While washing plates 20 years ago at a New York restaurant, Marcos Arellano frequently found himself daydreaming about making and selling his own food.
Arellano left his quaint rural town off Santa Maria Mariscala in Oaxaca, Mexico, when he was 15. Speaking no English, he made his way to New York, where he knew no one.
The city never felt like home. Throughout the years he took on several jobs in the food industry, including as a cashier and food-prep line cook, before he moved to Seattle and became a baker at Eltana Wood-Fired Bagel Cafe on Stone Way North.
It was serendipity, hard work and a challenge to make ceviche for his roommates, the 36-year-old said, that ultimately led him in 2017 to fulfill his longtime ambition of starting his own business, Shark Bite Ceviches.
“When I focus on making ceviche I forget about the world. It’s like I’m transported to someplace else and the only thing on my mind is the melding of the flavors,” he said.
At first, he continued to work at the bagel shop, selling ceviche only on the weekends at Plaza Roberto Maestas on Beacon Hill. He was among the original six vendors to take advantage of the resources from El Centro de la Raza’s food-cart program, and is now the last of the group still selling at the location.
After running dozens of possible scenarios and careful deliberations, Arellano said he decided to dedicate all of his time to his business in 2019.
“I just felt that my time at the bagel shop had expired even though I loved it,” he said. “I had become accustomed to the routine and I’m someone who enjoys actively learning and growing wherever I am.”
But when the pandemic hit full force just a few months later, Arellano said he worried he made the wrong choice. He pushed through dwindling sales and expanded into delivery services.
Although ceviche is fairly unknown in Arellano’s Oaxacan hometown, unlike coastal towns in Mexico and Latin America, he said he became enamored by the dish when his Tijuanan roommates introduced him to the classic shrimp cocktail made with cilantro, cucumber, mango, chilies, avocado and lime.
“The first time I made ceviche it was a mess,” Arellano said, laughing as he shook his head slowly.
The roommates typically ate ceviche every Friday. One day it was up to him to prepare the meal, he said.
Arellano had no problem preparing the vegetables and fruit. But when it came time to cook the shrimp, he was at a loss. Instead of boiling them, he said, he opted to fry the shrimp in a pan with butter until they turned golden, remembering how his brother once cooked them that way.
“It had a good flavor but it wasn’t ceviche and my roommates never let me forget about it,” he said. “It was because of that experience that I challenged myself to make the best ceviche dish I could muster.”
Arellano spent his weekends experimenting with his recipe and using his friends as “guinea pigs.” And on the side, he researched how to start a business, browsing online and in bookstores for advice.
Humberto Ornelas, a close friend, knew Arellano was looking to spread the word about his food. So he invited him to the soccer fields where Ornelas played each weekend and introduced him to the other players, resulting in mass orders — some he still receives to this day.
Ornelas then connected Arellano with staff at El Centro de la Raza to set up a spot at the plaza.
“I wanted to help him in any way I could even if it was small,” he said. “Everything he sets his mind to do he does and it’s inspiring to see him do it.”
Although Arellano didn’t sign up for the program’s eight-week training course, he got access to a food cart where he could store and sell his shrimp, halibut and vegan portobello mushroom ceviches, ice-cold drinks and flan.
What began as a hobby turned into a business venture that allowed Arellano to share his creative takes on a classic Latin American dish.
The uncertainty of it all, the slow days in the winter and a pandemic with no end in sight, were hard, he said.
“I think the success for me isn’t about reaching the top or even making the most money. It’s all of the learning along the way,” Arellano said. “This gives me freedom. I create my shifts and my own salary. It’s all me. “
Daniel Levin, co-owner and co-founder of Eltana Wood-Fired Bagel Cafe, met Arellano seven years ago. Their working relationship evolved into a friendship.
His mother tutored Arellano in English, while he tutored her in Spanish.
“It’s just very heartwarming to see two people from very different places and in very different places in their life being able to share that exchange,” Levin said.
Levin helped Arellano get his vendor permits and gave him advice on how to run a food business. He also rents out space in Eltana’s kitchen to Arellano for food prep.
“It just makes me happy and proud to see someone who I’m very fond of, building a business from zero and prosper,” Levin said.
As the youngest of 11 siblings, Arellano’s decision to move to the U.S. was monumental. Most of his family remain in Oaxaca, though one brother moved to Pasco to be closer.
His family grew their own food and could not afford school supplies like books and uniforms, Arellano said. He and his siblings stopped going to school after middle school.
Almost two decades later, he can still recall how he mustered up the courage to try and convince his father to let him continue studying, to no avail. He left for Mexico City but felt displaced and decided to return to his small town. Not long after, he decided to move to the U.S.
“I didn’t cry when I left at first, but the next day I did,” he said. “(My parents) passed away before I could see them again, but in my mind, they still exist as they were.”
Arellano’s experience as an immigrant taught him how to adapt to nearly any situation. And supporting himself at a very young age taught him to see the opportunity where others may not. When someone is able to leave their homeland and build something up from nothing — they can survive anywhere, he said.
“I was never scared of work,” Arellano said. “To never be fearful of what life threw at me and keep moving no matter what. I learned that from my father.”