Story by TIM VANDENACK • Standard-Examiner staff
OGDEN — You can’t say Miguel Hernandez doesn’t have aspirations.
“That’s my goal. I want to see Pepito’s everywhere,” he said.
Not bad for an immigrant from Guerrero, Mexico, who lived his early years before coming to the United States in a crowded one-room home topped by a palm frond roof.
“It was a lot of days we had only tortillas and salt. That was our meal, nothing else,” he said.
But his story isn’t unprecedented.
As Latinos increasingly call Utah and Ogden home — many of them immigrants — more are flexing their entrepreneurial muscles, ditching their bosses and opening businesses, many of them smaller family operations.
The number of Latino-owned businesses with employees in Utah is small relative to the overall total. But the growth is clear — from 847 in 1997 to 1,820 in 2015, a 115 percent increase, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures. By comparison, the overall number of businesses with paid employees in the same 18-year period grew by 43 percent, from 42,076 to 60,250.
Javier Chavez, originally from Zacatecas, Mexico, came to Ogden in 1977 to attend Weber State University and launched Javier’s Authentic Mexican Food with his wife Amada in 1991, making him something of a Latino business pioneer here. When he launched, he recalls El Matador, a restaurant that opened in 1963, but struggles to think of other local Mexican eateries.
But paralleling the sharp growth of the Hispanic population in Weber County between 1990 and 2015 — from 11,042 to 41,704, a 278 percent jump — Chavez now has seven locations stretching from North Logan to Farmington.
Mexican restaurants are omnipresent around Ogden, where Latinos account for nearly 31 percent of the population, up from 12 percent in 1990.
“We tried to cook our Mexican food and we couldn’t find the ingredients,” Chavez said, recalling his early years here.
Not anymore, with the varied markets and restaurants catering to Mexican and Latino tastes.
But he says the business growth among Hispanic entrepreneurs has been across sectors — in construction, landscaping, real estate and more.
Gustavo Ortega, originally from Queretaro, Mexico, says many in the immigrant community — working in the service sector or unskilled labor jobs — are forever plotting new possibilities. He encourages it as a means to move up the ladder.
“I tell everyone who’s responsible, hardworking to find a way to work for yourself,” Ortega said.
He worked more than a decade at pet food factory American Nutrition before opening a furniture store with two brothers in 2009, Muebleria My Furniture.
Similarly, Mitch Garsz, president of the Weber County branch of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce, senses plenty of entrepreneurial drive among first-generation arrivals, even if they lack storefronts.
Some immigrants run side businesses apart from their day jobs, making food for parties, for instance, or sewing dresses for quinceañeras, traditional celebrations for girls when they turn 15.
Some eager entrepreneurs hawk homemade tamales from the streets in Ogden, pounding the pavement in search of customers, one by one.
“You see it as a second job. You see it as additional income,” Garsz said.
Those side businesses aren’t counted in official reports because they don’t employ other people.
Still, more outreach and encouragement is needed, he said, “because we haven’t begun to realize our potential.” His group — like the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce — encourages and aids Latino business operators and those wanting to get a start.
“They’re eager, but they sometimes need a little focus,” Garsz said. Many first-generation immigrants here, he continued, may be unfamiliar with the rules, permits and bureaucratic maneuvering needed to start a business. As native Spanish speakers, language can be a barrier.
Parallel to that, Alex Guzman, chairman of the Hispanic chamber, says Latino business operators account for an outsized number of business bankruptcies in the state, larger than their share of the population. The reason could be lack of formal business training. To counter that, his organization plans a series of workshops to educate Latinos on how to avoid some of the common missteps in running a business.
‘I wanted to get ahead’
Like other immigrant entrepreneurs here, Ortega didn’t envision himself running a business while growing up in Mexico. His mother came to the United States when he was young and he grew up in the crowded home of his grandparents, learning the value of hard work, but hardly anything about running a business.
“We come from Mexico, pretty much from extreme poverty,” Ortega, who came to the United States at age 17 in 1997, said. “Opening a business was never something we thought about. No one in the family ever had a business.”
Such sentiments are common among immigrant business owners here.
Ana Maria Medina, owner of Perfect Cuts Salon in Ogden and a native of Michoacan, Mexico, came here in the 1980s when she was 16, brought by her mother who was searching for a better future.
She picked strawberries in the farm fields of California for four years and worked as a cleaning lady for a year before the chemicals she used took a toll.
Then she went to beauty school at an institute she passed daily while heading to work during her days picking strawberries. She graduated in 1987.
“I wanted to get ahead, move forward,” Medina said.
She worked many years at a salon in California, then another in Ogden after she and her family moved here in 2005, seeking a safer place to live. When an opportunity surfaced to open her own shop, her U.S.-born daughter, Gabriela Valencia, urged her to pounce.
“She was already running the place where she was. Might as well run her own business,” Valencia said. “She went from working in the fields with the strawberries to cleaning homes to being owner of a salon.”
Medina didn’t have formal business experience but learned how to run a salon while working for others. Thus the transition to an owner in 2013 was relatively smooth, though the hours are long and the responsibilities many.
“It’s nice to be an owner, but it’s very hard, too,” she said.
Breaking into the mainstream
Despite the efforts of entrepreneurs like Medina and Ortega, who rely on a primarily Hispanic client base, tapping into the larger market — Anglos — can be tough. That’s a big focus for Garsz of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s hard to break into the mainstream, so our job is to help them break into the mainstream,” he said.
Marketing is one way to reach a larger market — via social media, website development and more. But he also touts the import of seeking contracts from larger businesses looking for minority-owned subcontractors to comply with federal guidelines. The planned $3 billion-plus overhaul of the Salt Lake International Airport could be a golden opportunity for smaller Latino businesses. how so?
“Those are life-changers. Those contracts are 10, 20 years. They can change people’s lives for years to come,” Garsz said.
The Ogden-Weben Chamber of Commerce recently started distributing a card in English and Spanish highlighting some of the resources available for business startups — through the chamber, Weber State University and more.
Chuck Leonhardt, the local chamber president and chief executive officer, couldn’t offer a gauge of Latino business growth here, but he said the biggest need for would-be business operators, Latino or otherwise, is finding help.
The planned Hispanic Chamber of Commerce workshops for Latino business operators are to start in January, according to Guzman. They’ll be held at Ogden-Weber Applied Technical College in Ogden and at sites in Salt Lake City and St. George. Areas where Latino business operators sometimes fall short could include proper bookkeeping, marketing and properly and legally laying off workers, he said.
‘A better everything’
Unlike some immigrant entrepreneurs trying to make a go of it, Hernandez says he had the good fortune of being able to tap the expertise of a business mentor from California.
At the same time, though, he has plenty of drive. While still in Mexico, he went to work full-time at the age of 12, sweeping the maintenance area of a trucking company and attending school on weekends. By the time he was 17, he worked himself into a job in the firm’s accounting department.
Soon thereafter, in 1990, a brother already in Ogden encouraged him to migrate.
“It’s a better life. It’s a better everything,” his older sibling said.
Still, Hernandez, who heeded his brother’s call, was hardly an overnight success. On arriving, he worked area fields, picking corn and onions, struggled with English, lived in a house crowded with other immigrants. “I was ready to go back,” he said.
Getting a job at a local Chinese restaurant, though, served as a turning point.
He got to know the regulars — professionals and others — listened to their stories and decided he wanted more. He took a job with a local company that makes air bags for cars, ran side projects like promoting periodic Mexican-style rodeos here (something he still does), sold insurance for many years.
“But I was always looking for an opportunity,” he said.
The time came, and last June, Pepito’s opened, based on a model he hopes can easily be replicated elsewhere, leading to new franchises. A new outlet is planned for Davis County, but Hernandez doesn’t stop there — he’s taken on management of a Japanese restaurant here and is even looking beyond food service.
“I want to do a different business, an import-export thing,” he said. “I’m talking to some people right now. That’s on my list.”