In 1998 Lidia left her hometown of Oaxaca, Mexico to work in the United States to send money back to Mexico. She landed in Watsonville, California where she picked raspberries in the fields for hours on end. For many years, her husband Arturo also labored in the fields – he worked the mushroom industry until his company was shut down. So when her husband lost his job, they decided to explore new ways to support the family.
After 14 years working hard in the berry fields and mushroom sheds, the couple had saved $20,000. They discussed opening their own business because Lidia’s long hours limited her time with her developmentally disabled son. Lydia is a talented and passionate cook. Even though the market was saturated with traditional taquerias, no one had concentrated on Oaxacan specialties. She knew that their strong cultural tradition and delicious recipes would be well received in Watsonville. So they started to think ‘restaurant.’
Lydia and Arturo found what they thought was the ideal location to start a new restaurant – a small food vendor location at the local bus terminal. It was busy and very visible. What they didn’t know is that the ‘seller’ was not the owner of the property, both the storefront and the equipment. They trusted the woman and handed over their savings.
“We had saved every penny. Our life was in the $20,000 payment we made to her for the restaurant. Then we found out that legally, we owned nothing,” said Lidia. “It was devastating.”
The very same day in August 2010, Lizeth Guizar, an investigator for the Santa Cruz Metro referred the couple to the El Pajaro Community Development Corporation. El Pajaro – an organization that offers small business entrepreneurs important assistance to help them achieve economic success – helped the desperate couple for free. It is there that Lidia learned how important education is.
Vinicio Vides, a business consultant, coached them on how to successfully negotiate for the return of their $20,000 investment. Then Mr.Vides advised them on how to secure a location on Fridays at the Watsonville Farmers Market.
“People enjoyed the Oaxacan specialties at a reasonable price.” Lidia explains, “Customers kept asking us, where is your restaurant? And we realized that we could actually start a business.”
The Mendez’ learned that the space they originally attempted to buy in the Watsonville Metro Center bus terminal was available to rent in November 2010. So they returned to El Pajaro CDC for help with the lengthy application and business plans. Out of 10 applications that were competing for the same location, Lidia’s application was chosen.
“I was the only applicant with no prior business experience,” says Lydia with a big, proud smile. “I was told my application was the most complete, which I owe to Vinicio because he helped me fill it out.”
Lidia and Arturo credit their success to the support and resources available at El Pajaro CDC. Their dream is now a reality.
Taqueria Lidia prides itself in making fresh tortillas by hand as well as regional treats such as Oaxacan mole negro (black sauce) with dried chilies, seeds, fruits and nuts and tlayudas, a round corn masa made from corn native to Oaxaca, topped with beans, cabbage Oaxacan cheese, tomatoes, tasajo (a jerky-like meat), and avocado. Lidia is also preparing healthy menu items like roasted corn on the cob, sliced mango and jicama for the new “Jovenes Sano” program in Watsonville.
Lidia’s daughter and son help with the business and it continues to thrive despite the downturn in the economy. The Mendez’ are moving to a bigger space in the Watsonville Metro that has a larger kitchen and an area for customers to sit and eat instead of take-out only. The Mendez’ enjoy owning and operating their restaurant Taqueria Lidia; they especially enjoy the customers and their customer service has paid off.
“We keep our prices low, and if customers ask for an extra tortilla or salsa, we don’t charge them. We know they like our food and our family atmosphere so they will be back,” Lidia says. “Recently we started throwing in some different tamales for customers to try in addition to what they usually want. They always order more!”