If you turn down tiny Blatt Court off West 25th Street, just south of Clark Avenue, you might catch sight of a colorful sign that reads "Limber." The hand-lettered plaque sits on a pair of sawhorses, which are positioned on a postage stamp-size front lawn just outside a residence. Climb the porch steps, knock on the door, and you can order a variety of refreshing homemade limbers, Puerto Rican-style frozen ices that come in tropical flavors like passion fruit, guava and pineapple.
This makeshift walk-up dessert shop is just one of many Latino-owned food ventures in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood that skirt conventional business practices. On certain days of the week, the "Tamale Lady" works her way up and down Clark Avenue with her insulated cooler filled with warm banana leaf-wrapped tamales and plump, steamy gorditas. Other scrappy entrepreneurs accept orders for homemade empanadas, arepas or pan de queso.
"There is this shadow economy when it comes to home-based businesses," says Jenice Contreras, executive director of the Hispanic Business Center. "In a lot of Latino countries, if you want to start a business you just do it. But here, it's way more complicated."
Low-profile businesses in the area include basement hair salons, backyard daycare centers, and garage auto mechanics. But as useful as those outfits are to local residents, none of them provide a sense of comfort and joy like home-cooked foods from the homeland.
"A lot of us who leave the island [of Puerto Rico] don't have the opportunity to go back," explains home-based cook Haguit Marrero with the help of an interpreter. "My goal is to provide that taste of Puerto Rico here. Food that takes you home."
Marrero has been in Ohio for a little more than a year but already she has amassed a robust client roster that includes local businesses as well as nostalgic neighbors. She posts weekly menus to her Instagram account, where images of mofongo with chicharrones, verduras con bacalao, flan and other "muy típico" dishes attract hungry immigrants pining for an authentic taste of home.
The near-west side of Cleveland is home to 22,000 Latinos, with the largest concentration living in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood. Many of these residents were driven in from nearby neighborhoods like Ohio City, Tremont and Detroit Shoreway at the hands of gentrification. Others make their way to Cleveland from Puerto Rico, via Florida, to be reunited with extended family. What they find when they arrive, at least in terms of food, is woefully inadequate, notes Contreras.
"There is a void in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood of ethnically appropriate anything," she says. "We don't have a grocery store where you can go and get your plantains or your cilantro, and that is a big barrier for our residents, 30 percent of which don't drive. We recognize the contributions that these food-based businesses make, both financially for their own families as well as providing ethnically authentic foods of cultural relevance."
Through initiatives like La Villa Hispana, an ambitious multifaceted development that hopes to create a cultural, social and economic hub for the Latino community, efforts are underway to increase the number of legitimate, Latin-owned food businesses in immediate area and beyond.
"What we're trying to do with the redevelopment in the Clark-Fulton neighborhood is to increase activity and business, but we want to keep in mind the people who live here today and make them an integral part of that redevelopment," adds Contreras.
A core component of the La Villa Hispana initiative is El Mercado, a 32,000-square-foot complex that will house a cultural arts center, neighborhood nonprofits and an open-air plaza. It also will be home to an anchor restaurant, fresh produce market, and roughly two dozen microbusinesses that hope to join the ranks of other sanctioned businesses in the area.
"What we try to do is help guide them through that process; try to educate them about liability, about reporting income, and help them on their entrepreneurial path so they can grow," Contreras explains.
She points to Jose Melendez, a local success story who progressed from a home-based food business to a catering outfit to La Posada, an improvised eatery operating out of a local church. The folks at the Hispanic Business Center are in the process of trying to find him restaurant space in the neighborhood.
I'm standing in the living room of Jose Teca, a local hip-hop artist who grew up eating his mother's arepas and empanadas. He watched, too, as complete strangers would come to his home to purchase large orders of her authentic Colombian food. Before long, the pair was in business together, turning out delicious and authentic items for sale throughout the community.
"We hope to go from this to a food truck to maybe even a brick-and-mortar spot," he says. "I want to start something for my nephew and niece to have when they get older, if they want it. But we want to keep it authentic: straight-up Colombian food."