The smells of Central America and the Caribbean wafted through the Riverside Park summer air on Saturday afternoons this July and August.
From Carmen Martinez’ pupusas to Estella de la Cruz’s tacos, they were all there.
Corrinn Williams and Ken Rapoza of the Community Economic Development Center oversaw a pilot program to show would-be Latino vendors how to navigate the city’s health and safety regulations governing food vendors.
“We had heard for like 20 years that folks wanted to figure out how they could be vendors outdoors,” Williams said.
So, the CEDC began a pilot program, with the help of the state and city, and showed would-be entrepreneurs how to get in the business, so to speak.
The program ran first on New Bedford’s grand immigrant boulevard, Acushnet Avenue, and then, on a second round of grants to seven additional would-be vendors, at the city’s great immigrant playground, Riverside Park. It was all about the city’s Spanish-speaking community — Guatemalans, Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans, Dominicans and others — cooking their own outdoor foods for customers from their own communities.
There were all kinds of hurdles to overcome to get the program going.
First, for health and safety reasons, the city requires the vendors to use a certified kitchen. Second, the would-be vendors needed equipment to prepare and cook the food, according to the regulations.
Finally, as with all things, the program needed money to buy the equipment and teach the would-be vendors the way to follow the rules.
The CEDC won a $63,000 grant for the effort. And everybody then figured out how to actually do outdoor food vending — somewhat a rarity in the city.
“The vendors were learning as they go every week,” said Williams.
It was sometimes a group task, with the food prepared at PAACA’s RISE kitchen on Belleville Avenue on Friday nights and then the outdoor cooking done at Riverside on Saturday afternoons.
“For the preparation, we’re all helping each other,” said Rapoza, explaining how the groups did the work while using a short time frame of three hours at the RISE kitchen. At the park, however, the individual vendors did their own thing.
Many of the vendors sold out every week and expanded their offerings each week. It’s not surprising, given that Riverside Park is a hub of the city’s Latino community, which according to preliminary numbers in the 2020 Census now comprises 24% of the city’s population.
One vendor, Estella de la Cruz and her partner Rolando, had great success promoting their stand on social media. They were so well organized and successful they are considering opening up their own food truck or small restaurant.
Corinn Williams translated from Spanish for Estella, whose day job is as a stitcher at Joseph Abboud company. “I always thought about opening up a restaurant and sharing the food of our culture with this community,” she said.
De la Cruz was not alone.
In fact, the dream of opening up their small businesses was the motivation for a lot of the vendors.
“The way you succeed is you start small and keep growing from there,” said Raquel Diaz, whose specialty was Dominican hot dogs with a special cheese sauce and mayonnaise.
The vendors concentrated on different products, with some grilling meats and others specializing in cold drinks and fruit desserts popular in the community.
Edith Diego, who came to the city from Mexico, had both tacos and fruit at the stand she ran with her family. The fruit got different toppings depending on what was preferred in the various Latin American countries.
Like the others, Diego said her family’s goal is to have their own food business. She said as the summer went on, she brought more food.
“Every weekend was better,” she said. “People know us.”
There was a hopes and dreams quality to the folks who took part in this program.
Carmen Martinez, who is from Puerto Rico, did a brisk business cooking pupusas (a type of Central American stuffed griddle cake) that she had learned to make for her Salvadoran husband.
She also dreams of having her own business and talked about all the things that go into being successful — from the prep work, to promoting the product, to buying and selling the right amount of food that would allow her to make money.
“I’m learning, I’m learning,” she said.
“I hope it pays off at the end of the day. I do the best I can,” she said. “When I go home and see the money-wise, I’ll know how I did!”
Email Jack Spillane at email@example.com
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