This article appears in a 12-part series on minority entrepreneurship and is underwritten by the Wilmington Alliance. It was independently reported and not reviewed by Wilmington Alliance before publication.
When Irene Castañeda first came to the United States from Mexico in 1993, her goal was to earn enough money to be able to send some home to her aging parents so they could buy food.
Undocumented at the time, she had walked the desert for two days and two nights to find work. The youngest of 10 children, she had siblings living in the U.S., one of whom helped her get a job at a mushroom factory in Pennsylvania.
“I was really excited to start working,” Castañeda said. “I believe they paid me like $3.75 per hour, but for me, it was good money at that time. So I was happy and I was saving money, and I was excited to send some money to my parents for the first time. When they got the money, I remember [my mother’s] words. She told me ‘Oh, my daughter, God bless you. I miss you. I miss you a lot. But I know that you’re going to be a success.'”
Castañeda had achieved her childhood goal of being a teacher before coming to the U.S., but not that of providing for her family. Now, with a new life established, she married in 1995, had three children, and, in 2001, had the opportunity to apply for documentation, thanks to her husband’s reliable work record in the landscaping industry.
“Beside my kids, that opportunity was the light of my life,” she said.
In 2004, they received permanent green cards. But by that time, things had changed.
When they were finally able to go back to Mexico for a visit, Castañeda’s father had passed on, and her mother was in the early stages of dementia. In 2008, with the help of her brother, a U.S. citizen, she brought her mother to the United States, where she she would be her primary caretaker for nine years — most of them without any financial aid whatsoever. She would eventually receive payments from the disability support nonprofit Easterseals, though not enough to help much.
Those nine years of caring for her ailing mother full-time were hard, emotional work — and they left a gap in her work experience that, she would learn, would be one of several factors, including a low-income background and not having a savings account, that would prevent her from being able to receive a business loan.
When she first started the business that would become Veronica’s Kitchen, she didn’t know that. Founding it in 2016, the same year her mother passed, she decided to start selling what she knew to make money.
“It was a really sad year, but at the same time I was thinking I needed to do something to have some money to help my husband, to help my kids and to keep busy,” she said. “I had an idea, and I bought some mangoes and corn and I made some tamales, some Mexican snacks. I started on Fridays selling out of my car to my friends in my neighborhood. The first day it was difficult, because people didn’t know that I was selling Mexican food, then the second Friday was a success. Then I was thinking, ‘Well, I can do more.'”
Then the second year was better, the third year was better. Last year, most of my customers were asking me, Why don't you have a location?
Soon she was selling mangoes, corn and chicken tacos at the Cool Springs and Glasgow Park farmers markets, learning as she went, with her son and daughter helping her.
“For that season it was difficult, but at the same time, I was getting experience and new customers, good advice and good comments,” she said. “I had more confidence every time. That year I worked really hard with my kids. Then the second year was better, the third year was better. Last year, most of my customers were asking me, ‘Why don’t you have a location?’ I said, ‘Well, it’s not easy, but I’m working on it.'”
Determined to open a small restaurant, Castañeda and her son enrolled in the Launcher Entrepreneurship Program based at the West End Neighborhood House.
“The Launcher program helped me to understand people,” she said. “To understand the customers, how to talk back to them, what kind of a menu to have for different places. If I’m going to sell [in wealthier suburbs of] Wilmington, I’m going to raise my prices. If I’m going to sell in New Castle or some place where I know they don’t have money, I’m going to lower my prices, I’m going to sell different things so they can enjoy my food.”
She recalled a time when, frustrated by people expressing confusion over her traditional tacos, she opted not to go back to one farmer’s market where she didn’t feel appreciated. Those are the kinds of situations Launcher helped her navigate.
“I learned those things,” she said. “But I didn’t learn how to make my business plan. I didn’t [learn] that I need a business plan and how to do it.” (For its part, Launcher’s website states that a goal is for participants to “complete a solid business and financial plan.”)
She received some financial advice through the program, but it was sobering.
Castañeda said she was told, “‘I don’t think any bank is going to give you a loan, because you need more history of your business. You need more customers on paper.'” She had customers — Veronica’s Kitchen has attracted long lines at events like the Brandywine Arts Festival, for instance — but it wasn’t enough.
“Then I went to different banks, WSFS, Bank of America, and they all said I need more experience in business,” she said. “They didn’t help me. I felt at the time that they didn’t trust me. They weren’t interested to see my case and work with me.”
A turning point came in January of 2020, when Veronica’s Kitchen was given the opportunity to rent popup space at the V Trap Kitchen and Lounge on Lincoln Street in Wilmington on Sundays. It was a near-ideal opportunity, one that required her to come up with all vegan recipes to align with V Trap’s menu.
Most people don't have any idea of the struggle of people who are less fortunate.
“Even though in Mexico we eat a lot of vegetables, it was a challenge to me to find real Mexican vegan recipes with a good flavor and presentation,” she said. “At first I was like ‘Oh my God, I don’t know why I’m doing this.’ We made a lot of ads on Facebook, we worked really hard on the menu, had good prices, and it was a success. Every Sunday people would come. It worked.”
Still, she found it wasn’t worth it to pay rent every Sunday: “It was only one day, and I decided not to [stay] and kept looking for a location.”
She found one, at Independence Mall on Concord Pike.
“The owners are very nice people, they said, ‘We can work with you. We need a Mexican restaurant here, so we can do business.’ It was expensive, but they didn’t need the money in one payment. I was really happy and I was saying I’m going to take culinary classes this winter so I can be ready for new recipes, traditional and vegan, and a different style to get more customers.”
Then the pandemic hit.
“After COVID-19 it’s very risky to say yes, because [Independence Mall] is very fancy and they have wealthy customers,” she said. And, if she needs a loan to keep up as restaurants phase back in, she says she feels even less confident that she’ll get one. “If I didn’t get a loan before, when the situation was normal, I don’t think I’ll get one now. Right now I don’t think the banks are going to work with people like me, with no savings account.”
Instead, she’s chosen to focus on her own community.
“I now have a different idea for a small location in Wilmington with maybe a coffee shop only serving breakfast and lunch, with a menu of both traditional Mexican and vegan Mexican,” she said. “There is no other Mexican vegan place in Wilmington.”
While her home is on Route 40 in Newark, Castañeda says she considers the city — where her youngest daughter, a sophomore at University of Delaware, does volunteer work — part of their community.
“I want to help my community by selling healthy food,” she said. To help make it happen, she says, more support is needed for people who are struggling. “I would like to have more information of resources to learn how to manage my business.”
Things that others take for granted, such as access to bank loans, educational resources and generational wealth, are in reality not an option for everyone — and some of the businesses that are giving the most back to under-resourced communities are the most under-resourced themselves.
“Most people,” she said, “don’t have any idea of the struggle of people who are less fortunate.”
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