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Burton Heights/Garfield Park

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With innovation and creativity, South Division food entrepreneurs carve out space for dreams

Jalisco Lavandería

As entrepreneurs of color are faced with barriers to opportunities, they are finding non-traditional ways of building their businesses and the local economy.
Take a walk along South Division Avenue in the vicinity of Burton Heights, and you will find yourself in a world of thriving Latinx grocery stores and restaurants whipping up everything from tacos al pastor and elote to salchipapas and tortas. Navigating the scents of of cumin, garlic and chile powder wafting from these spaces, you will find entrepreneurs of color from around the globe who, after waving goodbye to families and home countries to make new lives for themselves in the United States, have navigated often aggressively inhospitable and inequitable socio-economic systems in this country and city to start their own businesses.

These businesses are places of dreams, of refusing to take 'no' for an answer, of years upon years of hard work, places that are born after an owner toiled for decades in city factories, places where you can remember the mothers and sisters and fathers and brothers in far-away countries with the taste of dishes reminiscent of what can seem like another life.

The communities where these venues are found, in the area along South Division Avenue by the Burton Heights and Garfield Park neighborhoods, are made up of 19 percent Black residents, 63 percent Latinx residents and 15 percent white residents. Because this area has a large concentration of people of color, access to economic opportunity and livability, from which communities of color have often been barred, becomes vitally important for these residents. The corridor between Cottage Grove Avenue and Ken-o-Sha Drive on South Division Avenue is home to a total of 78 businesses, and 26 of these are owned by Latinx individuals, according to ReferenceUSA. Beauty shops, auto repair services, Latinx grocery stores, and restaurants make up the majority of the businesses on the avenue. In other words, a resident of the area can satisfy their basic needs without having to walk more than four blocks in either direction.

To ensure success, many entrepreneurs of the area are resourceful in finding ways to build a business.  From opening up restaurants in unusual yet creative spots to developing partnerships with members outside of their own communities, these entrepreneurs are able to build enterprises of their own.
 
Sit, spin and eat
 
To the passerby who quickly glances through the two front windows of Jalisco Lavandería, the laundromat on the corner of Sutton Street and South Division Avenue, it looks like a lot of clothes drying, spinning, washing, and folding. Little do they know that what draws the crowds of people to line up around the washers and dryers is a small taco joint everybody calls Tacos El Veracruz.  The combination of a laundromat and a taqueria may seem unusual to most, but it is a perfect fit for Raul Aguilar, the proprietor of the restaurant and a resident of Burton Heights, and his clientele, many of whom have learned of the famous tacos through word of mouth.

The laundromat is owned and operated by Paul and Pamela Mann, who immigrated to Grand Rapids in 1985 from Punjab, India. Although the couple live in Ada, they spend the majority of their days at the laundromat, and, in the last two decades, they have invested very heavily in the neighborhood by purchasing four buildings in the area and renting these out to various Latinx business owners in the community.
 
When the Manns purchased the business, only 25 percent of the machines were functioning at full capacity. Since 2011, Paul Mann has used his expertise as a mechanical engineer to fix the machines and ensure they are all working at 100 percent.
 
“I feel the most useful when I am at Jalisco because I can fix the machines myself and make the customers happy," he says.
 
The Manns acquired the laundromat from a Latinx business owner in 2011, and they recognized the value the business has to the neighborhood. Regardless of the change in ownership, the identity of the business remains.
 
“People know Lavandería Jalisco; I wouldn’t want to take that away from anyone,” says Mann, who notes the importance of Jalisco, a western state in Mexico that is home to the country's second largest city, Guadalajara, and is the place that is known as the birthplace of mariachi music, rodeos and tequila. Plus, it is the one of the country's industrial and business centers and is often referred to as Mexico's Silicon Valley.

Mann, who readily speaks Spanish to his customers, believes it is incredibly important for him to continue to make efforts to understand his customers’ culture.
 
“I bought [Rosetta Stone] because I want to learn more,” says Mann.
 
The laundromat provides el barrio (the neighborhood) with a space to take care of their basic laundry needs while enjoying a taste of home alongside their families.
 
“We help each other out,” says Mann.
 
According to the Pew Research Center, Kent County has the second highest concentration of Hispanics in the state of Michigan, many of them moving to the city of Grand Rapids in search of better job opportunities. In the same way, Aguilar left everything behind, including his family, in Veracruz, Mexico to immigrate to the United States. At 19 years old, Aguilar found himself on his own and working tirelessly to make his American Dream come true by working at various factories around town.
 
Not too long after arriving in Grand Rapids, Aguilar was struck with pangs of homesickness and, in attempts of beating some of these blues, he started experimenting in the kitchen.
 
“En la casa, mi mama y mis hermanas me cocinaban, pero cuando llegue me toco aprender a cocinarme solo,” continues Aguilar. Translation: “At home, my mom and sisters cooked for me, but when I arrived here I had to learn to cook for myself.”
 
As his confidence in the kitchen grew, so did the overwhelming encouragement from friends begging him to open up his own restaurant. The kitchen was a safe haven, a home away from home. A space where Aguilar could celebrate and invite others to partake in creating new memories of home.
 Steak tacos from Tacos El Veracruz

“Me gusta la cocina, y ya estaba yo cansado de trabajar en factorias,” explains Aguilar. Translation: “I like the kitchen, and I had grown tired of working in factories.”
 
“Mi sueño era tener un restaurant,” he continues. Translation: “My dream was to open up my own restaurant.”
 
Aguilar recognizes there is no “authentic taste of home,” but the meals he prepares reflect the immigrant experience of someone who brings back glimpses of home with the flavors of here. 
 
“Todo es diferente aqui. Este es un pais Americano, pero la sazón es lo que le hace un buen taco,” describes Aguilar.  Translation: “Everything is different here, this is America, but the flavor is what makes it a good taco.”

The entrepreneur wants to be able to share what he has accomplished with his family back home, but the process of obtaining a visa for his mother has been costly and time consuming.

"En los 20 años que he vivido aquí mi mamá no ha tenido la oportunidad de visitarme, espero que para el otro año nos aprueben las visas y ella pueda ver todo lo que yo he logrado," explains Aguilar. Translation: "In the 20 years I have lived here my mother hasn't had the opportunity to visit. Within the next year I hope her visa is approved and she gets to see everything I have accomplished."
 
The joint is open Monday through Sunday, with the exception of Wednesday, from 10am to 8pm.  The menu features tacos de pastor (sheep), pollo (chicken), and cabeza (meat prepared from the head of a cow).
 
$10,000 + 10 years + 2 friends = Los 3 Mangos de Michoacan
 
Not too far up the block from the laundromat and taquería one can expect to find yet another seemingly untraditional match.
 
Crystal Chen, a Chinese immigrant, and Raul Alvarez, a Mexican immigrant, have partnered to run Los 3 Mangos de Michoacan (2023 S. Division Ave.), a Mexican restaurant featuring typical street food.
 Raul Alvarez

“Nos conocimos en un restaurante Chino en Nueva York. Yo era el cocinero y ella era la cajera” explains Alvarez.  Translation: “We met at a Chinese restaurant in New York. I was the cook and she was the cashier.”
 
Chen and Alvarez met 10 years ago in a small Chinese restaurant of New York City. They both wanted to one day open up their own restaurant, but they had little money and the rent was too expensive. Moving to a smaller city with cheaper rent and a more extensive network of support made the dreams of entrepreneurship more than a possibility. 
 
Although both hail from completely opposite corners of the world, they have found success in playing up the strengths of one another. Chen, a 26-year-old who is fascinated by details, has been able to help provide the necessary infrastructure and funding to run the business, while Aguilar brings in the social capital.
 
“He knows a lot about the community,” explains Chen.
 
Before the pair came along, the business had been open for a year and a half, and two months ago they bought it from the original owner. So far, they have put in close to $10,000 in helping fix up the building and purchase the necessary equipment to keep and prepare the food. Chen’s family, who currently resides in Fujian province of China, sends her money regularly to ensure the success of the business.

“So far we are seeing little profit, but we are hopeful we will pull through,” says Chen.

With minority entrepreneurs routinely facing racism and discriminatory practices, it  is no wonder that people of color find nontraditional ways to open, and sustain, thriving businesses.
 
Per a 2016 study by the Center for Global Policy Solutions, minority-owned businesses overwhelmingly contribute to job creation and economic prosperity in the country. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce's Minority Business Development Agency, 21 percent of all firms in the U.S. are owned by minorities and minority-owned businesses generate $1 trillion in economic output to the country's economy, creating nearly six million American jobs.

And, as Michigan State University's Julian Samora Research Institute points out, minority-owned businesses are crucial sources of job growth and are more likely to hire other minorities and women than non-minority-owned businesses. This leads to lowering unemployment rates in minority communities, which face joblessness in far higher numbers than their white peers.

Despite this, the United States is currently forgoing an estimated 1.1 million businesses owned by people of color due to discrimination and racist policies, according to the Center for Global Policy Solutions. The 1.1 million business loss totals about $300 billion in workers’ income and nine million jobs.
 
Crystal ChenResearch on Latinx individuals in Grand Rapids has demonstrated they not only work in their communities but also most of their expenditures occur within their communities. Because more than 95 percent of Latinx immigrants purchase their basic needs in their local communities, Chen and Alvarez expect their business to attract many of the area’s residents.
 
“The Mexican families care a lot about community, and you can tell when they come here with their whole families to share a meal,” says Chen.
 
The restaurant keeps the busiest on Saturdays and Sundays, but they are open seven days a week from 11am to 10pm. Because the restaurant is able to prepare the food quickly, many of the employees around the area stop by during their lunch hour.
 
To keep up with the fast-paced environment, the restaurant employs three other workers from the neighborhood to help prepare the coveted elote, salchipapas and tortas (translation: corn with mayonnaise, cheese and chilli power, French fries with hot dogs, and paninis).
 
Chen has been intentional about learning from Alvarez’s relationship-building skills, capitalizing on the valuable resources already available to them.
 
“When we bought the business, we wanted to keep the employees who had been here. They knew how to prepare the food in the way the customers wanted, and I didn’t want to lose the opportunity to satisfy our clientele,” says Chen.
 
 
An equitable economy
 
Marcia Gonzales prepares food for customers at Los 3 Mangos de Michoacan
As our city continues to grow in population and diversity, it is important to ensure equitable access to economic opportunity for all of our communities and neighborhoods. Despite the barriers people of color have been faced with as entrepreneurs, the communities of color on South Division and in Burton Heights are creatively finding ways to build their enterprises. These businesses are not only providing spaces for families and residents to build community, but are also creating an economic exchange within the neighborhood by employing other residents from the area. The opportunity to expand, build a bigger business and make profit are the hopes for Aguilar, Mann, Chen and Alvarez.
 
“Para la proxima vez que llegue yo quiero invitarle a mi propio restaurante grande lleno de empleados y gente," says Aguilar, the owner of Tacos el Veracruz. Translation: “The next time you visit, I hope you come to a much bigger space with plenty of employees and people.”

On The Ground GR

On The Ground GR is a new Rapid Growth series. This series will highlight and celebrate the communities found along South Division Avenue that touch the Garfield Park and Burton Heights neighborhoods. You can read all the On The Ground articles published to date here.

Over the next few months, On The Ground GR journalists will be knocking on doors and getting to know the neighbors and community members. We will dive deeper into topics concerning this neighborhood's residents and stakeholders while celebrating the diversity and strength found in this area. We are on the ground listening and want to celebrate the community's unifying spirit of positivity and vibrancy.

Follow On The Ground GR's work via Twitter (use the hashtag #OnTheGroundGR), Facebook and Instagram. To connect with On The Ground GR's editor, Michelle Jokisch Polo, you can email her at michellejokisch@gmail.com and follow her on Facebook and Instagram. You can learn more about Michelle here.

On The Ground GR is made possible by the Frey Foundation, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation and Steelcase, organizations that believe democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged.
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