Alfredo Lopez
By: alfredol
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Supporting Our Local Businesses: Dining With La Guelaguetza

The smell of cinnamon perfumed the air around us as a carafe of café de olla appeared on the table. Café de olla is a coffee that is traditionally prepared in earthen clay pots with cinnamon and piloncillo. The first sip was ecstasy. Eyes wide open. Soon after came the smell of handmade tortillas being prepared some twenty feet from where we sat. One thing was immediately clear: in the noisome, maddening city of Los Angeles, where dreams are big, these small things had summoned cool Mexican vistas in our minds.

American culture is fascinated with all things BIG. Big cars, big buildings, big ideas, big business, big data, and big macs; but when the noise settles into quietude, you find that it is often the small things that deliver the most consistent value. There is no better example of this than small business. Small businesses are the engine driving the American economy. Indeed, “small businesses continue to add more net new jobs than large businesses” (SBA, Small Business Market Update, June 2015).

We recently spent some time promoting and bringing awareness to Small Business Saturday, a national campaign founded in 2010 which aims to rally people to ‘shop small’ the Saturday after Thanksgiving. The idea is to support small businesses rather than dump your money into big chain stores like Target, Walmart, Best Buy, etc.

So what did we do? We took over social media. We personally visited nearly 100 businesses. We drew fancy diagrams in the office. We interviewed business owners in Bell Gardens, Huntington Park, Downey, and Korea Town (to name a few) about their story, the state of small business, and what Small Business Saturday meant to them.

It was especially fun to sit down with Paulina Lopez who, alongside her brother Fernando and sister Bricia, is one of the owners of La Guelaguetza, a Mexican restaurant in the heart of Los Angeles that specializes in Oaxacan cuisine. Over an imaginative array of moles, tlayudas, barbacoa, handmade tortillas, coffee, and melted cheeses, we spoke with Paulina about Guelaguetza and the impact of Small Business Saturday in the Hispanic community.

I was thinking about what it was or what it meant,” she said, “I think Hispanics are more into Black Friday than Small Business Saturday. I think that’s something that hasn’t been addressed in the Hispanic community. I haven’t seen any advertisement in Spanish for Small Business Saturday. Even Cyber Monday has more of an appeal because you can shop online.”

While we both agreed on the absolute importance of supporting small businesses, we very quickly identified several challenges that small businesses face in capturing more customers. For one, we learned that many small businesses are very slow to adopt technology. “It sucks,” Paulina adds, “because a lot of small businesses don’t have the ability to do that.”

It seems obvious that in today’s world businesses should move quickly to adopt technological support in order to grow. So why haven’t they? “Money and knowledge,” noted Paulina. “These owners are not tech savvy and often do not have the money to adopt new technologies. I also think small businesses don’t see the importance in investing in social and digital media. That’s why small businesses find it difficult to compete.”

Indeed, having visited and spoken with dozens of Hispanic businesses and their owners, we often felt as if we’d traveled back to a time when there was no internet. For the most part, owners were privy to social media in the forms of Facebook and Twitter (in many cases, they were already using Facebook personally), but were in the dark as to how those channels may be used for growing their business. We remembered that Paulina had said, “Everybody has a Facebook profile, but other than that there isn’t much attention to technology and social media.”

We then asked her, “What makes La Guelaguetza different in this regard? How have you been able to adapt to the times so successfully?”

In 2008,” she replied, “our father began closing some of his businesses, and La Guelaguetza was very close to shutting down. We joined my father and supported him to keep the restaurant up and running. At the time my siblings and I were all under 30 years old so we kind of modernized the whole concept of the restaurant, in essence giving it a makeover that was more in line with today’s world. It was at this time that we added the Mezcal bar and the mural art work outside. Nonetheless, we remained faithful to the essence of the food and culture of La Guelaguetza, even if the cosmetics and technological efforts were a bit different.”

We nearly choked on our mouthwatering mole at the thought that the restaurant was so close to shutting its doors seven years ago. The food is so unique and evocative that it seems unimaginable that LA can be without it. We wondered to ourselves, how have other people responded to Oaxacan food?

It’s taken a long time to make an impact,” mentions Paulina, “but people really love it now because it’s authentic and homemade. People are really starting to take an interest in authenticity when it comes to food. We’re proud to say that if you eat something here, you’re eating the same thing you would eat in Oaxacan homes.”

At this point we could see the fire and passion erupt in Paulina’s eyes. She cares very deeply about their food. “We want to change people’s concept of Mexican food,” she said. “People have this idea that Mexican food is cheap or that it’s just tacos. Mexican food can be just as sophisticated as any fancy cuisine from around the world. Unfortunately, El Torito is the average person’s concept of Mexican food, but we’ve gone many steps further.”

Noting the success of the restaurant and the unparalleled menu, we wanted to know: what’s next for Guelaguetza?

We’re branching out into different products,” smiled Paulina. “We created a bottled Michelada mix. It’s already available at major Hispanic grocery stores like Northgate, Tapatio, etc. My brother Fernando also created a YouTube program called Talks on the Rocks where he collaborates with LA bartenders to create new drinks. I also started a podcast specifically for Hispanic moms called Super Mamás. I think there’s a huge place for podcasts in the Hispanic community.”

Finally, we agreed with Paulina that Hispanics must make a greater effort to support small businesses. There are few better places to start than with La Guelaguetza.

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