Taco Cart Vendor-Turned-Restaurant Owner Struggles to Turn a Profit

By Patrick Wall on April 3, 2012 9:13am 

Judith Ruano, 33, with her 6-month-old daughter, Samantha. Ruano opened her restaurant, Alfa Centro America, in 2010, but she is still learning how to run a small business.
Judith Ruano, 33, with her 6-month-old daughter, Samantha. Ruano opened her restaurant, Alfa Centro America, in 2010, but she is still learning how to run a small business.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

HUNTS POINT — A few years ago, when Judith Ruano still sold tacos and tamales out of a shopping cart, her biggest concerns were fending off tickets from police officers as well as threats from rival street vendors, who sometimes overturned her cart.

Those concerns have faded since she opened her own small restaurant, Alfa Centro America, in Hunts Point in 2010 — but a host of new concerns plague her behind the counter: health codes, payroll and revenue, to name just a few.

As she struggles to make her fledgling business profitable, Ruano, a Guatemalan immigrant who speaks little English, has found that opening her restaurant was just the first of many hurdles to clear.

"In this country, you can achieve your dreams — but you have to work hard," Ruano, 33, said through a translator. "The American Dream is costly."

Ruano said she and her daughter fled to the U.S. in 2004 to escape her abusive husband. They settled in Hunts Point, where they moved into an apartment with another woman and her daughter.

The two women cooked South American food in their tiny kitchen, then sold it out of carts on the sidewalk. Ruano was able to earn about $15,000 a year this way, but she grew tired with hostile competitors, complaints from her landlord about the constant cooking and fines for lacking the proper vending license, which eventually amounted to $6,000.

So, two years ago, Ruano began searching for a space where she could open her own eatery. She found a vacant former restaurant space at 1232 Randall Ave., then haggled with the owner, who granted Ruano three months in the building rent-free.

In order to afford the $20,000 in cooking equipment left over from the previous restaurant, as well as pay for rent and supplies, Ruano borrowed $45,000 from friends and family. She also borrowed $6,000 from Project Enterprise, a nonprofit micro-lender that offers free business workshops, which Ruano continues to attend.

"She never misses a meeting," said Emily Cunningham, the agency’s Bronx manager.

Ruano’s restaurant — which serves traditional Central American fare, such as pupusas, pastelitos and carne asada — is popular among the many immigrants who work in the area’s auto shops and warehouses.

Still, Ruano said she struggles just to break even. Last year, her restaurant brought in $90,000, but after she paid her operating costs, Ruano took home only $15,000.

Last week, Ruano received business advice from a group of executives at Virgin USA, whose nonprofit arm, Virgin Unite, supports entrepreneurs.

Katrina Gomez, regional director of U.S. sales for Virgin Limited Edition, said Ruano should raise her prices — a lunchtime meal costs only $4.95 — and focus on deliveries, which account for the bulk of her sales.

"Personally, I don’t feel the six-table [dining room] will really improve the revenue stream," said Gomez, who added that Ruano will eventually need to master English if she wants to expand her customer base.

Recently, Ruano has been meeting with Awilda Velez, owner of AV Consulting Services, who met Ruano at a Project Enterprise event and decided to offer her regular advice pro bono.

Velez’s guidance so far has been more practical than profound: open a business banking account, sort cash for different expenses into different envelopes, including ones for rent and payroll, and ensure that employees obey health codes, such as wearing hairnets.

When the two women met last month, Ruano reported that she had followed each of Velez’s recommendations.

Next, Ruano told Velez, she plans to add more seating to the current space.

Alfa Centro America, at 1232 Randall Ave., serves authentic Central American cuisine, such as pupusas, pastelitos and tamales.
Alfa Centro America, at 1232 Randall Ave., serves authentic Central American cuisine, such as pupusas, pastelitos and tamales.
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DNAinfo/Patrick Wall

After that, Ruano, who now has three children, including a 6-month-old daughter, dreams of opening another location, which would be larger and tailored to families rather than workers.

"I think she’s going to get there," said Velez, "step by step."

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