La Villa Hispana

Las Tienditas welcomes the flavors of Southern Puerto Rico in its latest grand opening

Jean Garcia and Xaidy Rodriguez aren’t like other siblings their age.

For one, they’re both bilingual transplants native to Ponce, Puerto Rico, a small city of 145,000 on the southern part of the island. At 19 and 15 respectfully, Garcia and sister Rodriguez helm one of the youngest restaurant startups to open on Cleveland’s west side, well, in ages.

Oh, and they make a pretty mean sandwich, too.

Having celebrated its grand opening on July 1, El Sabor de Ponce replaces Pura Cepa inside the Las Tienditas del Mercado business incubator. (Check out our former reporting on Las Tienditas here.)

The lunch counter-style eatery is just the latest representation of Latin youth taking the reins of entrepreneurship in Clark-Fulton. El Sabor de Ponce joins a growing list of shops, clothing brands, and cafes owned by the under-30 set (and now, under-20)—showing an energetic shift towards expanding small business in La Villa Hispana.

Born and raised in Ponce, Garcia says that the culinary roots of El Sabor ultimately stem from his and Rodriguez’s past family business, a Cafe Jirah that delivered rice and meat dishes around the city (mostly by Garcia on bicycle). That business sustained their livelihood for most of their upbringing, along with work at a nearby daycare. Around four years ago, their mother Yeidy decided they would relocate to join other family in Cleveland, on account of, as Rodriguez says, “living with no water and no electricity.”

Two years after the move, while working to improve her English, Rodriguez realized that if she wanted to accomplish her childhood dream of becoming a binational pediatric neurologist, she would need the money to fund it.

“My family has always been a working family,” Rodriguez, a soft-spoken girl with braces and a ponytail, says at El Sabor. “I want to grow. I want to be independent. I might as well start making money now.”

Garcia helps customers at El Sabor de PonceGarcia, who raised more than $3,000 of startup cash working as a cook and dishwasher at Texas Roadhouse over three years, took stock of his own dreams before moving forward with El Sabor. In weighing his options, he had to decide whether to check “business owner” off his list, or apply to become an officer with the Cleveland Police.

“My sister and I both have our goals,” says Garcia, who turned 19 in July. “I guess I’m content with how things have worked out.”

Offering a regional take on Puerto Rican’s meat-heavy cuisine, El Sabor's menu includes a wide range of breakfast and lunch items, from classic pastrami to beefsteak sandwiches to papas asadas (baked potatoes stuffed with meat or vegetables). Specialties include the sandwich de carrucho (conch sandwich) and Ponce-styled dumplines (dumplings). Really starving? Try Garcia’s own “El Ponceño,” a five-meat sub served street-style.

As per the majority of startups in the Clark-Fulton sphere, Garcia wasn’t alone in navigating the idea-to-reality process.

To become part of the Las Tienditas business incubator, he endured a rigorous selection process from the Hispanic Business Center, which assessed Garcia's plan, proposal, and desire to expand. Like all who participate in HBC’s incubator program, El Sabor sprouted with a series of attractive growth incentives: free rent for four months ($250 monthly thereafter), ongoing consultation with HBC advisors, and a likely pathway to a kiosk at Centro Villa 25 (also known as El Mercado).

Jenice Contreras, the executive director of HBC, said that she chose Garcia’s proposal out of handful of competitors primarily due to Garcia’s unwavering professionalism and élan as a budding entrepreneur. She says it’s no wonder that, on El Sabor’s first day, Garcia quickly sold over 60 orders.

“He was young, he was hungry, and he knew the business so well,” she says of the selection process. “Still, we never want to baby our businesses, but moreso build them so they start thinking big picture. And you know what? Since they’ve opened, they’ve been slammed.”

For other tenants of Las Tienditas, the cycling of new business at their spot on West 25th equals the chance for a fresh and revolving customer base.

Nydia Laracuente, the owner of Lara’s Cakes at Las Tienditas, says that watching new businesses come through helps reassure her of her own decision to open up in 2018. And, as Rodriguez's aunt, Laracuente is thrilled to have family members and youthful energy coming into the space.

“I remember Xaidy working when she was 13,” Laracuente said. “Washing cars, selling ice cream on the street. I can’t say how much I’m proud that she’s my niece.”

As for Rodriguez, who will be attending Lincoln-West High School as an 11th grader in August, the fledgling cafe owner already has plans to expand El Sabor’s audience beyond just that of Ponce (adding homages to other Puerto Rican towns), along with ramping up a full delivery service. The two do have regular assistance from Yeidy and father Hector, but for the most part, they’re on their own.

And for when El Sabor’s duo heads off to college?

“Hopefully someone will take our place,” Rodriguez says.

This article is part of our On the Ground - La Villa Hispana community reporting project in partnership with Dollar Bank, Hispanic Business Center, Esperanza Inc., Greater Cleveland Partnership, Cleveland Neighborhood Progress, and Cleveland Development Advisors. Read the rest of our coverage here.

Read more articles by Mark Oprea.

Mark Oprea is a regular contributor to FreshWater Cleveland. He’s written for the Pacific Standard, OZY, and Cleveland Magazine, and was a correspondent in Mexico in 2018. He lives in Ohio City. More of his work can be found on his personal website.