Start Garden win lifts third-generation restaurateur’s dreams to next level

For almost two years, Marisela Sierra has been working to put her family business, Navarro’s Mexican Takeout, on the map by providing tamales to the world. For Sierra, born and raised in Muskegon Heights, this is not too far-fetched. In fact, she was born on March 23, National Tamale Day.

“It was meant to be,” Sierra likes to say.

She’s savoring the success of winning the 2022 Start Garden 100 pitch competition after taking part for the second time.

After submitting a pitch on video, she was one of 100 entrepreneurs chosen to compete for $20,000. On Sept. 21, Sierra was named one of the 10 winners. 

"I am so incredibly thankful to everyone who has supported our journey since taking over Navarro's. I am so blessed to continue my family legacy and continue to grow this beautiful gift they have created for us,” says Sierra, who adds that next steps for Navarro’s include getting their stone-ground tamales into the freezers of local retailers.

She plans to invest the capital into growing and advancing their mom-and-pop business’ technology to prepare more tamales, incorporating more flavor options and helping with staffing.

Navarro’s has had a strong presence in the community since her grandparents opened the business in 1978. Navarro’s is like home to Sierra and her family, in all meanings of the word.

Bringing Hispanic culture in the late ‘70s

The business Sierra’s grandparents founded started in the same location – 2537 8th St., Muskegon Heights – where it operates now, 44 years later. Commonly referred to locally as “Eighth Street,” Navarro’s was started to provide the Hispanic community with staples that were lacking in the area, according to Sierra. As a result, Navarro’s operated as a grocery store as well.

Sierra’s grandparents, who loved music and dancing, also had a record store at the same location, as well as a DJ service, a radio show, and a television show. When Sierra’s mother, Francisca Navarro, purchased the business at age 18, Navarro’s became the takeout business that it has been since.

Sierra reflects on the fact that her mom, at that young age, was still learning and growing as an adult, but took on the responsibility of running their family business. That same building was Sierra’s first home. While her parents worked downstairs in the restaurant, Sierra and her brother grew up in the upstairs studio apartment. She also worked in the restaurant.

“I was the kid in the kitchen probably complaining about being there,” Sierra shares. She helped roll tamales from a very young age until it was time to leave for college.

“My mom decided college wasn’t for her but wanted to make sure we saw the world,” she says. So Sierra’s next destination was Aquinas College, where she was a double major in business administration and Spanish. Sierra also had a chance to travel and study in Spain, and her mom held fundraisers so she could experience this opportunity.

With her finance background, Sierra started her professional career. Always looking for professional growth, Sierra says that her mother sensed that she was getting “antsy” and ready to make a professional move, so she asked Sierra to leave her job and come work for her at Navarro’s.

Sierra admits that she was on the fence about her decision; she had gone to school for business administration and wanted to work in a role for which she studied. She was also the mother of two children with her husband of 11 years and high school sweetheart, Felix, so she wasn’t sure about working in the service industry. Sierra told her mother no, adding, “I didn’t see the potential of the business at the time. I didn’t see her.”

She instead started working for Gordon’s Food Service in various capacities, including vendor receivables, travel and expense, and food distribution. Ironically, all her experiences were preparation for what was to come when her mom unexpectedly passed away.

Sierra’s mom received a bone marrow transplant and her health seemed to be improving, but she died of leukemia in September 2020. “It was a big loss for the family,” Sierra says. “So, it was hard to figure out how to continue moving on.” Sierra and her brother had decided that Navarro’s journey would end, but Sierra’s husband thought otherwise.

“My husband was against it. He reminded me of how hard my mom worked for this family and made this beautiful gift,” Sierra shares. She was still resistant because she had just begun graduate school and felt all “tapped out,” but she agreed to help her husband take off and go with the business. What Sierra did not expect was the show of support when Navarro’s reopened in February 2021.

Continuing in her mother’s footsteps

Sierra’s plan was to be present that first week and serve in a supportive role for what she thought would be just like any other business day. Instead, Sierra says, that first day, a cold day in February, there was a line out the door. Navarro’s stayed busy the whole week, and, according to Sierra, their sales the first two months was double the sales of any other time.

The show of appreciation from the customers coming in, bringing their children, and sharing their memories of frequenting Navarro’s was overwhelming and touching. Sierra explains that she and her husband worked together to make this reopening happen, even using their own money, so this support was a huge boost. Finally, she was ready to give 100% to continue the family business.

In a full circle moment, their daughter and son are walking in her footsteps, as Sierra has walked in her mom’s. “For me, having taken over and having two children of my own, it’s bittersweet to see them walking in the same places me and my brother used to walk or playing in the same places where me and my brother used to play.” Sierra adds that even at her children’s young ages, by watching their parents they also are gaining the mindset of entrepreneurs.

 Envisioning a tamale empire

Since the ‘70s, Navarro's has always sold tamales. It also was known for its chorizo, which it no longer sells, although Sierra says she has been toying with bringing the secret family recipe back to the business.

Sierra calls the process of making tamales as a labor of love. The traditional way they make their tamales is what also makes Navarro’s tamales unique. According to Sierra, they buy corn, cook it slowly for about two hours, and then clean and stone-grind it, which demonstrates “a lot of extra love and care and attention in how we make our tamales.”

To remain close to their Texas roots – Sierra’s grandmother was born in Texas – Navarro’s tamales are made in the Tex-Mex style that they have followed since the beginning. Now, Sierra wants to work on some advancements and growth in the business while keeping its traditions alive.

Since the reopening, Navarro’s has added a patio so customers can enjoy their food onsite, a website for marketing and promotion, and appearances at different events, such as The Taste of Muskegon, to grow its customer base. 

The work that Sierra and her family have put in is evident, based on the continued support from the community and the number of accolades, including Sierra’s “Future 15” honor from The Muskegon Lakeshore Chamber of Commerce. Still, she quickly adds that she and her husband are still learning and growing.

With a passion for food, culture, collaboration over competition with other business owners, and empowerment of entrepreneurs, Sierra is looking forward to the future of Navarro’s and this gift she hopes to pass on to her own children.

“Just to know people genuinely appreciate what you do, I am so thankful.”

Learn more about Navarro’s Mexican Takeout at
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