food and market shops. “In a conversation with them I told them: you have to think outside the box, be creative and see how you can start selling now, maybe reinvent your products or add a different product that you can make and sell and that people would want to buy,” Ceniceros said.

Ulpiano and Néstor Correa are working on their second mobile food truck in front of their Ecuadorian restaurant, “La Humita” in the Old Irving Park neighborhood of northwest Chicago. (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)

The new concept of the Ecuadorian restaurant ‘La Humita’

As if trying to put together a puzzle, the brothers Nestor and Ulpiano Correa have been building from scratch and with their own hands a food truck in a northwest Chicago neighborhood.

Passersby stop and watch with curiosity as these Ecuadorian brothers join and weld pieces of metal and work with wood as they build what will be their second food truck, named “La Humita on Wheels,” which is almost ready to operate.

No one taught them how to build these trucks, nor do they sell them to the public. They say that their business is to prepare and sell food, which they have done for years in their restaurant La Humita. But due to new restaurant restrictions during the pandemic, these brothers gave it all they got and moved forward on their second project that began at the end of March.

The Correa brothers obtained a $10,000 line of credit from the Accion organization and used family loans to complete the project. The total cost to build its second mobile food truck has been $65,000.

Their decision to invest in a second mobile truck in the middle of a pandemic came from their success in their first venture: selling fast food.

Four years ago, they decided to start this new business and sell food from a mobile truck. “‘La Humita on Wheels’ has been our plan B, which is taking us forward,” said Nestor Correa.

When he was driving the food truck, on one of his many trips around the buildings of downtown Chicago, Nestor, along with his brother, Ulpiano, and his son, Alan, realized that Ecuadorian food was not entirely popular there. So they began to see who their potential customers were and what they liked.

They decided to change the menu in their mobile food truck but kept a key product that distinguishes them from other street vendors: el choclo (corn). (Corn in some South American countries is called ‘choclo’ whereas in Mexico it is called ‘elote’).

They introduced halal-style meat because they saw that their most frequent buyers are Arabs, Indians, Pakistanis, Iraqis, and people from countries that practice Islam and reside in those buildings.

“Halal” is a word of Arabic origin that means ‘allowed’ and is used in the Islamic community to refer to all those actions and foods accepted in Muslim-religious practices.

Their menu also includes tacos, sandwiches, and dinners with halal-style fish, beef, and chicken with beans and salad, as well as empanadas and the classic ‘elote’ prepared Mexican style with cheese, mayonnaise, and chili, which has been a resounding success, these entrepreneurs said.

The chef is Maria Correa, Nestor’s wife. She leaves everything ready for them to go out to sell in the food truck, seven days a week.

The Correa brothers sell about $500 a day, which they say is a triumph for them, especially in this time of the pandemic.

Nestor Correa parks in front of apartment buildings and says that the administrators send an email letting everybody know the truck has arrived and that they could come down and buy food. He came up with that idea of parking near those residences, and it has worked for him because most of their customers work from home because of COVID-19, he mentioned. “We have acquired a wider clientele; the same taco that Mexicans buy from us are bought by Muslims because it’s halal-style meat.”

Nestor Correa receives training from Community Business Academy (CBA), a program provided by Sunshine Enterprises, which also advises him to reinvent his businesses.

The Correa family says that after a family reunion, they identified their flaws in their Ecuadorian restaurant: the lack of marketing. They realized they needed a greater presence on social networks to promote the restaurant and see what was in demand.

Training has helped Nestor become more self-confident about his ideas and strategies. Together with his brother, they can take the next step: the reinvention that emerged during the pandemic. “The pandemic and training have made me stronger, safer and more visionary for the business, I’m more secure about my projects. Our reinvention will consist of transforming ‘La Humita’ into a fast-food restaurant, which sells the same things that are prepared in the mobile food truck”, Nestor Correa said.

The Correa brothers are owners of the Ecuadorian restaurant La Humita, which has been operating since 2003. This business is located in the heart of the Old Irving Park neighborhood, in the northwest of Chicago.

They had a menu of varied Ecuadorian food, but in search of improvements and to prosper in the business, they made a change in the presentation of their dishes in 2017. The innovation consisted of putting the meat, chicken, or fish in small portable grills made of a wood-based volcanic stone, placed at 600 to 700-degree temperatures. The grills would be placed on the customer’s table so that the meats would cook to taste.

The restaurant was not having the success it had initially, the Correa brothers mentioned. Still, they were able to pay their bills, including the mortgage, utilities, and staff salaries.

“There hadn’t been much profit lately, as it helped sustain the business, but with the coronavirus pandemic no money came in and that caused very high losses,” said Nestor Correa.

To stop the coronavirus spread, Illinois Governor JB Pritzker issued the stay-at-home order for the entire state on March 21. Although the Correa brothers acknowledge that the state made the right decision, the crisis “finished us. It exterminated us,” referring to their restaurant.

After restaurants were allowed to offer takeout and home delivery orders, the Correa family could not provide those services because of the unique style of food featured on their restaurant menu, which consisted of cooking meats on the spot on a volcanic rock at high temperatures. “This is a fresh meal, which is cooked on the table with the volcanic stone,” they said.

When the restrictions on food businesses in Chicago last May began to be lifted, allowing a certain percentage of diners inside the establishments, the Correas decided not to open due to the restaurant’s reduced space and customer shortage.

La Humita restaurant is temporarily closed due to the pandemic.

Nestor and Ulpiano have been working in the hospitality industry since they immigrated to the United States from Quito, Ecuador, in the 1980s. Nestor was a dishwasher and waiter, and Ulpiano was a porter at a prestigious hotel in downtown Chicago.

“I wanted to have my own Ecuadorian food restaurant, and only work 15 years in the hotel. My brother and I bought the building in 2000 and opened La Humita three years later. Our dream became a reality,” Nestor said.

However, that dream was in risk of collapse in the blink of an eye as they were on the verge of bankruptcy in the pandemic. This also meant losing the restaurant and the building from which they made huge sacrifices to purchase. “This is a family business, in my house there was no other source of income other than La Humita. La Humita paid for everything,” Nestor Correa said in an interview with La Raza.

“The first thing for a good businessman and someone who likes to work and improve himself is to accept reality. There are people who are doing well, but prefer to pretend that nothing is wrong.  We are very open. f we are not doing well, we don’t hide it. The thing is to rebuild, renew, and move forward,” he said.

Given the first food truck’s success, Nestor says that he will apply the same concept to his future venture. He said that the second food truck that he and his brother are building will not only help them pay off their debts but will also bring good vibes to the business. “I have learned to cut meat, chicken, and vegetables. Necessity has forced us [to adapt] and now we have a vision and a business objective, which we are about to bring out again, which will put us where we were before, at the top”.

Like the Correa brothers, business owners amid the COVID-19 pandemic have had to reinvent and develop new strategies. As part of that process, entrepreneurs seek training in different organizations, chambers of commerce, and local business centers.

As some training business centers didn’t offer programs in Spanish and most of the students were only from certain areas of Chicago, they also had to adapt by turning in-person classes to virtual sessions, offering bilingual classes, and expanding distance-learning courses throughout Chicago and suburbs.

Due to COVID-19, the business center Sunshine Enterprises, with offices in Woodlawn, Lawndale, and West Evanston, decided for the first time to expand its services to the Hispanic community by offering classes in Spanish and online since last September.

The center focuses on empowering entrepreneurs living in low-income neighborhoods to help them grow their businesses and transform their communities.

Sunshine Enterprises also runs the program Community Business Academy, in which they offer courses on budgeting, accounting, marketing, human resources, strategic planning, cash flow, pricing strategy, and credit creation.

“At the end of the classes, the student will have a business coach for 90 days, who will walk with entrepreneur through his or her journey. And if you are going to open a business, do it with a good plan and gradually achieve your goals,” José Torres, CBA admissions coordinator, said.

The organization has eight groups of entrepreneurial students, one of which is offered in Spanish and has 17 Hispanic students, mostly immigrants. It should be noted that of the 17 Hispanic students, 13 are women.

“Every day, more immigrants are opening their own businesses and generating jobs, and I am pleased to see that women are very entrepreneurial,” Torres said.

Rebeca Fernandez, bilingual program manager for the Rogers Park Business Alliance (RPBA), says that the pandemic has affected businesses either because their sales have dropped or haven’t sold anything at all. However, she explained that the business community has also been affected by a lack of knowledge about financing and how to find capital. The small business community oftentimes doesn’t have the resources or doesn’t know much about technology, such as how to open up an email account or set up a Facebook account to promote their business. They also lack knowledge on marketing and social media outreach to attract more clients.

In response to the lack of knowledge in the process of growing a business, the Business Accessibility Toolkit (BAT) program emerged, which was born from the need for local businesses to strengthen themselves and move forward in the midst of the pandemic. In addition to English and Spanish, the program may soon be offered in other languages. Fernandez added that they are also offering other long-term, business-training sessions.

Some ventures are being started despite the pandemic, and some of them kicked off right when the stay-home order began. That was painful and exhausting for these businesses, but they are emerging. “They are seeking advice from us so they can keep moving forward,” Fernandez said to La Raza. “I am amazed that our Latino business community has been resilient, it has adapted and some of them are reinventing themselves.”

This pandemic has taught us that we must always be prepared for the unexpected, Fernandez said. “You have to look for strategies to reinvent yourself, get advice or seek information. You always have to have an exit plan, an emergency plan.”

Camilo Santafe, with his piñata that represents the coronavirus, one of the most sold in his business. (Courtesy of Camilo Santafe)

From makeup artist to ‘piñata’ maker

Camilo Santafe owns a makeup case filled with palettes of all colors and a variety of well-known makeup brands, which he carries in his car when he visits clients for weddings, quinceañeras, and social parties in Chicago and the suburbs.

His real name is Edgar Muñoz, but he prefers to go by his nickname, Camilo Santafe, as he is known by his friends and clients.

This entrepreneur from the West Lawn neighborhood in the southwest of Chicago has been working independently as a makeup artist for more than seven years.

Weekends were like “a marathon,” he said, working from 6 am to 6 pm without any breaks.

Santafe, originally from San Juan de Los Lagos, Jalisco, Mexico, studied in a seminary to become a priest but was expelled due to some discrepancies he had with the pastoral leadership where he was studying. Sometime later, he found his passion: makeup.

Santafe believes that he can work through people’s emotional state of mind through makeup.  “You awaken their feelings, their emotions, they feel beautiful. Through makeup you also heal, you give people peace, you give joy, you bring out the most beautiful in them. I have always seen it as something more spiritual and emotional, not so much as something physical or monetary.”

He shared that when he was in the process of accepting he is gay, he went through a rough time, especially for his parents to accept his identity. This entrepreneur grew up in a traditional environment and with a family that made a living raising cattle. His wish to become a makeup artist was a drastic change for them, Santafe, 33, said.

He said folks view makeup and styling careers as something more suitable to women in the town where he grew up.

In search of a better future, he immigrated to the United States seven years ago. He said he become a makeup artist by experimenting, as he has an innate ability to recreate what he sees.  He enjoyed oil painting and wanted to become an interior decorator in his country, but wasn’t able to accomplish that career. “I said: okay, if [decorating] won’t be in spaces then it will be in people and that was how I decided to get into makeup.”

Within a week of arriving in the United States, he met someone from a business specialized in glamour-photo shoots who offered him a job as a makeup artist. It was his first job in this country.

Santafe remembers that he started with cosmetic brands that he bought at the pharmacy charging $25 for makeup service. As people got to know him and his client base grew, he looked for hypoallergenic and long-lasting brands. Now that he uses only high-quality makeup, he charges more for his work.

He also teaches makeup classes to young people in Chicago, where he shares his experiences at the beginning of his career and encourages his students to never give up.

Regarding his work as a makeup artist, Santafe said he is committed to working on his clients with equal passion and dedication, whether it’s the bride, the godmother, or a guest. He assures that that’s his best cover letter.

Since it takes him about an hour-and-a-half to work on a client, he said he can’t book more than five clients per day. Besides, after standing for more than seven hours, he begins to feel the tension in his feet and neck and doesn’t feel comfortable improvising.

This entrepreneur stays active in social media, and thanks to his charismatic personality, he has a unique relationship with his clients. “I don’t have the reputation of a makeup artist from a television station, but if someone looks for a makeup artist through social media, I think I’m the guy that people recommend the most. And not because I consider myself the best but because I manage to have a lot of connection and empathy with people.”

And how does he achieve that connection with people? “When you are homosexual, and life hasn’t been easy, you become more aware of situations that people face, and you feel the need to help, to connect because you went through difficult times. That’s why you manage to get more connected with other people’s life experiences,” he responded.

After having a full schedule of appointments until the end of the year, Santafe said all his appointments were canceled due to COVID-19. From March to August, he didn’t see a single client. Since there were no parties, no one put on makeup, he said.

Due to the coronavirus crisis, he thought it was time to reinvent himself. Santafe and his partner, Claudio Prieto, then came up with the idea of making piñatas.

Since he worked putting makeup on for social events and there were no more parties, he and his partner came up with the idea for a business that would make people happy without being in a large room full of people. They both said: “a piñata.” For them, people and even pets have fun breaking a piñata. They believe it’s a wonderful way to relieve stress and fatigue, to ultimately get candy, the grand prize.

Prieto and Santafe started looking at YouTube tutorials on making piñatas and realized that it would be easy for them to make them. They started their new endeavor in March. They remember that the first piñata was a unicorn. “Truth is, it was incredible, we couldn’t believe what we had made,” Santafe said.

The brainstorming took off: from Sponge Bob-themed piñatas, soccer balls, and Sesame Street characters to coronavirus figures.

They created a Facebook page called ‘La Casa de las Piñatas’ to put photos so that people could see and buy them. It was not difficult for them to sell them, because their clients and friends buy them and recommend them to potential clients.

First, Santafe and Prieto make the cast with newspaper and cardboard, and then they glue all the pieces together and wait for it to dry. Finally, the process concludes with painting and decorating the piñata with crepe paper.

Most of the material they work with is recycled, and the investment, in some cases, is minimal: between $5 to $15. The process is laborious and can take up around 10 hours to make one piñata.

Their goal is to make each piñata unique and set the prices depending on the size and production process: from $45 to $150, Santafe said. “Newspapers that are left in the stands that nobody wants and cardboard boxes that people throw away or that companies throw away can become a $50 piñata.”

“My clients call me and say: ‘you know what, Camilo, we couldn’t break it. My child didn’t let us do it, the piñata was so beautiful that we didn’t want to break it’”, Santafe said.

They also make birthday-surprise boxes that they decorate depending on the theme that the client chooses.

After being out of work since March, eventually, some clients began to call Santafe to ask for makeup services when some of the restrictions to curb the spread of COVID-19 got lifted, and parties of up to 50 people were allowed.

But returning to the makeup business doesn’t mean that Santafe and Prieto will stop making piñatas. On the contrary, they have decided to organize themselves to run the two businesses simultaneously.

Santafe dedicates the weekends to makeup. The rest of the days, he works with Prieto in making piñatas and surprise-birthday boxes.

Making piñatas helped pay rent and basic services and also contributed to his partner’s income, who kept working, Santafe said. Both will continue with their piñata business, and more so during the wintertime when the makeup business normally decreases because there aren’t as many social events.

For this couple, reinventing themselves has not been hard because they’ve always been “courageous” and are fearless when they decide to try something new.

And there is no risk of losing either: the investment for these merchants, who work with recycled materials, is not lost if the piñatas are not sold.

The support of his friends has been key, Santafe tells La Raza. “Most of my clients knew that I had lost work and they wanted to make piñatas with us to support us.”

“Life is a circle. Sometimes you are up, sometimes you are down and you cannot survive without the help of others, you will always need it. As we human beings develop empathy towards others it helps so that when you are on the other side you can receive the same empathy so that life doesn’t have to be that difficult,” he said.

Jaime di Paulo, president and CEO of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (IHCC) said there are more than 120,000 Latino businesses in Illinois. And it is estimated that 40 percent of Latino businesses could close their doors due to the pandemic. “We are a community with resilience, we fight for what we have, people are losing money and continue to open businesses because of that pride we have, because of that desire not to feel defeated as Latino entrepreneurs.”

Di Paulo stressed that reinvention is a crucial factor when facing a financial crisis.

“Where there is a crisis, there are opportunities, you just have to identify them. You have to think ‘outside the box’, you have to be creative and take risks. An entrepreneur is a person who takes risks. There are risks to everything, but you have to reinvent yourself,” he said.

Rossy Guerra and her husband Josué Cárdenas are owners of the “Taquizas and Banquetes El Siete.” (Belhú Sanabria / La Raza)

‘The tamales food cart has saved us’

After enjoying a “few” alcoholic beverages and dancing for hours into the night, the urge to eat is inevitable for partygoers who go to local discotheques. The couple Rossy Guerra and Josue Cardenas know this well, so they have taken advantage of their culinary talents to turn it into a business. They wait for customers outside a club in the southwest of Chicago to sell their traditional Mexican tacos and tamales many nights.

Social media has been a vital tool for attracting potential customers. They remember when they used Myspace when they started selling tacos and tamales in 2007, the year they immigrated from Monterrey, Mexico, to the United States to settle in Chicago.

Since the police told them that they could not continue selling outside a nightclub, their clients supported them anyway by buying their tacos and tamales and also suggested they sell them in food trays. They did this and promoted their products on Myspace, a trendy social media platform at the time.

After being fully dedicated to street vending for several years, the couple decided to open a Mexican food restaurant in the Brighton Park neighborhood of southwest Chicago in 2016. This business couple already had many clients they gained thanks to an assertive social media outreach and presence. They added that they worked hard for a long time to earn name recognition in this market.

They started by making party food for up to 1,200 people in a single day. Because that business was more affordable, they closed the restaurant but have kept the site as an operations center where they operate a commercial kitchen.

Guerra says that she received training through the Mujeres Latinas en Accion’s Entrepreneurs of the Future program, a community organization that helped her with the process of obtaining her license and applying for grants for her business, called “Taquizas y Banquetes El Siete.”

Guerra said they named the business “El Siete” after her father’s nickname of “lovebird” as a youngster and in honor of the Mexican song, El siete mares. As their business managed to expand and enter the American market, they realized that it was difficult for English-speaking customers to pronounce the full name, so they decided to call it “El Siete Catering.”

During the state’s Phase IV plan for reopening by Illinois Governor JB Pritzker, who had issued guidelines and regulations to curb the spread of COVID-19, the state allowed the reopening or expansion of operations in various business areas, including social events. In this phase, the number of people allowed in gatherings was increased to 50 for events in closed spaces and 100 for open spaces.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, these entrepreneurs did not accept events of less than 50 people because they were not profitable. With the official measures to stop the virus’s spread, they had to make adjustments in their business and reinvent themselves.

When you have to pay for a facility and comply with all the regulations to run a commercial kitchen, and then we don’t have large events due to COVID-19, Guerra said, you have to do something to move forward.

Guerra mentioned that they followed the City’s and State’s orders, but their expenses do not change; they remain the same for business owners. “Sometimes I feel uncertainty, and it makes me nervous not being able to pay bills.”

The couple began to serve more groups with fewer people, unlike before, when they offered their services to fewer groups but with more people. They do this to make the same profit they used to and to be able to pay their bills and expenses.

Amid the COVID-19 pandemic and with the current state restrictions, party-food sales didn’t bring in the same earnings as before, so they took advantage of a food car they had and started selling tamales, champurrado (Mexican chocolate drink), and atole (cornflour drink) outside their business.

So their plan to reinvent themselves began to roll: hosting more events but with fewer people to match their previous earnings and operating the mobile food cart, which they had already used in the past.

The presence of their businesses on all social media digital platforms, they say, has been a key resource that has “saved” them in this pandemic.

Going back to doing what they did initially, preparing tamales, does not mean a setback for Guerra and Cardenas. Now they have a taco and banquet company, a commercial kitchen, and much more clientele than they had in the beginning as street vendors.

“The food cart of tamales has saved us. ‘Let’s go with that,’ I told my husband, and well, right now it is what’s keeping us afloat,” Guerra said.

The couple preps the tamales a day before, so they are ready to be cooked early the next morning. Then, after preparing the atole and champurrado, they hit the streets with their mobile food cart and sell from 5 in the morning until noon.

“Clients value our sacrifices and buy from us; they tell us, ‘these guys are such hard workers’…,” Guerra said with a smile.

The couple adds that they would do anything to keep fighting because many months have passed and the pandemic continues. What they want is to keep offering their services so they can make a living.

“People come for their order of tamales to where the food cart is. The difference from today to before is that now we have much more clientele, they know where to find us. Before, the challenge was to find who would buy from us,” Guerra told La Raza.

As entrepreneurs, it is essential to train, stay up to date, take advantage of opportunities, and take risks, the couple stated. And to achieve success, they added, you have to distinguish yourself from other businesses, look for something the gives you an identity, whether it’s good service, tasty food, or excellent food presentation.

Alicia Espinosa, director of the Entrepreneurs of the Future program, said that the program’s goal is to give all participants the right tools to compete in the world of business and so they can join other programs after they are finished. “We want them to go to the chambers of commerce, to small business development centers, to integrate and feel that confidence, to establish a network of contacts and seek resources in other organizations so that their business continues.”

Participants of the Entrepreneurs of the Future program of Latina Women in Action. (Courtesy)

In a May 2020 survey on the impact of COVID-19 carried out with 81 participants from level 1 and level 2 of the Entrepreneurs of the Future program, it was found that 74 percent of the participants said that their business was negatively affected by the pandemic. It also found that 56 percent were temporary without work and did not receive payment, that 11 percent lost their jobs permanently, and that 59 percent were not eligible to receive employment benefits.

When referring to technology and digital platforms, the survey indicated that 99 percent have a Smartphone, 98 percent have and know their email, and 89 percent have Wi-Fi internet service. About 80 percent of respondents said they use Facebook Live, and only 40 percent use Zoom.

There are participants of all levels in the program, from people who don’t know how to write well, don’t speak English, or are undocumented to people with a college degree, Guadalupe Ceniceros told La Raza. “They are all made to feel comfortable and that they are in a safe place.”

Even before the pandemic, these entrepreneurs started a business of something they already knew how to do. When they ask them to be creative or to reinvent themselves, it is complicated because they started a business of something they already knew how to do. Incorporating this creative form into the business is one of the challenges that the program participants have had, but that they are gradually developing, Espinosa said.

The production and dissemination of this story has been possible thanks to a grant from the Field Foundation of Illinois through its Media and Storytelling program. La Raza appreciates its support.