Denver (Trends Wide) — Most mornings, Silvia Hernández barely has time to light the sign that adorns her name at her restaurant in Denver, Colorado. While breakfast orders come in, she’s working the flat grill, flipping French toast, cracking eggs, and warming up tortillas for the green chili pork burritos that regulars enjoy.
“I love cumin, but the secret ingredient is love,” he says. “Love with a little passion.”
Hernández’s mother taught him from a young age to make the traditional dishes of his native Mexico. Those lessons sparked her interest in the culinary arts, leading her to pursue a career in gastronomy.
Now, as the owner of two restaurants in the Denver area, Hernandez is putting her skills to use, although her journey has not been entirely smooth. And the pressure of the pandemic on the food and service industries has brought its own set of challenges.
When Hernández lived in Mexico, he operated a property management company that helped Americans buy property in the country. In 2013, she and her two children moved to Denver to be with her husband.
A year after moving to the United States, her marriage fell apart, leaving her with a choice: return to Mexico or stay in Denver. In any case, he had to start over.
“Well, I’m here,” he remembers about his decision to stay. “But he didn’t know what he wanted to do.” She worked as a babysitter during the day and cleaned restaurant kitchens at night.
In the meantime, he still wanted to get back to running his own business. And that’s when she found the Focus Points Family Resource Center, a non-profit organization that helps low-income immigrant families. It was Hernández’s first stop to forge his new path.
Nearly 10% of the 6 million Coloradans are immigrants, according to the 2019 US Census Bureau estimates. The American Immigration Council, a nonpartisan advocacy organization, estimates that 263,000 of those immigrants are women. .
“The Denver metro area is an incredible place that welcomes immigrants and refugees every year,” says Matt Vernon, director of social enterprises for Focus Points.
Across the US, data shows that immigrants had higher unemployment rates at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic compared to US-born workers.But those rates are declining, particularly for women. immigrant women, according to a Pew Research study published in July.
Unemployment has been especially high among Denver’s Hispanic population, according to Focus Points director of development Cheri González, who also notes that “jobs in the hospitality, maintenance and retail sectors, of the many of these students depend on Focus Points, they are slow to come back. “
González says Focus Points has distributed more than $ 650,000 in federal funds to the community, including money from the CARES Act 2020, the largest emergency aid package in U.S. history to help the economy recover from the negative impact of the covid-19 pandemic.
Hernandez says the women he met at Focus Points were interested in more than just getting a job.
“When I met the other women and we started talking about what we would like to do here … they all said, ‘Oh, I would like to have a business and sell food,'” says Hernández. “That’s when I realized that I’m not the only one thinking about running a food business.”
“When I went to Focus Points looking for a program to learn new skills to develop a culinary business, it didn’t exist at the time. All the ladies and (I) saw a need for a place to learn.”
A need for workers
Hernández’s need for training, along with months of brainstorming and planning, led to the creation of the Comal Heritage Food Incubator in 2016. Comal, a paid training program, is designed to teach women to work and operate a professional kitchen.
“We are unique in that we focus on helping immigrant and refugee women,” says Arden Lewis, Comal’s executive chef and director of the program.
“Most of these women have been cooking longer than I have lived. We want to turn that talent into something more substantial by training them to work in a professional kitchen, first, and then to own the business,” she says.
In the five years since Comal opened, 28 women from nine countries – Hernández included – have worked in the program.
“I learned how to create a menu, all the accounting and taxes, the sanitary regulations and how to pass a health inspection here,” says Hernández.
Lewis says the full program, which starts with dishwashing and teaches all the skills to be a line cook and eventual restaurant owner, takes 18 to 24 months to complete. But with the devastating effect of the pandemic on the culinary industry, Comal management reports a greater interest on the part of women in the community – and local restaurant owners – for participants to receive training and join the professional kitchens faster.
“Before and during the start of the pandemic, we received very few calls,” says Vernon. “But now we’re starting to get interest that we haven’t seen before. They want to go back to work.”
Vernon says the closure of the hospitality industry and the switch to virtual learning last year forced most immigrant and refugee women to stay at home, costing them the ability to financially support their families.
Now, he believes, there is an opportunity for them to rejoin the job market.
Denise Micklesen, communications director for the Colorado Restaurant Association, told Trends Wide that 91% of the state’s restaurants surveyed this year have difficulty hiring staff, and more than 67% say they have difficulty retaining staff who have .
“Everyone desperately needs more hands,” says Vernon. And he points out that restaurants are interested in Comal being a training place for these potential workers. Hernández echoes that sentiment, saying he would love to hire Comal graduates.
“Not being able to hire help has been the most stressful part of running my business,” Hernández says during a break between his breakfast and lunch services. “But, I am happy that Comal has given me the opportunity to have my dream of opening my food place, and giving other women a voice and having their dreams as well.”