On any weekday morning, Alfredo Diego, co-owner of Coqui Mexicano restaurant, is busy cooking slivers of chicken for tacos, spooning out avocados for guacamole, and chopping onions, lettuce and tomatoes for garnish.
He then wipes down the counters, sits near the window overlooking a bleak strand of Third Avenue near 161st Street in the Morrisania section of the Bronx, and waits for customers to come. Sometimes he waits for hours.
Diego and his girlfriend, Danisha Nazario, 37, moved to the area in 2001 and have owned and run their small Mexican-Puerto Rican fusion restaurant and deli for just over two years. The restaurant, which serves tacos alongside black beans, rice and other regional cuisine in a stripped down bodega with just three tables, is just one of a handful of restaurants in the area – and one of the only ones that does not specialize in fried chicken.
“We try to make healthy food here,” said Danisha. “The area needs more healthy places.”
But two years after its opening, Coqui Mexicano has yet to break even. Nazario said the restaurant is getting closer to reaching the $5,000 necessary to stay out of debt each month, but so far, their sales have not turned a profit. Diego estimates that the restaurant serves about 30 customers per day, mostly regulars and mostly those coming for lunch from other local businesses. The couple is not sure how much longer they can last at the current rate.
In many ways, the couple may be two fragile steps ahead of the expected resurgence in this neighborhood. “This is a place where people are just starting to play,” Nazario said. “But there is no foot traffic at night.”
Both remain remain hopeful. The restaurant lies at heart of a revitalization that is expected to include new housing units and restaurants surrounded the recently completed satellite campus of Boricua College. Construction has begun to attract hundreds of new residents, those who Nazario and Diego hope will become frequent customers.
However, according to Nazario, currently, the new population seems to prefer Manhattan for its nightlife, so far. Construction is slow, and the hints of revitalization she and Diego saw years earlier has not yet panned out.
Born in Puerto Rico, Nazario has lived most of her life in the United States. She graduated in International Marketing from Baruch College and later worked at Dallas BBQ, the New York City food chain where she met Diego.
Later, she took a position in the business center of the Essex Hotel in midtown Manhattan where she continues to head to work at 5:30 a.m. every weekday.
“I still go to work ‘till the business can hold itself,” said Nazario.
Diego, who now works full-time at the restaurant, was born in Acapulco, Mexico. Though he remains coy about his life story, he says that he learned to cook at home in Mexico where, as a boy, he would often make meals for his siblings to help his mother – an experience that put him off cooking for years.
He arrived in the United States some 20 years ago and has worked all over Manhattan in food stores, restaurants and bodegas, finally ending up at Dallas BBQ.
Diego and Nazario began renting the Bronx storefront in the spring of 2008 on the site of a former grocery store that, according to the couple, was a drug den that housed a brothel in a back room.
“The woman who owned it lived in New Jersey,” said Nazario. “She didn’t care about what her business was doing to the neighborhood.”
It took the couple three months to clean out the store, which was in abysmal shape, full of decaying food products and garbage. During the cleaning, Diego developed a lung infection from the noxious fumes that emanated from the debris found in the store.
“It was horrible,” said Nazario. “The store was disgusting.”
Though the couple had readied the restaurant for business in mid-summer, they were not given the go ahead by the city for another few months until Nazario went downtown and caused what she called, “a scene,” in the department that issues restaurant permits. They were awarded a license to serve food in September, after having spent $10,000 for five months rent without making a dollar.
The couple faced another obstacle just after opening: discrimination from the local community.
“There has also been a lot of controversy because I am Puerto Rican and Diego is Mexican,” said Nazario. “A lot of people in the community did not accept this. We would get racist remarks and everyday lots of people telling us to get out of the neighborhood.”
The couple’s problems went beyond neighborhood xenophobia, as they recognized that overhead costs climbed higher than expected and that the neighborhood had not changed as fast as they had hoped – many of the buildings around them were just being constructed with potential customers not moving into the area soon enough.
In that first year, business was slow.
In desperation Nazario got on the Internet and searched for cheap ways to promote the business. She joined Facebook and began randomly contacting residents of the area, asking them to come out and try the restaurant.
“I had never used anything like it before,” she said. “Facebook really saved my ass.”
She even began sending e-mail messages to local U.S. Rep. Jose Serrano, tempting him with homemade guava cake.
To get word out to the community, Nazario also helped to create an informal neighborhood pact whereby area business owners agreed to patronize one another’s stores to help support local commerce.
The pact includes a local bodega, a community college and a nearby Chinese restaurant owned by a husband and wife team who have experienced similar problems to Nazario and Diego.
“She and I have a lot in common,” said Nazario. “We tell each other our problems and about how business is going.”
Yet her efforts were still not enough to make the bills stop piling up and in March of this year, the couple was handed an eviction notice for having not made rent payments to the landlord. At that point, they were eating soup every day to save money for rent.
But just before their scheduled court date to fight the eviction, their luck changed.
The couple received an email from Agnes Rodriguez, 31, an arraignment clerk at the Bronx Defenders inviting them to a fundraiser at their restaurant. Rodriguez had organized the fundraiser after hearing that the restaurant, where many Bronx Defenders’ staff eat lunch, was struggling.
“We love them dearly at the Bronx Defenders,” said Rodriguez. “And I always want to support Latino businesses in the area.”
The couple was touched by Rodriquez’s gesture, which raised hundreds of dollars for the restaurant – money they needed to keep Coqui Mexicano alive.
On top of that, Rep. Serrano, who had finally come in to taste the guava cake almost a year before, helped Nazario negotiate a payment plan with the landlord, which came to an end this month.
“Even if we hadn’t survived it would be worth it because we made so many friends,” said Nazario.
These days, the couple is trying to build on their positive momentum, however slight, by generating a more solid customer base.
They have established a small lending library in the form of stuffed bookshelf near the front door that they hope will bring more people in, even if they don’t want to eat. And they have hosted concerts by local musicians, too, hoping to generate buzz around the restaurant.
Nazario admits that the difficulties of keeping the restaurant open have put a strain on her relationship. She and Diego take their problems from work home with them at night.
Yet she is adamant that they are not ready to give up. The couple plans to keep the business alive for as long as they can.
“We’ve been through so much,” Nazario said. “But we’ll pull through.”