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Hispanic cooks find ready-made customer base in Hillsborough gas stations

The would-be entrepreneurs see opportunity in the foot traffic and minimal investment costs. Gas stations welcome the business attracted by the eateries, too.
Peruvian-born Christian Salinas, 46, opens a new restaurant this week at a Marathon gas station in Riverview, replacing an old Subway location. Salinas also has a food truck and a free-standing restaurant.
Peruvian-born Christian Salinas, 46, opens a new restaurant this week at a Marathon gas station in Riverview, replacing an old Subway location. Salinas also has a food truck and a free-standing restaurant. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]
Published Sep. 1
Updated Sep. 2

TAMPA — On her day off, usually Monday, Mercedes De La Hoy would cook, listen to the music of her native Dominican Republic and dream of leaving behind jobs cleaning hotels and waiting tables so she could start her own business.

It took more than a decade, but the Brandon woman finally opened her own Hispanic food restaurant, Sabor Latino — inside a Texaco gas station and convenience store at 7710 Causeway Blvd. in Tampa.

Mercedes De La Hoy, 61, has operated Sabor Latino for more than five years inside a Tampa Texaco station. She aims to expand her menu to serve her culturally diverse customers, most of whom work in construction and transportation.
Mercedes De La Hoy, 61, has operated Sabor Latino for more than five years inside a Tampa Texaco station. She aims to expand her menu to serve her culturally diverse customers, most of whom work in construction and transportation. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

In the five years since then, a growing number of Hispanic immigrants have followed this business model, attracted by the steady flow of potential customers it provides and the minimal capital investment it requires.

“This is a good example of drive and a way to break through in a very competitive market,” said Vanessa Cahuas, a member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Tampa Bay. “Barriers or difficulties do not necessarily present a roadblock. Quite the opposite.”

After De La Hoy came to the United States two decades ago, she had to settle for minimum wage jobs because she cannot speak English and lacks a formal education, she said. But she had faith that she could raise herself up with her strong work ethic and saw running a business as the key to her success.

At age 12 in Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic, her mother died from diabetes and she had to start taking care of her five younger siblings.

“That’s how I started cooking,” said De La Hoy, 61. “Feeding my brothers with what little we had in the house because my father was a poor man and he worked all day.”

De La Hoy saved up the money to open a business. She signed a contract in 2016 with the gas station owner, capping her monthly rent at $2,000. Now, she has four employees — immigrants from Cuba, El Salvador, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.

“We’re like a big family,” she said. “We bring our own traditions but we share one commitment —success.”

Her restaurant is open 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, serving eggs, grits, coffee and Cuban sandwiches for breakfast and for lunch, dishes from Central and South America such as tripe, cuajito, stew and oxtail.

Among the advantages of locating in a gas station, De La Hoy said, are greater security and in this case, a ready-to-use food preparation area. She replaces a sandwich shop that used to operate there.

A food truck, De La Hoy said, would have cost her at least $30,000.

“There are more benefits than risks,” she said.

De La Hoy is considering expanding her menu, recognizing that her customers come from a variety of cultures and work mostly in construction and transportation.

“We don’t have only Hispanics asking for my food,” she said. “We have many white and black people, too.”

Business has remained brisk all through the coronavirus pandemic.

“We have a type of customer who never stopped working,” she said. “They are the true fuel of my business.”

The products and services offered by Sabor Latino and the Texaco station complement one another, said gas station manager Al Maher. The Hispanic food, served hot, draws more customers than the sandwiches did.

“We are very happy because many people of all ages come, take their food to go or stay eating here, because we have a few tables,” said Maher, 63. “That helps us to sell our products — soda, cigarettes, water, whatever.”

One of the newest gas station restaurant entrepreneurs is Christian Salinas, 46, who is launching his business this week at a Marathon station, 2829 U.S. 301 in Riverview. A Subway sandwich shop used to occupy the space.

Salinas said he is confident that his instincts and knowledge of business administration will help his new venture succeed. He left his native Peru with his family in 2002 during an economic crisis and settled in Miami, moving to Tampa in 2005.

Salinas also owns a food truck and a small Peruvian restaurant, Kallejon 813, at 4105 Gunn Hwy. in Tampa.

“Gas stations have a daily flow of customers all the time,” he said. “It’s a different approach.”

A growing local Hispanic market and changes the pandemic will bring to eating out “shape a new roadmap of opportunities,” Salinas said.

“That was one of the things that encouraged me to take this step.”

Patricia Santos, 38, center, and Noel Lopez, 64, right, bought a small gas station and convenience store in Plant City two months ago and set up a Hispanic deli there. With them is cook Maria Hernandez, 37, at left.
Patricia Santos, 38, center, and Noel Lopez, 64, right, bought a small gas station and convenience store in Plant City two months ago and set up a Hispanic deli there. With them is cook Maria Hernandez, 37, at left. [ JUAN CARLOS CHAVEZ | Times ]

Hopes are also high for a couple who bought a small gas station in Plant City two months ago and opened a Hispanic eatery there.

Dominican Patricia Santos, 38, and her husband, Noel López, 64, serve sandwiches, Dominican-style smoothies and dishes such as rice and beans with roast pork at Dominican Grocery Deli, 8505 S. County Road 39.

“The response has been very positive,” said Lopez, who worked as an aircraft mechanic for more than 30 years. “This is a business that can fly very high.”