Carrboro’s Hispanic-owned eateries overcome obstacles

By Jeremy Gerlach
Carrboro Commons Staff Writer

According to the 2010 Census, there are no Hispanic-owned restaurants in Carrboro. There are chain Latin-themed establishments, yes, but none are owned by the Latino community that comprises more than 13 percent of Carrboro’s population.

Alfonso and Isabel Guzman of Carrboro have opened up a new grocery store, Tienda don Poncho, while their taco truck, Captain Poncho’s Tacos, is undergoing renovations. STAFF PHOTO BY JEREMY GERLACH

Yet on any given morning, you can walk past tienda after tienda – and by night, taco truck after taco truck. Why are the numbers – or lack thereof – hiding the Latino food industry from the Carrboro consumer?

José Torres is a community specialist at the Carrboro branch of El Centro Hispano at the Carrboro Plaza on Highway 54. At the center, a Durham-based grassroots organization dedicated to strengthening the Triangle’s Latino community, Torres says that Hispanic businesses, especially in the food industry, often fly under the radar.

“The Latino community in Carrboro is full of businesses that may be smaller or less advertised,” says Torres. “Some are so small that the Census doesn’t even count them.”

“El Centro Hispano tries to help [businesses] network through our community outreach, but they’ve also have had some innovative efforts of their own,” Torres says.

Many business owners, especially owners of Carrboro’s taco trucks, have taken to Facebook, Twitter, and other social networking sites, says Torres.

Torres still does not know how many Hispanic-owned businesses actually exist in Carrboro, despite their growing marketing capabilities.

A call to Annette Stone, director of the Carrboro Chamber of Commerce’s Office of Economic and Community Development failed to provide an answer for this question as well.

“I have no idea how many Hispanic businesses are in Carrboro,” she says. “We help businesses of all demographics find loans – we haven’t worked specifically with the Latino community.”

Alfonso Guzman, the owner of Captain Poncho’s Tacos, has been in the food industry for three years since moving to Carrboro from Mexico. He ventured an educated guess.

“I would say there are about four to five taco trucks competing in Carrboro today,” he says. “It changes, because sometimes you are making money – or sometimes you have to pack up for a while.”

Guzman says that while his taco truck is currently undergoing renovations, he has opened up a permanent sister store, Tienda don Poncho, to keep his business planted in Carrboro.

“It’s nice to have a grocery store too – but it’s harder to advertise,” he says. “With the taco trucks you can just go right to the customers.”

According to Guzman, the four Carrboro-based, Hispanic-owned taco trucks include: Comida Mexicana, Costa Sur, Taquería de Jalisco, and Captain Poncho’s Tacos. Permanent, smaller grocery stores and restaurants include: Tienda don Poncho, Don José Tienda Mexicana at 708 West Rosemary Street, Toledo’s Taquería at 506 Jones Ferry Road, and Taquería Tres Amigos at 109 West Main Street.

This list is neither set nor exclusive, as Guzman says that small, Latino food businesses like his fluctuate. More pop up every year, while others struggle to survive.

Isabel Lin Guzman, a local immigration attorney and Alfonso Guzman’s wife, said that the biggest difference between Hispanic-owned businesses and the larger chains outside Carrboro is the authenticity of the venue.

“We take the time to make [Tienda don Poncho] a real, Mexican grocery store, just like it would be in Mexico,” she says. “It’s smaller and it might not show up in the ads, but we want people to know that businesses like ours are the real thing.”

Torres says that in addition to the lack of exposure, entrepreneurs like the Guzmans face issues like loan availability.

“Most of these businesses only need very small loans to start up, and we try to educate them and refer those individuals to the right sources,” says Torres. “But even micro-loans are still difficult to get.”

Alfonso Guzman says that even considering the difficulties of financing and self-marketing, the greatest hurdle to Latino food entrepreneurs is competition within the community.

“I had to move my truck because there are so many of us in one small area,” he says.

Though the limited data the Census provides says otherwise, Hispanic-owned businesses in the food industry alone are actually growing in size and number. Like Alfonso Guzman’s, some have become more permanent establishments, while others struggle just to remain in the area.

To Torres, this is a sign of things to come.

“The community here is well-connected, and the businesses are networking now too,” he says. “Carrboro’s Latino community is making some real innovations.”

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