Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Latino restaurant with good taste opens in midwest

At long last, el Salvadoran restaurant opens for business
By MIKE KILEN • mkilen@dmreg.com. • March 30, 2009

Perry, Ia. - In the long, narrow dining room, tables hug bright blue walls adorned with maps and photographs of El Salvador. At the far end, a family is lined up at the cash register counter.

Carlos Barco, 44, his wife Edith, 39, daughters Yandi, 19, and Meylin, 22, and cousin Leo Esquibel, 20, are ready to take an order.

They have been ready for this for 12 years.

Four months ago, they opened a restaurant. Edith was so excited she cried.

They call it El Buen Gusto ("The Good Taste"). They still don't have a sign on the corner building on Perry's Second Avenue. Things take time. The quest - this American dream of making your own way - started back in 1996.

In their native El Salvador, it would never have been possible, Edith said. They cut coffee in the fields there, working just to buy food for the month, stumbling into dead bodies in the bushes, casualties of the country's violence.

They dreamed of better. With work permits, they moved to California in 1994, before landing jobs at Tyson Foods in Perry in 1996.

Edith saw a need in town. Although no cooking whiz, in her off hours she learned how to perfect the foods of her country, including pupusas, a centuries-old dish from El Salvador of thick tortillas filled with meats and cheeses.

At first, she knocked on friends' doors or sold them from her house on weekends, wrapping pupusas and tacos in foil.

They saved the profits and bought a van to deliver the food. They saved more money and in two years had enough to buy a "taco truck," setting up in a car repair shop's parking lot.

Every weekend Edith cooked, then sold food. Often the family sold as many as 500 tacos and pupusas a day. Many said they had "good taste."

Years passed. Carlos did his job of scooping up dropped meat and cleaning it on the factory floor. He liked it but his wife had a dream of owning a restaurant. So they saved more - while raising three daughters, including the youngest, Marisa, 13 - and awaited green cards.

Like so many small business owners, Carlos' dream was to be his own boss.

"The motivation is an idea that you are going to have control over your life and your economic destiny," said Jim Heckmann, of the Iowa Small Business Development Center.

Immigrants' early plans often involve sharing their native cultures.

"We usually see that restaurants and grocery stores are the entryway into entrepreneurship with the Latino population," said Himar Hernandez, Community and Economic Development Field Specialist with Iowa State University Extension. "Once those businesses succeed then they open up other businesses."

Word got out about the Barcos, and not just about their good tacos. They were kicked off business properties when they showed up with their truck. Police were called one day to the parking lot location and wrote them a ticket, Edith said. They didn't have the necessary permits to sell food, including those from the Iowa Department of Inspection and Appeals.

Edith was scared but didn't stop. Her eyes always scanned the horizon.

The stash of money grew but they needed $70,000 to open their own place. Securing financing, Heckmann said, is the main obstacle to starting a small business.

Although a third of Perry's 7,200 residents are Hispanic, a Latino restaurant was not a sure thing. One closed after only six months last year.

"So hard time," said Gisela Guerrero of her restaurant, called Mi Familia. "It didn't work."

She turned the business into a hair salon.

While a Mexican grocery and one longtime Mexican restaurant have survived in Perry, the temporary closing of the Hotel Pattee two years ago fatally hurt a few of the 16 eateries in town.

Even with those long odds and a suddenly tanking economy, the Barco family grew excited when a pizza place moved, leaving a vacant building.

The Barcos used the equity in their house and their savings, and bought it. For seven months, Carlos installed kitchen equipment, laid new flooring, bought new tables, painted the walls and secured the necessary permits.

Special spices from El Salvador were reordered. The menu was printed, including breakfast, lunch and dinner items ranging from fried plantain to cow leg stew, from stuffed poblano peppers and pupusas to fish and shrimp stew.

"I love it, it's very authentic," said Angelica Diaz-Cardenas of Hispanics United for Perry, whose mission is to help Hispanic people adjust to the community.

The Barcos have adjusted by working 12 hours a day six days a week - and a few less on Sundays. They eat at the restaurant, watch TV there - the Latino soap operas echoing - and mop floors late at night. Such long hours hardly seem like a dream fulfilled.

But Edith is not scared anymore.

She flips over a pupusa and places it on a plate with spicy slaw. Only one customer eats on a calm mid-afternoon. The Barcos are sure people will tell friends of the good taste, the buen gusto.

They stand by the cash register and wait.

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