Bruce Johansen: It’s September 14, 2013. I’m Bruce Johansen and I’m at Homi Mexican Restaurant, located at 864 University Avenue West in St. Paul. This is one in a series of interviews I’m doing with business owners along the Central Corridor. My project is funded through a grant from the State of Minnesota Historical and Cultural Heritage Fund. [Audio at bottom]
Today I’m interviewing two people, Miguel López and Hortencia Reyes, Homi’s co-owners. Thank you for accepting my invitation to be interviewed.
To learn more, read Homi Restaurant: “If you like our food, come support us,” by Bruce Johansen, listen to the audio below, and watch video here. This article is part of the series, Along the Corridor: University Avenue business owners navigating change, an oral history project funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant.
B: Let’s start at the beginning. Where you each of you born and where did you grow up?
Miguel López: OK, I’m born in Mexico, in Hidalgo state in Mexico.
B: Can you tell me a little bit about Hidalgo state?
M: Hidalgo state is the central state of Mexico. And it’s the, it’s one of the more populous states in the center of Mexico. Like Puebla to the Veracruz, and Estado de Mexico, okay?
B: And Hortencia?
Hortencia Reyes: Oaxaca.
M: She born in Mexico, too. Oaxaca. Oaxaca is another state of Mexico. And after the first years in Oaxaca, she go with her mom to Veracruz state. And she grew up with her mother in Veracruz.
B: I’m guessing that those places are different from St. Paul, where you live now.
M: Oh, yeah. I met Hortencia here in St. Paul.
B: What year was that?
M: About more than ten years ago I meet her. In my regular work. Because I have another work, apart from the restaurant. The restaurant is like my hobby. But now I have Homi and my other, regular work.
B: What is your other work?
M: Wholesale Produce Supply.
B: Also based in St. Paul?
M: Yeah, it’s between St. Paul and Minneapolis. Close to 280. Next to 280. Right on the border.
B: And what’s that business called?
M: It’s vegetables and fruit, wholesale products.
B: What’s the name?
M: Wholesale Produce.
B: What were your childhoods like in Mexico? What did your parents do?
M: My parents, my mom, she was like in Mexico the woman take care of the house. And my father work in one of the tire manufacturing in Mexico, Goodyear, for the first years. After 20 years he started his own business, too, like a market. He was interested in the business, too. My father have a bit of a supermarket in Mexico.
B: Nice. And brothers and sisters?
M: I have four brothers and four sisters.
B: Are they in Mexico?
M: Now is five brothers. Two brothers here, one sister, and the rest are in Mexico.
B: Hortencia’s family?
M: Four brothers and four sisters, too. In the USA, only two sisters.
B: When did each of you come to the United States?
M: I came to the United States about 25 years ago.
B: Directly to Minnesota?
M: No, I go to California for four years.
B: Southern or Northern?
M: South California. Close to the border. And after four years I moved to Minnesota. I live in Minnesota for more than 20 years.
B: What brought you to Minnesota?
M: Because my mom she moved to Minnesota because she had a lot of family in this state. I moved with her. Now I’m separate from her.
M: She come in 2001.
B: So about 12 years.
M: 12 years, come to Minnesota.
B: Did you come right to Minnesota?
M: Yeah, she came right to Minnesota.
B: What brought you to Minnesota? Did she have family here?
M: No. She come alone with friends. The first time she come, she come with friends. It’s very hard to come with family because—especially in this state—when I move, more than 18, 20 years, it’s no Hispanic people in this state. It’s tough to come alone.
B: It’s starting to change though, isn’t it?
M: Yeah, I remember my first year, when I come to Minnesota. Only one place that I can find Mexican people. El Burrito, Burrito Market.
B: On the West Side.
M: On the West Side. No Lake Street, no nothing. It’s very hard. And now you can find people everywhere.
B: Did you feel isolated?
M: Oh, yeah.
B: It’s amazing how quickly that’s changed.
M: Oh yes. A lot more Latino people in this area. It’s changed how the Cities feel with a lot of people come from different countries. Now, like Asian people.
B: And Lake Street.
M: Oh, yes, you go to Lake Street and it feels like any city in Mexico.
B: At what point did you decide to open a restaurant?
M: Because I started selling food out of my home to friends. That’s the reason I’m planning opening a restaurant. About seven years ago.
B: Is when you decided you’d do that?
M: Yeah. Until two years I decided to open this small place.
B: Do you both cook?
M: Yes. It’s the reason I open the restaurant. Everybody cook. Him (son), her, me. I’m always serving food, even in my country. I told you my father had a small supermarket.
B: How did you choose this location for the restaurant?
M: Oh, because I’m living close to this area. And one time I pass through. And I see the sign, selling. And I asked him for the price and thought, okay, that’s good.
B: What was in this space?
M: An Asian restaurant.
Miguel López, Jr.: This location has been, hosted like five different ethnicity restaurants. It was a Jamaican place, then it was a Thai place, at one point I believe it was Italian food, and now it’s Mexican.
B: Do you know how long each of those businesses lasted?
M, Jr.: No more than two years. We’re the one that sticks around the longest.
B: You opened up here in what year?
M, Jr.: ’09. October, 2009.
B: Tell me the origins of the name.
M: Hortencia, H-O. M-I, Miguel. It’s the combination both names.
B: I actually knew that, but I had to get it for the record.
M: A lot of people get confused about the name. Homi, they think of homey…
B: Yes, different connotation. It’s catchy.
B: How many people do you employ? How many people work here?
M, Jr.: Well, most of us are family.
B: So the three of us.
M, Jr.: The three of us, and a dishwasher.
B: You’re (Miguel, Sr.) probably here less often than these two.
M: Yes. I come in the afternoon when I finish my regular job. I come here.
B: So you’re part of the evening shift?
B: What about the menu? Where did the recipes come from?
M: The recipes is like any, any food like I’d eat it at in my home. Regular food, eat it in my home, those are the recipes. It’s not a big complicated recipe. The basic recipe, even from Mexico, most of the people know my menu. It’s a very simple menu.
B: What sets Homi apart from other restaurants in this area?
M, Jr.: First of all, we’re the only Latino-Mexican restaurant in the area, besides La Cucaracha, which has been here for what, 20-something years. So, but again, they’re Mexican American. We are, our food is 100% Mexican, it’s stuff you will eat at home. It’s nothing that you will have in a big restaurant. It’s things you will eat at home. Pretty much it’s comfort food for us.
B: And Mexican American food would be?
M, Jr.: Like chimichangas and like fajitas. All that, they’re stuff that was in Mexico, but it’s not what you will find in a house. And what we cook here is stuff that you find in everybody’s house. That’s probably what sets us apart from a lot of other places.
B: Geographically would the closest completion be over on Lake Street or on the West Side?
M: Probably, on the West Side, yeah.
B: You serve a real need for this area then, I would think.
M, Jr.: Yes, I think we do. Yes, we do that. We have customers who come all the way from Duluth once a week, I mean once a month. Once a month, just to try our food, so, for us to know that they make the trip all the way down to the Twin Cities, means a lot, it means that we’re doing something good.
B: Who would you say most of your customers are? Where do most of them come from? Are they from the neighborhood?
M, Jr.: Most of the customers are neighbors. Yes, most of them are neighbors, so they know about us, they come to eat, they bring their friends. Friends tell friends, I think. That’s probably the best advertising we can have. Word of mouth.
B: Do you do other forms of advertising?
M, Jr.: We tried Latin radio but that didn’t work out for us and we tried fliers. That worked for awhile. Again, this is a small place. So the gains for this place, they are not that big for us to spend a lot of money trying to bring customers through newspapers and all of that.
B: What about different kinds of social media?
M, Jr.: Facebook, we’ve got Facebook, and we get a lot of help from Yelp. Yelp has been good to us.
B: When you say good to you…?
M, Jr.: Good reviews.
M: Every day we have a new customer who find us there.
M, Jr.: We get reviews every day from customers who love our food. We’re one of the few that have four and a half stars out of five. That’s impressive. Especially since we’ve only been open three or four years.
B: We talked about this a little bit the other day. There’ve been some changes outside your door. When you moved into this space did you realize that there was going to be a big construction project about to take place?
M: No, I know about the construction about three or four months later. Oh, I think it’s the reason he ended up selling this place. Because the previous owner think I’m going to be in trouble if I keep open. I never know.
B: So you moved in in 2009 and then the construction began in?
M: 2010, it started.
M, Jr.: February of 2010 it started, I believe.
M: Not in this area, but it started. Close to the, past 280 is the first.
B: It reached you?
M: Last year.
M, Jr.: Summer of 2012.
B: How did that affect business?
M: It affected us, but not very much because most of the customers, most of the businesses don’t have parking. We have parking in the back, just a little bit. For six cars, but that help us. And reviews in the media, newspapers.
B: What are some of the reviews you’ve gotten, besides the Yelp reviews?
M, Jr.: We’ve had City Pages, we’ve had Urban Spoon, we’ve got.
M: And the newspaper help a lot too.
M, Jr.: We’ve had a couple of interviews and notes where they mention us, in the newspaper, and that helps a lot, during construction.
B: In addition to being a sit-down restaurant, do people come in to take out, do you do catering?
M, Jr.: Yes, we do cater, a lot of people, a lot from the Capitol, we get a lot of business from them, a lot of business from different groups, and associations from around the area, like East Bethel, they do a lot of catering from us. And Wilder at University and Lexington. They do a lot of catering from us. Open Cities. Is it Open Cities? No, it’s not Open Cities. I’m trying to think, what’s the name of it? Well, like I say, there’s a couple of businesses around the area, they have employees and we do catering for them. And also we do a lot of, for the Latinos we do weddings and that helps a lot.
B: In terms of the breakdown, is more of your business catering?
M, Jr.: It all depends. In the summer time we’re busy both. We do a lot of catering, we do a lot of business here in the restaurant. Somehow, in wintertime, most of our business is here.
B: Have you worked with the Neighborhood Development Center?
M, Jr.: Yes, we talk to them a lot.
B: In what ways have they been helpful?
M, Jr.: Right now they help us, we have a project in our hands, that as it stands we’re not able to discuss. They help us a lot.
M: Before try help, but all the help is for the owner of the buildings, not the owner of the business. It is totally different.
M, Jr.: They have a lot of projects and the projects are good, but for us to apply for a project that will benefit the owner of the building, and he can do that, why even bother to do that? If the owner doesn’t even bother to do that, why should I do it? Is what my dad was trying to say. If it was help for us as a business owner, not a building owner, because most of the projects that they get, they’re focused to the buildings, to help lift the buildings up. But for us, it’s not.
B: So the building is owned by someone else.
M, Jr.: Yes, the building is owned by someone else. We just own the equipment in the back and we pay rent, so.
B: I’m just curious, is the building owner someone who owns a lot of property on University Avenue?
M, Jr.: Her family owns a lot of property on University Avenue. But I think she only owns this building. But her family owns most of the business.
B: The fortunate business owners are the ones who also own their buildings.
M, Jr.: Yes, they’re the ones who are getting the benefits out of it. Us, we don’t get any benefits, so that’s why we don’t even bother. As I told her, if she gave of us money for rent, or electricity, or water, or whatever, you know, and she was like, ‘we cannot do that, we can only help you to paint the building, put a new roof on.’ That’s not, that doesn’t benefit me. That benefits the building owner, but that doesn’t help us, the business owner.
M: Here’s what she say, the owner of the business don’t get any benefits. Always when anybody offers any benefits, you say, ‘Can you help me with 10 or 20 percent of my rent?’ ‘No, I cannot do that.’ ‘Ten or 20 percent of my bills?’ ‘No. I can put on new paint or sidewalk.’ That’s for the owners of the buildings. And at one time they put asphalt in the parking lot ….and the owner of the building say, ‘Oh I pay for the asphalt and I pay for that.’ Come on, you don’t pay. City pay and give you money. And he tried to put $100 more for my rent. Oh, come on. And now, he have plans for remodeling this front area. Put in big windows, something like that. He got a lot of money for the projects that are invested in that. It’s not money for the pocket, it’s money for the buildings.
B: The business next door, in the building next door, do they own the building?
M: He owns that.
B: They’ve been here for a long time.
M: Oh, yeah. I think over 25 years. When I started, about four years, he’s 25 years in business. Now I think it’s more than 25, 28, 29 years. He own the building. The projects in the University, they ask if he’ll sell. Nope. He’s a good neighbor.
B: It sounds like this is a good location, but it would be nice if you owned the building.
B: The first time that I was here, the first time I came to the restaurant, was right in the thick of all of the construction. It was tricky getting here.
M: For some of our customers it’s very hard to find us….Help. Can I get your business. Not every street’s closed. Even for us it’s very hard to come, for about three or four months. Because when the construction was in front of the building, the door is closed.
B: Once this project is completed, what do you think the impact will be to have light rail running in front of your business?
M: I think the business will be a little bit more better because it look nice. Because most of the customers won’t come because white people, white people don’t like the neighborhood, black neighborhood. Yeah. They’re scared of all those neighbors. Yeah, but now it look more nice. More light, more secure for the people.
M, Jr.: Between Lexington and Dale it’s really rough. And it’s always been, it’s always been rough. We’ve always had drug dealers on the corner and we have our share of those here.
B: Is that changing at all?
MJ: It’s changing.
M: Yeah. Now it’s more secure. It’s not the same University street it was 20 years ago. Now you can walk in the night.
B: Do you think the light rail is having a positive impact already as far as getting rid of some of that? And do you think that residents of Minneapolis who have access to the light rail will be discovering University Avenue because of that?
M, Jr.: I think so, I think so. University Avenue is going to keep changing and from what I heard they have a lot of plans for development around this area, so. And from what I’ve heard, rents are going to be accessible for a lot of people. So a lot of people are going to move from expensive areas like Uptown and they’re going to start looking around this area. And people are going to start coming.
M: A lot of people are starting to move into this area because of housing development that’s already started. I know about four or five now. More than five now.
M, Jr.: Where it started was the lofts over by 280. And there’s going to be more from what I’ve heard.
M: Housing’s more secure and people say, ‘Okay, that’s good. I’ll live over in this area.’
M, Jr: And I think it’s going to revive this area. The light rail will do it. People are going to start coming to see what it’s all about. They’re going to like it.
B: Where do you three live? Do you live in the neighborhood?
M, Jr.: Yeah, we actually live in the neighborhood. We live in the area of Lexington and Central. Back by 94. We’ve lived there for ten years?
M, Jr.: 13 years. We’ve lived in the area for 13 years.
B: Right over by where Wilder is located.
M, Jr.: Yes, right behind them.
B: Any changes in the business that are coming up, that you can talk about? Or do we just have to wait?
M, Jr.: Everybody just has to wait.
M: It’s a dream now.
M, Jr.: It could be a reality.
B: What would you say has been the main challenge of owning this business?
M, Jr.: The main challenge? She said, ‘Winter time.’ Winter time is the biggest challenge.
M: Particularly in this building. It’s a very old building.
M, Jr.: It’s not efficient. So winter time is hard. It’s hard for us. The bills are so high. Part of it’s insulation, part of it’s the building’s so old. As you can see we have the old water heaters, so it takes a lot of money to keep this place running in the winter.
M: Because the customers pay the same.
M. Jr.: But the bills almost double. So it’s hard. Winters are hard for us. Right now, actually, we just re-decorated the inside. We were planning to do the outside, but we’re a little short of money right now. We’re just waiting.
B: What do you enjoy most about owning a restaurant? What’s the best part for you?
M: We know the people. Now she know more people and people know us. And everywhere we go, they say, I know you, I see you in the restaurant. You are the owner, you are the cooker. It makes us very happy, people talking about that.
B: I’m guessing that you have a lot of good, loyal customers?
M: Most of the customers are like, when eating, he say it’s like eating at our home, not like a chain restaurant. The people who are serving you bring the food and don’t say nothing. And most of my customers, she’s very, the lady’s very charismatic and talking and making jokes with the customers. The first time when I start open this place, she speak a little, little bit of English. Now is, she speak a little bit more.
H: I speak English, ten percent.
B: As you look to the future, and again I know you can’t say a lot about the future, but what are some of your hopes?
M: Oh, for the future. To make the space a little bit more bigger because now sometimes my customers are waiting for a table. It’s slow right now but little by little I’m happy right now.
B: And what are the busiest times?
M: An hour from now. People come at different times. Because like now, it’s empty now. But an hour later, it’s full. This is a small room, so with 12 or 15 people and it’s full.
B: I’m guessing tomorrow will be busy with Open Streets.
M: Yes, I expect. And I expect more people know about this place. It’s very hard this place because no more than seven-, ten-foot wide, and when you try to find a restaurant you expect to find a big sign saying Mexican restaurant. And now you have to be passing slow to see the sign.
B: When you dream about a restaurant, how many people would you like to be able to accommodate?
M: Oh, I dream about maybe 60, 70 people in the room, double this size. Because I can dream more with that size, the other dream was little by little. Every time when you have a dream, everything you do costs money. There’s not enough money now. And when I set up in this place, too, that’s when the economy started to go down. The construction started, the economy went down. Very hard, but I survive even with all those things.
B: Anything else you’d like to tell me about?
M: No. She say, ‘Thank you everyone. Like you come, and make an interview, and tell more people about this place. It help a lot. We see new customers come and ask do you like my food. Tell everybody else, if you like our food, come, support us.’ She say, ‘Thank you, thank you everyone.’
B: And thank you for taking the time to talk with me.
This article is part of a Central Corridor small business oral history project funded through a State of Minnesota Historical & Cultural Heritage Grant.