Loíza St. energized by wave of new restaurants, stores
A wave of new developments is sweeping across Loíza Street, injecting renewed vibrancy into this well-known sector of San Juan and highlighting once again the area’s resilience in the face of Puerto Rico’s endless recession.
“Loíza St. is becoming San Juan’s trendy uptown,” said Manuel Collazo, who with wife Vanessa Diaz leased a high-traffic corner for their recently opened vegetarian restaurant Cocobana Café, a ground floor eatery that boldly proclaims its presence with a striking façade mural.
After showing signs of flagging for a year or so, Loíza St. is getting its mojo back.
New stores are coming in, especially restaurants, and the street recently regained a famous tenant when Bebo’s Café, shuttered since last year, reopened with a complete makeover.
Come Friday, Cocobana will have a new competitor in La Buena Mesa de Oscar, which is opening across from Banco Popular with an all-vegetarian menu.
Leading the entrepreneurial charge is a motley group of men and women in their 20s through early 50s seeking new opportunities or careers.
“Young people are the ones with the willingness to move this [island] forward,” said Valeria Bosch, whose vintage store Len.t.juela recently moved to Loíza St.
Just how much money is being pumped into the area is hard to say. Based on interviews, recent and upcoming activity probably accounts for an investment total of around $1 million, if not higher.
This includes the renovations of Bebo’s and Kamoli Kafe and Boutique, and the entry of new businesses, including the $400,000 Art D’Chocolat gourmet store slated to open in late summer next door to Playero.
Puerto Rico’s economy continues to shrink and Loíza St. sales have dropped but, as some of the entrepreneurs pointed out, a lot of money continues to circulate thanks to the underground economy and new money coming into the island from foreign investors, including investors from Europe.
Loíza Street’s appeal
Loíza Street’s nearness to touristy Condado, affordable monthly rents rangingfrom $400 to several thousands based on size and location, safety from crime, and its eminent walkability pack a formidable mix of factors fueling the latest resurgence in both small and large investments along this corridor of commerce running from De Diego to Isla Verde, one of the most compact commercial areas in the city and also one of its most socially diverse.
The current wave of development includes modest investments, ranging from $3,000 to $20,000, to sizable ones in the hundreds of thousands of dollars with some entrepreneurs behind the smaller investments dispensing with bank loans or government help in favor of self financing, cobbling up savings and money from relatives and friends to fund their enterprise.
Collazo, whose Cocobana is an expansion of the small eatery he ran in back of the Loíza St. Post Office, said he decided to hold off on applying for government help, preferring to wait until a real need surges.
The locale he leased on the corner of Cecilia St., a link to Baldorioty de Castro, was in good condition and by doing a lot of the work himself with the help of friends, Collazo said he was able to keep the investment down to around $50,000.
Recent entries and upcoming additions to the street span a wide mix of retail categories but are mainly concentrated in the food area which, while not immune to bad economic times, appears to be a popular investment choice, if for no other reason that eating isa basic human necessity.
“I do hair, that’s a luxury, but not restaurants. People don’t stop eating,” said Edgardo Fuentes, a hairdresser whose small salon on Loíza St. is holding its own amid lower sales.
The emphasis on vegetarian food reflects a growing trend in Puerto Rico toward healthy foods, including those grown through organic farming.
“Diet is today’s biggest health problem,” said Collazo, whose 2,000 square-foot, 17-table restaurant with an open layout and seating for 45 people (soon to be 22 tables) features a menu of veggie burgers, wraps, soups, and fruit drinks like the homemade coconut milk Cocobana that inspired the restaurant’s name. His pantry stocks up organically and conventionally grown food products.
“Young people see their parents getting diabetes, cancer and it leads them to ask questions as to why that is happening,” Collazo said.
Except for Bebo’s, Cocobana is the biggest eatery to open to date. Others are more modest operations like Pizzology, a pizza place across from Farmacia Americana (and the second one to open on Loíza St. in the past year), and Viva Bien, a tiny eatery devoted to healthy food that represents a second try by its owner Maricarmen Diaz. She ran a Venezuelan food restaurant on Loíza St. between 2006 and 2009 but was forced to close down due to the economy.
“This is something simpler,” she said by way of explaining why she is giving the food business another shot.
More food-related businesses are to follow.
La Buena Mesa de Oscar, a vegetarian restaurant whose operators run a similarly named restaurant on 65th Infantry, opens on Friday, though only partially.
Gabriel Mojica, whose family is behind the concept, said the operation will focus on a small number of tables and take-out meals until the restaurant can be expanded to include additional seating and a section devoted to natural products. He said the initial investment is $60,000.
Double Cake, a bakery combining a lounge and eating area, should open sometime in July. Located next door to Farmacia Americana, the store will occupy two-thirds of the space formerly taken up by a popular Five and Ten store that closed down after many years in business. Goodies will include cakes, cupcakes, artisanal breads and beverages like shakes and frappés.
Orlando Santiago, who works with the popular children’s group “Atención Atención,” said the project is the brainchild of his wife Yaritza Lozano, a former art teacher who turned to baking following the loss of her job in the wake of Law 7, which cut back on public employment.
The couple is seeking bank financing for the $30,000 investment.
“There is a need for this kind of place,” said Santiago.
Puerto Rican consumers are looking for things unique, according to an informal survey that entrepreneur Carmencita Rodriguez carried out before jumping ahead with Art D’Chocolat.
“That’s where we come in,” said Rodriguez, whose advertising firm CR Communications has suffered cutbacks due to the economy, a reason that led to her decision to branch out and diversify.
In addition to selling gourmet chocolates, Art D’Chocolat will serve tapas and wine, hold art openings, and be available for private events. Rodriguez also will be marketing her products as privately labeled gifts that companies can lavish on clients and associates.
“With luck I should open by August or September,” said Rodriguez.
New entries on Loíza St. include Color Conspiracy, a tattoo parlor(a similar business recently closed down on a different corner); Kembali, an ethnic clothing store; Noe Amador, the atelier of a budding fashion designer; and two vintage stores: Len.t.juela andElectroshock.
Len.t.juela was previously based in a smaller locale on Jefferson, off Loíza St. Owners Bosch and Briant Huffman invested $10,000 of their savings in the new store, which they hope will give them the added visibility to reach the break even point after two and a half years in business.
Since the new location opened in April, “things are going really well, a lot of people pass by and stop in,” said Bosch, who until late last year moonlighted at the store while holding a job in advertising.
Combining careers is true of other entrepreneurs coming into Loíza St.
That’s the case of designer Noe Amador who combines a love for fashion with working as an occupational therapist for children with disabilities, a job she also loves. Her atelier, an investment of around $10,000, is doing so well that she has hired a second seamstress to help meet orders.
Kembali, located a block from the Loíza St. Post Office, is the brainchild of three partners who decided to turn their love of travel and things ethnic (the store, a $20,000 investment, features clothing and jewelry from Bali) into a business they are pursuing on the sidelines of other occupations.
Jose Pietri works for a multi-national, Belissa Benitez does transcriptions and Gerson Santos is an equipment repair technician.
“We all take turns running the store,” said Benitez.
Monica Oquendo, co-owner of Electroshock, now with locations on Loíza St. and Río Piedras, also worked in advertising until she decided to be her own boss.
“I would much rather make an effort and have my own thing,” she said, standing in her neat and brightly painted store into which she and a partner plunked between $10,000 and $15,000.
There are novices as well.
When Claudia Chinni lost a considerable amount of money in Puerto Rico’s bond market, her broker suggested she start a business. Following that advice, Chinni will soon open a store to sell vintage furnishings that she herself recycles into decorative new pieces milk painted in the Swedish style or embellished with evocative words. The store’s narrow and elongated size will require that her inventory be “whatever fits in the door.”
She said she is investing $7,000 in the store scheduled to open mid July. Its name: “Claudia.”
Bebo’s Café, closed since last year due to the split of its former two business partners, each of whom owned a separate share of the structure housing the restaurant, reopened in May under new ownership and in a fully revamped locale.
Interestingly, the new owner is related to the owners of the restaurant next door to Bebo’s and which one of the warring partners opened last year: Basilia’s.
Bebo’s manager declined to give out any details on the new operation except to say that investment in the 50-table restaurant (it seats 200) was “considerable.”
Meanwhile, Basilia’s operators acknowledged that the reopening of Bebo’s has negatively impacted their operation but they hope to build a new clientele based on quality, service and pricing.
“We’re competing with our legacy,” said Basilia’s President Keren Mercedes referring to how her family built Bebo’s Cafe into one of the more powerful brand names in the city’s restaurant business.
Further up the street, Kamoli Kafe reopened in January after a brief closure during which the restaurant underwent a full refurbishing in the spirit of revitalization.
“I love change,” said owner Karen Redondo, who plunked $150,000 of her own money into transforming the ambiance of her restaurant from casually bohemian to chic bohemian.
As for investing her own money, she acquired that business philosophy when living in Asia. As Redondo put it, “you have what you own.”