Most Friday afternoons find the Ramirez family pretty busy serving customers at Rubi’s Tacos on 18th Street. But it wasn’t that long ago that Rubi’s tacos — star of Netflix’s “Taco Chronicles” and countless TikToks — were only available once per week at a stand on Maxwell Street.
“When we met Rubi’s, they were street vendors, they started selling tamales and tortas out of a cooler at, like, different soccer matches throughout the city. And when we met them, they had a really impressive taco stand,” said Jackson Flores, co-founder and executive director of the restaurant development nonprofit DishRoulette Kitchen.
“The pandemic forced them into selling out of their apartment. We … put them in a physical space that supported their revenue streams and everything in between,” added co-founder and director of finance Brian Soto.
Since then, the Ramirez family has successfully transitioned into a brick-and-mortar location. That’s thanks in large part to DishRoulette Kitchen, which shares the space with Rubi’s.
“They’re 100% family-owned and operated,” Flores said. “They represent all the very necessary pieces of a successful restaurant.”
DishRoulette Kitchen was started by Soto and Flores, a restaurant industry veteran, when Flores lost her job early in the pandemic. Soto operates his own accounting firm as a CPA.
“I have a lot of food and beverage clients,” Soto said. “So during the pandemic, I saw them struggling when they had to shut down their doors.”
Soto and Flores self-funded a microgrant program as a way to quickly help struggling spots. Soon, outside funders began contributing, too. That funding has allowed them to distribute more than $80,000 in microgrants to date, as well as offer free business education and ongoing support to aspiring and current restauranteurs.
“You’d be surprised the amount of people that open restaurants with no experience, a little bit of capital, an idea,” Flores said. “We’ve helped entrepreneurs navigate the ins and outs of zoning permits and licenses. We’ll help you do that research; we’ll help you figure out what success looks like for you.”
Soto said the mission is to share information about how to start, run and scale up restaurant businesses in ways that make sense for entrepreneurs.
“I think the biggest problem in the entrepreneur landscape right now is just besides access to capital is access to information,” Soto said. “What does sales tax mean? What taxes am I exposed to? What permits and licenses are, am I exposed to? How do I cost out my menu? How do I have inventory controls? How do I work Quickbooks?”
The DishRoulette Kitchen team said it sees supporting entrepreneurs like the Ramirez family throughout all phases of their businesses as a way to build stronger communities.
“Folks coming from diverse backgrounds and experiences — we don’t know where to go to for help sometimes and sometimes it’s actually really hard for us to even ask for help,” said Chris Cole, DishRoulette Kitchen director of partnerships and communications. “Breaking down those barriers so when they are looking for resources, it is something that they feel comfortable about.”
“They’re in, a lot of times, in underserved communities and what they bring to those communities is not just their skills, their food, their craft, but it’s also jobs,” added DishRoulette Kitchen director of strategy and operations Hector Pardo. “They’re really like economic engines in all of these communities.”
Jackson and Soto said they only need to look to their roommate, Rubi’s, to see evidence the approach works.
“Rubi’s has been our best case study,” said Soto. “It shows that someone could come here to America, start some little taco stand and grow it into a full-fledged business hiring, you know, 10+ people and having their family on a salary. And that is true success.”
Flores nods. “It’s the dream.”