Cambridge has only a handful of Latino business owners, but these leaders see a way to boost numbers

La Fabrica owner Dennis Benzan (left) listens to Orquesta La Seleccion kick off Saturday night. (Photo: Mark Levy)

Hispanics make up nearly a tenth of the city’s population, but all of Cambridge’s Latino business owners gathering at La Fabrica, the Spanish-Caribbean restaurant and nightclub in the central plaza, will be a lonely affair.

Dennis Benzan, who opened La Fabrica in 2017, said he only knew of other Latino-owned businesses in Cambridge that literally meant “a few.”

If diners were surprised, Benzan said in an interview last month. He understands why. “When you think of the restaurant industry, a lot of people think of Mexican restaurants,” he said. In Cambridge, “there may be a lot of them — but a lot of Mexican restaurants aren’t Mexican-owned.”

Businesses registered in the city or state are not required to disclose the race or ethnicity of their owners, so the city does not accurately count the number of Latino businesses in Cambridge, said Pardis Saffari, Department of Economic Opportunity and Development for Community Development. Cambridge also doesn’t have a Latino-focused business organization to track.

Statewide, Latino and Black business owners make up only 3 percent of employee businesses, according to the 2018 U.S. Entrepreneur Census survey by WGBH. The figure is also significantly lower than the 9.1 percent of the Hispanic population cited by Cambridge community development officials.

According to a 2017 Boston Foundation report using the most recent data available (from 2015 and earlier), the average annual sales of Latino businesses that manage to open in Boston is less than $100,000, compared to $644,000 for all businesses.

How to Raise the Numbers

Ana Celia Ribeiro and Eddie Garcia Jr. At their now closed restaurant La Catrina. (Photo: La Katrina via Facebook)

There are ways to increase the number of Latino businesses and make them more in line with Cambridge and the state’s Hispanic population. Advice from Ben Zan; Cambridge’s Ana Celia Ribeiro, who ran Brighton’s La Catrina restaurant for four and a half years until it closed in early October; and Nery and Tommy Amaya, who opened East Amaya Bros in Cambridge. Comics for August 2021.

Benzan said he would like to see programs that provide mentoring and even financing for Latino entrepreneurs. “It’s really important to have some kind of incubator program,” he said. “We need a program that helps young men and women create visions and execute them.”

Addressing language barriers may help. Ribeiro said many newly arrived Latinos are unable to take English classes, and 2020 census figures show that 73 percent of Middlesex County people speak only English.

Once in business, Latino owners should try to elevate others in the community. During her time running La Catrina, Ribeiro said she places a lot of value on partnering with other Latino-owned businesses in the Greater Boston area and sending money down the supply chain. Benzan did the same, right down to the popsicles in the mojitos at La Fabrica, but also employed about 80 staff and a dozen rotating bands (about 70) and a dozen DJs along those lines.

“If there’s one small business in Cambridge that employs the highest percentage of people of color, it’s La Fabrica,” he said Saturday, and all of those small businesses earn more than a living wage.

There is also value in educating uninformed clients about the challenges that Latino entrepreneurs face — perhaps reflecting the work of the past few years to elevate Black-owned businesses.

“Customers are people who can change the way the economy works. They can change the way they consume,” Ribeiro said.

Lower barriers to entry

Nery and Tommy Amaya (from left) opened a comic book and card shop in East Cambridge last year. (Photo: Aidan G. Harper)

Lower barriers to entry could also be considered. A supportive leasing arrangement made it possible for them to open a storefront, Amayas said, as both work full-time to support themselves while the store is open at night. The lease gave them 45 days and they had to pay rent. Without this grace period, they said, they would need more capital investment to be ready to start their business.

Benzan also believes that if they didn’t have to pay that much upfront, more Latinos would start businesses in Cambridge — perhaps at least back to the 1970s, when there were more Latino-owned wine cellars, barbershops and nightclubs, such as Latin Quarter. “On Columbia Street alone there are Brea Market, Columbia Market, and R&R Market. These three cellars help maintain Columbia Street’s Latin spirit,” said Tuft students in a 2002 study, “The Cambridge Economy of Latinos,” wrote. (Of the three, the Colombian market remains open.)

But smaller rents for smaller spaces, where one large storefront can be subdivided into multiple smaller businesses, is another useful approach, he said, which he supported as deputy mayor from 2013 to 2015.

“When I was on the city council, I was a big proponent of micro-retail spaces,” Benzan said. This zoning option is “why do we have these small first-floor businesses in Central and not these big storefronts that only attract banks.”

Ribeiro is another advocate for these local measures. “The U.S. economy is very supportive of big companies,” she said.

meet demand

Dennis Benzan, seen Saturday at La Fabrica, wants to see a Latino-focused business incubator. “We need a program that helps young men and women create,” he said. (Photo: Mark Levy)

Latino entrepreneurs must also follow the same basic business principles as anyone, including identifying businesses that meet needs, Benzan and Amayas said.

“La Fabrica is a need. It fills a niche where there aren’t many places in the Caribbean that aren’t downtown [and] That’s where you meet people from the rest of the world,” says Benzan. It also happens to reflect the culture of the tight-knit community he grew up in the Columbia Terrace housing development near the port, which is from Spanish-speaking countries and the Caribbean. Home to immigrants who came to work in the factories that once dotted Kendall Square. Benzan said his business now attracts tourists from all over the world, but perhaps 95 percent are people of color from every Spanish-speaking country .

“I don’t want this to be seen as just a nightclub. Benzan says it’s where we show our best culture”, music, drinks and food from renowned chef Giovanna Huyke.

The Amaya brothers also found that their passions matched the needs of the community, and they found a surefire way: social media. They showcased their line of comics and sports cards online and built a following they thought could translate into a brick-and-mortar store. “Before we announced the store, there were 476 followers. Then when we did, it went up to a thousand,” Tommy Amaya said. “There’s nowhere to really mix sports cards, Pokemon, and comics. Send cards for scoring, comics for scoring — you won’t get that anywhere else.”

This article was written in partnership with Cambridge Local First.

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