I’ve dreamt of opening a restaurant for as long as I can remember. Born in Chicago and raised in Puerto Rico, I was passionate about the cuisine I ate every day — tostones, jibaritos, croquettes — and wanted to be able to bring the taste of the island I loved to those who had never been there before. Cooking with my grandmother’s recipes from a young age, I have always loved the feeling of bringing friends, family and loved ones around a table together to share in a meal.
To get the experience needed, I began working for hotels in Puerto Rico, earning money and building my knowledge of the hospitality industry. Then, in 2017, Hurricane Maria hit the island and changed everything.
The island I love was devastated. Almost 3,000 people died, and our infrastructure was destroyed. I lost everything, including my home and my job at the hotel, which was forced to shutter in the hurricane’s wake. With nothing left to lose, I moved back to Chicago to get a fresh start.
Once in Chicago, I joined forces with Hector LaPorte, a trained chef with a wide range of experience working in restaurants across the City. Hector and I share a love for cooking the classic Puerto Rican cuisine we grew up with. My dream of opening up a Puerto Rican restaurant quickly became our dream, and we started looking for the financing necessary to open a restaurant.
As soon as we started that process, however, we were faced with roadblock after roadblock. Getting financing to open a restaurant is extremely difficult, and it’s made even harder for newcomers, young people, and people of color like Hector and me. The challenging landscape we faced got exponentially worse when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, leaving even established and successful restaurants struggling to stay afloat and desperately searching for lifelines.
We were beginning to lose hope, watching our dream of sharing the cuisine we love with others slowly disappear. That’s when we discovered Cloud Kitchens.
Cloud Kitchens, a shared kitchen operator with a location in Avondale, offered us a low-cost way to start a restaurant without having to go through the hurdles associated with signing a lease on a brick and mortar storefront and all of the other costs that come with establishing your own kitchen. Not only did Cloud Kitchens provide us a space to get cooking, they offered us grant funding and mentoring which we used to build a website, market ourselves, and do what seemed “impossible:” successfully launch a restaurant, Marina’s Cafe, in the middle of the pandemic.
The reality is, small businesses operated by young people, people of color, and women were historically at a disadvantage when it comes to raising capital and obtaining loans long before COVID-19. The pandemic not only illuminated those inequities, but also demonstrated the importance of operations like Cloud Kitchens that offer solutions and alternative routes to success.
Just four years ago, I had lost everything. Now, I am the proud co-owner of a restaurant in honor of my mother and my heritage. Hector and I still aspire to one day open a brick and mortar location for Marina’s Cafe, and that dream once again feels achievable. In the meantime, I am grateful for the opportunity to spread the joy of Puerto Rican cuisine throughout the city of Chicago.
Eric Roldan is the owner of Marina’s Cafe.Leave a comment