Minnesota Latino businesses: Growing, greening, cooperating

Lilia Zagal and Armando Ocampo, owners of Ocampo's restaurants and taquerias. (Photo by Bruce Johansen)

John Flory is all too familiar with what many people think of immigrants: that they’re lazy, looking for handouts, taking advantage of our country’s safety net. The reality, he says, is exactly the opposite. Having helped immigrants launch businesses through his work at Whittier Community Development Corporation, beginning in 1996, and as special projects director at the Latino Economic Development Center (LEDC) since 2003, Flory has plenty of examples to point to. His clients, he says, are hardworking people, struggling to make a better life for themselves and their families, just as immigrants always have.

What’s largely gone unrecognized, Flory says, is the role immigrant entrepreneurs have played in reviving major sections of the cities they live and work in. He points to Nicollet Avenue (aka Eat Street) and Lake Street as prime examples. Where other business owners have only seen blight and problems—leading them to ignore or abandon large swaths of Minneapolis and St. Paul—Flory’s clients, and those with similar backgrounds, have seen opportunities.

Los Ocampo, a family-owned chain of taquerias and restaurants with locations in Minneapolis and St. Paul, is perhaps the biggest success story Flory knows of. In Flory’s view, Armando Ocampo and wife and business partner, Lilia Zagal, have done everything right. From a financial perspective, he says, their businesses are better run than those of any of the clients he’s worked with.

For more about Armando Ocampo and Lilia Zagal, read "Immigrant couple applies Tejalpa business experience to Twin Cities opportunities"

John Flory (Photo courtesy of John Flory)

 

While rising annual sales are an important measure of the restaurateurs’ success, Flory says that several ingredients had to come together for Los Ocampo to grow as smoothly, and as rapidly, as it has.  Ocampo and Zagal are participating in one innovative pilot program and in the midst of discussions about another.

Greening Latino Businesses

LEDC’s Green Initiative helps Latino businesses adopt more efficient and sustainable practices, which save owners significant amounts of money in the process. Matt Kazinka, LEDC’s Green Initiative Coordinator, says he enjoys connecting businesses to existing programs, especially this one. He notes that LEDC conducted a survey of Latino-owned businesses, with assistance from the City of Minneapolis’s Great Streets program, before launching the initiative. More than 80 percent of those surveyed had asked for resources and support to make their business environmentally responsible.

Kazinka remembers Ocampo attending a meeting of the Mexican Restaurant Association (MERA) local chapter at LEDC’s office. He listened carefully as Lorenzo Ariza, owner of Salsa a la Salsa, spoke enthusiastically about the pilot program. A joint effort of LEDC and Eureka Recyling’s Food Service Energy Leadership program, the initiative focuses on helping food-related businesses make low-cost or no-cost changes to cut their energy bills.

Prior to participating, Ariza told LEDC that: “Every time I looked at my expenses, I wondered how I could reduce them. I thought that energy expenses were impossible to lower.” Since becoming one of the first Latino business owners to use the services of the new Green Initiative, he has learned about ways to operate his business more efficiently and in ways that are ecologically-friendly.

Immediately after Ariza’s presentation was over, Ocampo came up to Kazinka and said, “I want to do that.”

The process involves an extensive audit of current energy use and practices. From that audit, auditors produce a personalized 15- to 20-page report that includes a profile of the business and a history of its energy use from Xcel and Centerpoint. Business owners are told of opportunity areas, offered a list of recommendations, and given projected costs up front. According to Kazinka, energy savings for participants have ranged five to slightly over twenty percent.

Since the program is funded for Minneapolis businesses only, says Kazinka, it cannot be replicated at all Los Ocampo restaurants, but the results could be applied at the couple’s other locations. He added that an audit of the new, full service East Side restaurant might be conducted through one of several other existing programs.

Developing New, More Cooperative Practices

Los Ocampo is also participating in discussions about cooperative development, a new initiative of LEDC and MERA, funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Several cooperative concepts are under consideration, including: a purchasing cooperative of Latino restaurants and other food-related businesses; a grower cooperative made up of immigrant farmers, including, but not restricted to Latino and Hmong famers; a retail store owned by growers; a cooperative venture that would market to institutions; and a cooperative meat processing facility owned jointly by Latino butchers and farmers.

LEDC reports that it is helping to organize a purchasing coop to be operated by the local MERA chapter, and has submitted proposals to fund other initiatives. One of those would finance a building to provide warehouse space to the cooperative. Another would establish a retail produce vendor at Midtown Global Market. LEDC is recruiting owner-members that the vendor would serve. The nonprofit is also working on coming up with funding to purchase a 50 to 100 acre farm to be leased to a cooperative of growers, who “have identified access to land as their greatest barrier to operating viable specialty farm production businesses.”

Ocampo says the idea behind cooperative development is to create more jobs both in the U.S. and Mexico. He notes that the produce in all area Mexican restaurants and stores would come from cooperative ventures, and that it would be cheaper and of higher quality.

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Bruce Johansen's picture
Bruce Johansen

Bruce Johansen (brucejohansen [at] tcdailyplanet [dot] net) is programs manager, education and community engagement, for the Twin Cities Media Alliance, and an active resident of Minneapolis's Seward neigbhorhood.