Angelica Garcia (middle) enlists help from niece Carolina Gutierrez (left) and mother Angelita Garcia, to help out at Ohana Pantry.
Written by Edward Smith
There was a time when starting a restaurant meant going to the bank and getting a loan.
When Chris Mariscotti helped his parents open The Vineyard Restaurant in Madera in the ‘70s, that’s exactly what they did.
“There weren’t as many options,” Mariscotti said. “People – at least we – weren’t as creative as people are now. There was no Kickstarter.”
Now, as young people enter the restaurant business they are discovering that traditional financing is either too expensive or out of reach. But the desire to own one’s own business still exists and they, like the generations before them, are realizing the difficulties and joys of being a boss in the food industry.
Launching in July, Ohana Pantry is one of the newest additions to Fulton Street in Downtown Fresno. When a disability kept 25-year-old Angelica Garcia from working for Kern County’s probation department, she knew she didn’t want to do deskwork. Instead, she opened a health-conscious restaurant.
“I knew I was going to open a business, I just didn’t know it was going to be this soon,” Garcia said. “I didn’t plan on doing this until my late 30s, but it was pushed up due to my injury.”
She chose food because it was something that would always be around. She focused on what she knew – acai bowls, turkey bowls, fruit bowls as well as juices. She wanted to offer meal-prep-style fare for people seeking more healthy options.
But, having never owned a business before, she had a lot to learn.
The Kern County Chamber of Commerce offers free classes where she learned about leases and business plans.
Student loans kept her from getting traditional financing, so she reached out to her brother for seed money. Ohana Pantry would not have been possible without that loan.
“Not everyone is that fortunate,” she said of the help.
She is not in a place to begin hiring people, so she says she’s fortunate to have her mom and cousins coming in to help. Being family, it’s tough to tell them what to do, so she’s learned to put it in a way that outlines what needs to be done and they understand they’re there to work. Between her and them, the day-to-day work gets done.
Garcia has dedicated herself to learning business. Besides being at Ohana Pantry from opening to closing most days, once she gets home she sets to running numbers for inventory and budget. In her free time, she listens to podcasts and reads books about business.
“If I don’t know that area, I will find a mentor in that area,” she said.
While she’s not where she would like to be, the Downtown Fresno Partnership has helped get her restaurant exposure.
Everything that comes in goes to bills, rent and inventory. Her salary is essentially tips. Some days, after working more than 15 hours, she’ll live off three dollars left in the jar at day’s end.
Things changed for Garcia when she opened her own business. Going out and enjoying youth are things Garcia has set aside. There was a time when she would have no problem spending $150 on jeans, but now that kind of money surprises her.
“Honestly, when you have a goal and a dream, that goes away.”
Desiree Washington, owner of Downtown Fresno hamburger joint Take 3, said being a business owner was natural for her. “There was no other choice for a person like me,” she said. Though her ultimate desire is still the entertainment industry, getting into the business started out because it was a “family thing.” Her father was in construction but had opened a number of eateries throughout Fresno.
After graduating from Fresno State with a marketing major, she found out she was good at organizing events. She thought it could translate to the business world.
With money from her father’s construction business, she and her father were able to open Take 3 in October 2014, when Washington was 27.
“I never want to start anything that’s super in-the-red, ever,” Washington said. “The traditional way is the way you end up at rock bottom.”
The business began with both of them being hands-on, but then as Desiree’s father transitioned back to construction, she took on more responsibilities, including managing employees. She contrasts herself to her father, whom she said commanded respect when he came into the room. When she had to tell people what to do or schedule their hours, she struggled to get people to take her seriously. It didn’t help that she tried to avoid creating an authoritarian image.
“That’s probably been my biggest challenge. There’s definitely been times when I’ve been like, ‘am I an effective leader?’” Washington said.
Because of the nature of minimum wage, many employees aren’t in it for the long run, she said. Working at a burger joint might be nothing more than a stepping-stone.
“The one thing about minimum-wage employees is they’ll quit like that,” Washington said. “I’ve gone from having four employees to literally one employee within days. And you have to open your doors no matter what. You can’t close your doors.”
Youth brings energy to her business, she said. From a Tupac-themed popup styled directly from the rapper’s vision for a restaurant to Michael Jackson tributes, the restaurant has shut down Fulton Street for special events.
She said her vision for the restaurant was different from her father’s.
“Being young is, to me, what built this to be what it is,” Washington said. “He wanted movie posters, I brought murals.”
Catherine Heaney’s story began as one of trial-and-error. When she was going to school in New York, her interest was in social work. She came back to Visalia to get the clinical hours necessary to get her license, but she struggled with whether she’d be a good therapist and an effective social worker.
Being 28 at the time, she felt she had to figure out what to do. Working on a kitchen line is a lot like sports, she said. “You can’t do it forever.”
“I was done being in school and being told what to think, how to think,” Heaney said. “I was ready to do my own thing.”
Heaney opened Char in 2012 in Visalia as a way to bring “something different” to the community, she said. The idea began with “great coffee” and charcuterie plates – plates of fine cheeses and meats, as well as a smorgasbord of food.
She also picked charcuterie because it doesn’t need a kitchen. A settlement from a bad car accident and a line of credit gave her the startup money to open.
“I also did the dumbest thing ever, which was open a bunch of credit cards,” she said. She was afraid to ask family for money. She wanted it to be her own thing, and was wary of what might happen should the restaurant go south. “If it fails, it’s going to be all me.”
In 2015, the Downtown Fresno Partnership hosted their Create Here contest that pitted entrepreneurs’ business models against one another. Hop PK ended up winning that year, but through her participation she found she liked Downtown Fresno. She soon opened a Charburger location there.
There was a point when she decided the original concept in Visalia wasn’t working. The space wasn’t right and she had too many things on the menu. “Rather than stay in this wheel, let me get out and catch my breath,” Heaney said. “Char was consuming me entirely. I feel like six years just didn’t exist. It feels like I just woke up.”
Charburger became the antithesis of Char, she said. She learned to streamline and simplify the process. Understanding where everyone stands and how food needs to flow was a learning experience for her. The lunch crowd was good and while it was only open 15 hours a week, it allowed her to figure out what to do with Char in Visalia.
Char closed earlier this year, and now Heaney can focus on the Fresno location.
“I think things are developing, but it’s still a struggle,” Heaney said. “I think the neighborhood needs more time to grow and for people to trust Downtown Fresno.”
While its hard to subsist on only being open between 11 a.m. and 2 p.m., Monday through Friday, she’s found her niche, Heaney said.