The community organization El Centro de la Raza is helping would-be operators of food businesses get started with training and a group of food carts on Beacon Hill.
For Albert Saade, the pupusas, vaho and salbutes he serves up at his new food cart on Beacon Hill aren’t just a way to make money. They’re a way of sharing his heritage and a first step in fulfilling his longtime ambition of owning a food business.
These are the foods of his childhood: the pupusa — a Salvadoran dish of thick corn tortilla filled with meat, cheese or beans; vaho — a Nicaraguan dish of meat, plantain and yucca steamed in banana leaves; and salbute — a fried tortilla topped with chicken, cabbage, tomatoes and other items is especially popular in Belize.
“I want to present this type of flavor in Seattle, to present my heritage to the people of Seattle,” said Saade, a 51-year-old Capitol Hill resident who moved with his family from El Salvador to the U.S. nearly 40 years ago.
His food cart, called La Mesa Azul, offers seven dishes from the seven countries of Central America.
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It’s one of six food carts that recently opened for business at Plaza Roberto Maestas, the mixed-use affordable-housing development built by community organization El Centro de la Raza, and it opened in October.
The food-cart program is part of El Centro’s vision for Plaza Roberto Maestas: to provide not just housing for low- and moderate-income families, social services, office and retail space, and a community gathering spot, but also education, technical assistance and space for those who want to start their own microbusiness.
The goal with the food-cart program, said Gricelda Montes, who manages the asset-building programs for El Centro, is to give participants the tools, knowledge and space to start or grow their businesses, helping enrich the economy of the local Latino community and the city as well.
El Centro purchased eight food carts. Vendors, who are chosen through an application process, get a cart, a table and a canopy, for a year’s lease. They pay a monthly rent of $660 April through September, and $440 October through March. They also have access to El Centro’s commercial kitchen for $15 to $18 an hour.
Some of the program funding came from U.S. Bank, which gave each vendor $1,000 to help with startup costs such as purchasing food, as part of a larger $50,000 donation to El Centro’s Business Opportunity Center.
Under the program, vendors who need training are provided it by Ventures, a Seattle nonprofit that provides low-income aspiring entrepreneurs with education, support and access to capital.
Saade said he had long held the goal of opening a restaurant on Capitol Hill.
“But when I put together the numbers,” he said, the money just wasn’t there. He found it hard to get a bank loan, even though he already owns a small company in the construction-cleaning business.
“So when El Centro told me they wanted to put in food carts, that’s when I thought it was the first step to put my foot in the door,” Saade said. He has larger aspirations: “Maybe I’ll want to put another one on the waterfront or — down the road — open a small joint on Capitol Hill.”
It’s up to each individual vendor to decide which days and times they’ll be at the central plaza, which is located at 1660 S. Roberto Maestas Festival St. They’re more likely to be there Thursdays through Sundays.
Partnering with El Centro, Ventures provided an eight-week training course in Spanish on the basics of small-business ownership to half of the food cart vendors; the others either had taken another Ventures course earlier or already had business experience. The fee for the course was on a sliding scale, and scholarships were offered.
“What was cool for this partnership,” said Jen Hughes, director of training and inclusion for Ventures, “is there was the end goal of the food cart. It was a natural pathway for clients to see: ‘I see why I’m doing this.’ There was clear access to a market opportunity at the end of it, to get up and going right away to generate income for their households.”
Participants in the courses included not just food-cart owners but also table vendors, who will be selling wares such as Peruvian handcrafts at Plaza Roberto Maeastas.
Marcos Arellano, who owns Shark Bite Ceviche food cart, said the El Centro opportunity was perfect for him because opening his own restaurant would be too expensive.
“I like to risk, to try something,” said Arellano, who’s also a baker at the Eltana bagel store on Stone Way. “But for a restaurant — it’s a huge risk, especially when you don’t have any experience in how to manage a restaurant. Maybe in the future. Not now.”
Oscar Fernandez co-owns La Panaderia by Cake Box Co. food cart, which sells Mexican and Mexican-inspired dishes including pastries, hot chocolate, paninis and tamales. He said the Ventures training course, which he had taken earlier, provided valuable knowledge on everything from bookkeeping to business structure and budgets.
It was exciting putting that knowledge to work, he said, “seeing it happening before my eyes.”
Fernandez, who already has a catering business providing cakes, tamales and Mexican pastries, came to the program because he wanted to expand his business but didn’t have the money to open his own brick-and-mortar location.
“This is a really good step to grow our business from micro status,” he said. “To have something to show for my dream of being a business owner. It’s not a permanent physical location, but it’s a location.”