Latino family businesses thriving in Inland Empire – San Bernardino Sun

When Juan and Paola Vega opened their small downtown Pomona business, Mi Cafecito coffeehouse, in 2016, the then-newly engaged couple said the opportunity — as Juan Vega said — “just fell into our laps.”

They had never started a business, but wanted to create a cafe “that feels like theirs,” Paola Vega said, a place where people could sit down, have a drink and build community.

“Through our business, we want to represent coffee and Latino culture in a refined, focused, intentional way. Something that feels curated, where everything is local,” Juan Vega said. “I feel like there’s an over-saturation of coffee shops now, especially in LA. But here in the Inland Empire, community is tight knit. It’s a great place to start a business, and if you are intentional, you can create success. And people will follow.”

Studies show that more Latinos entrepreneurs and children of immigrants, like the Vega’s, are starting and growing family-run businesses in the Inland Empire.

Latinos are now the majority population in the Inland region, at 51.5% — an estimated 2.37 million people, according to a UC Riverside study published in September.

Despite economic challenges from the coronavirus pandemic to inflation, Latinos are also becoming one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups to own businesses  in the U.S.

A 2021 Stanford University study on Latino entrepreneurship found that nationally, Latinos continue to start businesses at a faster rate than other ethnic groups — with 44% growth over the last decade, compared to 4% for non-Latinos. Researchers said that, as more Latinos apply for loans and expand their businesses, the demographic contributes billions annually to the U.S. economy.

Paola and Juan Vega are proud to be among that group of first- and second-generation family entrepreneurs building and expanding in the Inland region. In 2020, Mi Cafecito opened its second location inside the Riverside Food Lab, a popular downtown food hall, and the Vega’s are considering opening a shop in the area.

David Hayes-Bautista, director of the Center for the Study of Latino Health and Culture at the UCLA School of Medicine, said “hard work and family values” make Inland Latino consumers and entrepreneurs a “tremendous source of economic vitality.”

“If it were not for Latinos, the labor force and the number of households in the Inland Empire would have declined.”

A 2021 report by the Inland Empire Center for Entrepreneurship at Cal State San Bernardino found 35% of Inland businesses are owned by minorities, with Latino owners representing the largest portion, at 16%.

Inland Latino-owned businesses are the “primary driver of minority entrepreneurship” and have continued to grow regionally, despite economic hurdles from the pandemic, researchers said in the report.

Mike Stull, the center’s director, said the percentage of Latino-owned firms has grown significantly “over the past five years, despite ‘the pandemic effect,’” and that “the creation of new firms in the IE is being driven by minority entrepreneurs, particularly Latinx entrepreneurs, (who are) growing at a rate faster than state and national trends.”

“It sends a strong message that business ownership is possible and a very viable pathway for underrepresented minorities,” Stull said of the center’s findings. “I think it also does signal that many entrepreneurs are creating services, products and experiences that are attractive to the greater market, but also can often meet the specific needs of the very large Latinx market we have in the region.”

A 2018 study by California Lutheran University and UCLA Health, funded by Bank of America and published in summer, measured the percentage value of goods and services  — also called the gross domestic product, or GDP — that Latino businesses produced in Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

The report found that Latinos contribute billions to these top five industries: government services, finance/real estate, transportation/warehousing, retail trade and construction.

Educated Latinos from younger generations are also entering the labor force, becoming more entrepreneurial and in some cases, even taking over their family businesses — fueling GDP growth, the report found.

Today, more “successful Latino-led businesses are getting passed down from early immigrant parent-owners to adult children, who now run the family businesses and create multi-generational wealth,” said Bansree Parikh, president of Bank of America for the Inland Empire.

One such entrepreneur with strong family ties is Andrew Pier, who helped his Mexico-born parents start their first warehousing business, DC Logistics, in the early 2000s.

It grew from a small freight management company based in Jurupa Valley, to having hundreds of employees and 14 locations nationwide, with operations managed by Pier and his brothers.

The demand for logistics and transportation in the Inland Empire — a region rampant with industrial buildings and warehouses, developing and shipping products nationwide — helped propel the company’s success. Pier said quality service and having a “bullfighter spirit” and the courage to try is the family’s “secret sauce.”

DC Logistics was recently sold to a national investor, while the Pier family focuses on creating new fuel and food-service ventures in Jurupa Valley, Pomona and Murrieta.

“Taking that risk was challenging,” Pier said, “but we knew our family always had each other to fall back on.”

Keeping family at the center of a rapidly growing business was also a priority for Corona-born Javier Vasquez.

In 1973, Vasquez’s parents, Mike and Mary Vasquez, took over an old restaurant in downtown Corona that became the Mexican fast-service food chain Miguel’s Jr.

Vasquez — now its CEO — remembers helping his parents and siblings at the young restaurant. His mother, Mary Vasquez, cooked and created a menu of dishes inspired by her hometown cuisine in Guanajuato, Mexico.

Miguel’s Jr. has now grown to 22 sit-down restaurants with 700 employees across Riverside, San Bernardino and Orange counties. Javier Vasquez said keeping the food “consistent to our family’s Mexican roots is our brand and legacy.”

As Miguel’s Jr. continues to expand in the Inland Empire, Vasquez said the population growth makes the region a great place to invest.

“A lot of towns here are big, but still have that small-town feel,” he said. “It’s more affordable to start a business here than in bigger, expensive cities. The community supports local businesses.”

Creating a distinct product for consumers can help sustain even a small family business.

In July, when Perris resident Aidee Alvarez Ledezma started her mobile food trailer, Del Mar Hibachi & Ceviche, she wanted to bring a blend of cuisine — coastal Mexican and Japanese-style cooking — to southwest Riverside County.

Hibachi — a Japanese term that refers to a cooking style in which food is prepared in a large, open bowl or on a grill — was not common in the area, and Ledezma already knew her family’s special Mexican ceviche recipes. Why not combine the two and start her own business?

“We did our research, and everyone around here makes tacos, tortas, tamales,” Ledezma said. “We wanted to be unique, not be the competition. People say that our food is different from anything else around here.”

Within a few weeks, Ledezma applied and got an 80% business loan and invested in a full-service food trailer, where the cooking occurs. Soon, Del Mar’s unique menu — and serving smaller quantities that help drive up sales — attracted customers from around Lake Elsinore, Canyon Lake, Murrieta and Perris.

Her food truck has now paid for itself, Ledezma said, and is run entirely by family members. Ledezma’s kids and husband help work the cash register, cook, clean and maintain the vehicle. The mother of five hopes to one day open a sit-down restaurant and would definitely stay in the area.

Ledezma’s advice for aspiring Latino business owners is to always persevere.

“Even in the hardest times, even if the market crashes, people will always eat,” she said. “And if you give good food and customer service, they’ll always come back.”

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