Monday, June 24, 2024

Dennis Benzan, left, owner of La Fabrica, listens as Orquesta La Seleccion begins a set Saturday night. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Hispanics make up nearly one-tenth of the city’s population, but a gathering of all of Cambridge’s Latinx business owners in La Fabrica, the Spanish-Caribbean restaurant and nightclub in Central Square, would be a lonely affair.

Dennis Benzan, who opened La Fabrica in 2017, said he knew of only a literal “handful” of other Latinx-owned businesses in Cambridge.

If diners find that surprising, Benzan said in an interview last month. he understands why. “When you think about the restaurant industry, a lot of people think of Mexican restaurants,” he said. And in Cambridge “there may be an abundance of them – but a lot of Mexican restaurants are not Mexican-owned.”

Businesses who register with the city or state are not required to disclose owners’ race or ethnicity, and as a result, the city’s doesn’t have an accurate accounting of the number of Latinx-owned businesses in Cambridge, said Pardis Saffari, director of economic opportunity and development at the Community Development Department. There is also no Latinx-focused business organization operating in Cambridge that might keep track.

Statewide, Latino and black business owners account for only 3 percent of businesses with employees despite those demographics making up about one-fifth of the state’s population, according to a U.S. Census survey of entrepreneurs released in 2018 and quoted by WGBH. The figure is also significantly below the 9.1 percent of Hispanic population cited by Community Development officials in Cambridge.

Latinx-owned businesses that manage to open in Boston average less than $100,000 in annual sales, while the average for all businesses is $644,000, according to a Boston Foundation report from 2017 using the most recently available data (from 2015 and before).

How to improve the numbers

Ana Celia Ribeiro with Eddie Garcia Jr. at their now-closed restaurant, La Catrina. (Photo: La Catrina via Facebook)

There are ways to improve the numbers on Latinx-owned businesses, bringing them more in line with the Hispanic population of Cambridge and the state. Advice came from Benzan; Cambridge’s Ana Celia Ribeiro, who ran Brighton’s La Catrina restaurant for four and a half years until its closing in early October; and Nery and Tommy Amaya, who opened East Cambridge’s Amaya Bros. Comics in August 2021.

Benzan said he would like to see programs that offer mentorship and even financing to Latinx entrepreneurs. “It’s really important that there be some kind of incubator project,” he said. “We need a program that helps young men and women create that vision, and execute that vision.”

Addressing language barriers could be helpful. Many recently arrived Latinx people don’t have access to English classes, Ribeiro said – and 2020 census figures show that 73 percent of Middlesex County speak only English.

Once in business, Latinx owners should try to lift others in the community. In her time running La Catrina, Ribeiro said she made it a point to partner with other Latinx-owned businesses in Greater Boston and send money down the supply chain. Benzan does the same, right down to the popsicles in La Fabrica’s mojitos, but also hires along these principles for some 80 employees and a dozen rotating bands – some 70 people – and a dozen DJs.

“If ever there was a small business in Cambridge that hires the highest percentage of people of color, it’s La Fabrica,” and all made above a living wage, he said Saturday.

It can also be valuable to educate uninformed customers on the challenges faced by Latinx entrepreneurs – perhaps mirroring work in the past few years that has elevated black-owned businesses.

“Customers are the ones who can change the way the economy runs. They can change the way they consume,” Ribeiro said.

Lower barriers for entry

Nery and Tommy Amaya, from left, opened a comic book and card shop last year in East Cambridge. (Photo: Aidan G. Harper)

Consideration could also be given to lowering barriers for entry. The Amayas said a supportive leasing arrangement made it possible for them to open a storefront as both worked full time to support themselves while setting up their store in the evening. The lease gave them 45 days before they had to pay rent. Without this grace period, they would have needed more capital investment before they were ready for business, they said.

Benzan also believes that if they did not have to pay as much up front, more Latinx people would start businesses in Cambridge – perhaps at least back to the level of the 1970s, when there were more Latinx-owned bodegas, barbershops and nightclubs such as Latin Quarters. “On Columbia Street alone there is Brea Market, Colombia Market and R&R Market. These three bodegas help maintain Columbia Street’s Latin spirit,” students at Tuft University wrote in a 2002 study, “Latinos In the Economy Of Cambridge.” (Of the three, Columbia Market remains in business.)

But smaller rents for smaller spaces, in which a large storefront can be subdivided into multiple, smaller businesses, is another helpful approach, and one he said he championed as vice mayor from 2013 to 2015.

“When I was on the City Council, I was a big supporter of micro-retail spaces,” Benzan said. This zoning option is “is why we have these small, first-floor businesses in Central as opposed to these big storefronts that only attract banks.”

Ribeiro is another advocate for these local measures. “The U.S. economy is very supportive of big corporations,” she said.

Filling a need

Dennis Benzan, seen at La Fabrica on Saturday, would like to see a Latinx-focused business incubator. “We need a program that helps young men and women create,” he says. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Latinx entrepreneurs also have to follow the same basic business principles as anyone, including identifying a business that fills a need, Benzan and the Amayas said.

“La Fabrica was a need. It filled a niche where there are not very many Caribbean places that are not downtown [and] where you are going to meet people from other parts of the world,” Benzan said. It also happened to reflect the culture of the close-knit community he felt growing up in The Port neighborhood’s Columbia Terrace housing development, a home to immigrants from Spanish-speaking countries and the Caribbean who came to work in the factories that once dotted Kendall square. His business now draws visitors from around the world, but perhaps 95 percent are people of color and from every Spanish-speaking nation, Benzan said.

“I don’t want this just to be seen as a nightclub. It’s where we exhibit the best of our culture” in music, drink and food from renowned chef Giovanna Huyke, Benzan said.

The Amaya brothers also found that their passion fit a need in the community, and they found a way to be certain: social media. They showcased their comics and sports cards collections online and grew a following they felt could translate into a bricks-and-mortar shop. “It was 476 followers before we announced the store. Then when we did, it went up to a thousand,” Tommy Amaya said. “There’s no place that really mixes sports cards, Pokemon and comics together. Sending in cards to get graded, comics to get graded – you’re not going to get that anywhere else.”

This article was written in partnership with Cambridge Local First.