Transformando West Michigan helps Latinx restaurants achieve more than a delicious menu

Grand Rapids’ authentic Mexican restaurants serve some of the most delicious cuisine in the area. Traditional recipes, authentic ingredients, and highly seasoned culinary skills are evident in every bite. However, it takes more than good food to make a restaurant a profitable endeavor. Business savvy, marketing know-how, and financial management expertise are important ingredients, as well.

The West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is stepping in to provide those skills — in Spanish. Thanks to up to $94,628 in support from the City of Grand Rapids’ Economic Development Corporation (EDC), “Transformando West Michigan Phase I: Feeding Minds, Mouths and Pockets” is currently working with 21 representatives from 11 existing food businesses to provide essential skills for a successful business owner.

“Our support of this program aligns with the City’s commitment to collaborate with entrepreneurial support organizations to serve entrepreneurs at the neighborhood level, create new businesses, and increase the diversity of business types downtown,” says Kara Wood, the City’s managing director of economic development services.

Food businesses participating in the program include El Desayuno Loco, El Globo Restaurant, El Granjero Mexican Grill, El Jalapeño Food Truck, El Toro Bravo, La Casa del Pollo Loco, Lindo Mexico, Mi Casa Restaurante, Tacos El Cuñado Bridge St., Tamales Mary, and Taquería El Rincón Mexicano.

As part of the first phase, Culinary Cultivations will teach ServSafe food safety certification.

“It’s not just business owners but cooks, managers, those who wanted to be a part of this first food safety certification,” says Guillermo Cisneros, executive director of the Hispanic Chamber. “These programs focus on established businesses that have been struggling for years with no access to capital, no processes, and no systems in place.”

Cisneros shares that of the 11 restaurants currently enrolled, 80 percent don’t even have a financial strategy.

“They are excellent at cooking. Their food is amazing. But, they don’t know how to grow their businesses. The beauty of this program is that all of the knowledge we are bringing is in Spanish. Ninety percent of the participants in these programs feel more comfortable in Spanish. Sometimes these concepts are hard to understand even in your own language. If we want them to grow and implement processes, they need to fully understand.”

In subsequent phases of the Transformando program, consultants and volunteers will share information about accounting, human resources, marketing, and technology. Having these skills and strategies will also enable the businesses to find financing for building improvements and expansion.

“In order for them to get a loan, they first need to put their systems in place and be organized internally. There's no way for them to get loans because they don’t have a financial statement,” Cisneros says. “It’s is not a racism thing. The businesses are not prepared.”

Cisneros has great gratitude for the partnerships that make the program possible. Funds from the Wege Foundation allowed the Hispanic Chamber to hire a bilingual and bicultural program manager, Ana Jose, to coach all of the program participants. Brewery Vivant, Martha’s Vineyard, MeXo, Restaurant Partners, Inc., and Terra GR are providing volunteer mentors for program participants. Principal Financial is flying Spanish-speaking teachers in from Phoenix, Arizona at no charge. Gordon Food Services and Varnum Law are providing financial support and in-kind services. In addition, the Grand Valley State University Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation is sending a professor and business students to help participants write business plans.

“We are bringing incredible partners,” Cisneros says. “The next cohort will include human resources and customer service. Gradually, we will be bringing all of the knowledge and surround all of the businesses with experts. The mentors are volunteers but some consultants are paid. Also, the participants pay a fee in order to be a part of the cohort. It’s not free. There is commitment from these restaurants, as well.”

Launched in May 2018, the Transformando program is a first in the history of the Hispanic Chamber. Its long-standing “Talleres Empresariales,” a monthly business workshop, addresses different topics for all types of businesses on the fourth Thursday of each month. Conducted in Spanish, the workshop includes a free breakfast and one-hour presentation.

“We firmly believe that for the economy of the entire region to prosper, we need each community working at the same pace. If we have a strong Latino business community, we will see the benefits in the economy of the entire region. These businesses will contribute more taxes and hire more people — all will benefit,” Cisneros says. “That’s the main goal, that we can have everyone on the same playing field.”

Written by Estelle Slootmaker, Development News Editor.

Photos courtesy West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.