By: John Byrne
December 7, 2011
City chips in for microloans; Emanuel says Chicago will use $1 million to lend to small businesses
Say this for Francisco Flores: He doesn't lack confidence.
When Flores started chasing the dream of running his own restaurant, he picked perhaps the toughest neighborhood for Mexican food on the North Side.
The area of West Town where Flores and fiancee Olga Moreno opened Mr. Taco's Restaurant features other restaurants serving Mexican barbecue, Mexican-French fusion food and delicacies from specific regions of Mexico, in addition to a Cancun street market's worth of delicious tacos.
After he tapped his savings and got loans from family members, Flores was still about $15,000 short of what he needed to comply with various city codes so he could open his doors. He got the funds from Accion Chicago, a nonprofit that grants small loans to people who don't qualify to get them from banks.
"Without that, we wouldn't have been able to open," Flores said.
Mr. Taco benefited from a microloan, an approach to small-business growth that the city is putting $1 million behind. The investment is small as government programs go, but Mayor Rahm said he hopes the "seed money" will help more than 250 businesses like Mr. Taco to get going or expand.
"While we are recruiting businesses -- large and small and medium -- to come to Chicago, we know the greatest economic growth, the greatest job growth is in small businesses, and they are in our neighborhoods and on our streets," Emanuel said.
"This business, they could not get a loan from a big bank. It is not in the wheelhouse of a big bank," the mayor said with Flores standing beside him.
"Yet his dreams are in his wheelhouse."
But for Flores, who worked as a cook at a restaurant and a suburban retirement home before setting his sights on Mr. Taco, opening was just the first challenge.
Now he has to set himself apart on a stretch of Chicago Avenue with so many Mexican restaurants that 1st Ward Ald. Proco "Joe" Moreno said they engage in weekday "taco wars," offering special low prices to entice passers-by.
A couple of blocks west, El Taco Veloz augments its speedy tacos with well-attended, late-night Spanish-language karaoke.
Around the corner on Ashland Avenue, La Pasadita has been serving award-winning tacos for more than 30 years and now has three separate outlets on the same block.
Nearby restaurants El Barco and Mariscos El Veneno serve competing versions of fish tacos and other Mexican seafood dishes.
Flores acknowledged the market is challenging. He said he's relying on quality to make his mark, insisting on ingredients that are "fresh every day," and he's hoping a signature dish will catch on.
"We're known for having the best gorditas," thick, pitalike tortillas stuffed with steak or other fillings, Flores said. "So people come here for that, and hopefully they come back."