Small businesses seek growth, community involvement in Boyle Heights
"From the Ground Up" is a Chase original series highlighting the stories of revitalization in our local communities – stories of change, growth, hope, and inspiration. We feature people that are working every day to make a community strong. And these are communities where we are proud to do business.
Un Solo Sol restaurant in Boyle Heights, has a view of the downtown Los Angeles skyline from its doorstep and bustles with Latin American culture, colorful artwork, and musical influence.
The restaurant's menu reflects the neighborhood's diversity —with items from across Latin America, as well as India and Syria. The menu is strategically put together in the sense that Ortez sees his restaurant as a place to promote a greater sense community. In fact, Un Solo Sol, or "everything under one sun," translates to "unity."
"Diversity has always been a signature of Boyle Heights," explains Ortez. "Diversity of food opens up the possibility of conquering peace in the world."
From El Salvador to Los Angeles
Originally born in El Salvador, Ortez came to the United States at age 18, in 1980. He left behind a country in the midst of extreme violence and turmoil due to a nearly 12-year civil war. Despite his plan to only stay for a short time, he has now been in the U.S. for over 35 years and plans on retiring here next year.
Ortez graduated from Cal State Long Beach in 1988 with an engineering degree and went on to serve as an environmental engineer, safeguarding groundwater for the state of California. Even during his professional career accomplishments, the activist within him from teenage years in El Salvador never died. He dreamed of starting a small business that could capture his ideals.
In 2010, Ortez was running an operation serving children hot lunches in schools. Unfortunately, significant funding reductions from the state left him unable to operate with them anymore. Like many entrepreneurs, he did not let that deter him. He opened the doors of his establishment soon after.
Un Solo Sol began with three primary goals:
- Promote arts and culture of locals
- Promote healthy food alternatives for the community
- Promote unity of the community—60% or more of the plates served at Un Solo Sol are representative of the community
Customers dining at Un Solo Sol tend to be longstanding members of the community and are well aware of Ortez's efforts to benefit them. "They know I am an activist so they come patronize us as a result. It is a place that must stay open," he says.
Creative empowerment and economic development
As an entrepreneur, Ortez is well aware of the struggles of running a business in Boyle Heights. "It is one of the poorest communities in Los Angeles according to the census bureau, but at the same time it also provides the opportunity for the community to support you." Parking, a basic necessity for customers to visit restaurants and retail shops in Boyle Heights, is one of the utmost problems there and prevents sales and growth of local businesses for example.
In order to attract greater community support and funding, Ortez founded First Street Community Businesses, a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering small businesses and fostering sustainable economic development in Boyle Heights. T a movement and festival called "Noches de Serenata." He explains, "I saw downtown and its skyscrapers. I thought, there is a lot of money in those buildings and there is a lot of artists in this area. How can we blend all of that with the background of the culture which is Mexican American? That will bring the funds that are lacking in this area."
As of August 2016, Noches de Serenata festival continues to attract over 3,000 community members, local entrepreneurs with booths, mariachi music, artwork, and occasionally a flash mob of over 100 folk dancers. All of this was done to encourage empowerment and economic development within the community. And due to the efforts of First Street Community Business Association, no local business member has had to close their establishment in the area.
"If you come in from different places in LA, the first thing you feel is a very warm welcome," says Ortez. Despite its close proximity to downtown Los Angeles, rich culture, and positive people, there is very little recycling of talent and economics according to community members.
"Without a doubt, the community philosophy needs to be empowerment," explains Ortez. "To support each other, to fuse with other similar communities, and to promote self sufficiency, which means that people here don't have to ask what their future will be because they own it."
Image: Shireen Aliaji | Evan Kirkpatrick is a Chase contributor who focuses on the intersection of entertainment and philanthropy. His work has been featured in Forbes, CNBC and the Wall Street Journal.