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Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

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Leveraging grants and local partnerships, Evanston Latinos looks to open community kitchen pilot in June

Photo courtesy of Rebeca Mendozá
A grant from the Chicago Region Food System Fund and additional fundraising will allow Evanston Latinos to open its community kitchen pilot in June.

Growing up, chef Mario Perez said he was always fascinated by the art of cooking. 

“As long as I can remember — since I’m the baby of the family — I was always attached to my mom and grandma,” Perez said. “Every time they would cook, I will be right next to them still watching what they do.”

As Perez grew older, he began cooking with his family, and the passion led him into the culinary business, he said. For the past 15 years, he has moved between different jobs in the industry, including a brief stint for Princess Cruises in Alaska. Toward the end of 2023, Perez started Mario Liz Catering from his home kitchen.

Stories like Perez’s inspired Evanston Latinos to begin planning for a community commercial kitchen in 2021 to help local entrepreneurs scale their businesses, Executive Director Rebeca Mendozá said.

After receiving a $100,000 grant from the Chicago Region Food System Fund in January and conducting additional fundraising, Mendozá said the group now has enough funds to pilot the community kitchen in a rented space for a first year. She hopes the pilot could be a “proof of concept” for more grants and fundraising in the future.

Originally founded in 2020 to help Evanston’s Latine community access information and resources and supplement the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Mendozá said Evanston Latinos has pivoted to provide ongoing support for the community through projects like the kitchen. 

“It came from all the people who during COVID were preparing meals and selling food,” she said. “Some people had been doing it for a while under the radar, but several people picked up offering food as a way to supplement for lost income.”

Eduardo Roman, a member of Evanston Latinos’ board, said the nonprofit hopes the kitchen can fill a hole in the support system for local Latine businesses and community.

The space will not only provide a brick-and-mortar commercial kitchen but also connect its tenants with other entrepreneurs and community members who can be their first customers, Roman said. It will also provide resources to start a business — including support to create a brand and website and acquire necessary licenses.

“(What) a lot of people kind of forget with the Latinx community is that there’s a lot of variety that comes with that,” Roman said. “One of the common languages, much like everybody else, is food. There’s a wide variety of Latinx food … so the idea was using food as a vehicle to get people to connect together.”

The organization has identified several potential locations and is on track to open the kitchen in June, Roman said. 

To support entrepreneurs who will be using the kitchen, Mendozá said Evanston Latinos also partnered with Lending for Evanston and Northwestern Development, a nonprofit consulting firm run by Northwestern students that works primarily with Evanston organizations and businesses.

Weinberg junior Dana Agbede, LEND’s vice president of community outreach, said her organization has been working on connecting entrepreneurs in the pre-product and recipe-testing phase of their food-based business to the community kitchen project. 

“It really varies based on the needs of the business that we’re working with,” Agbede said of LEND’s services. “Some past examples include business plans, or sometimes we’ll connect individuals with other organizations that could be helpful to them.”

While the pilot program will be housed in rented property, Mendozá said she hopes the kitchen will eventually be at a permanent location and under collaborative ownership — a model that allows the kitchen’s tenants to share the space and business expenses. She also wants the kitchen to be a part of a community space for hosting cultural activities.

Roman echoed Mendozá’s vision. An Evanston resident of almost nine years, he said more work is necessary to spotlight the Latine community.

Perez said he is very excited to take advantage of the community kitchen once it opens. It will help him increase efficiency and handle more and larger catering orders, he said.

“Right now I do everything at home, so a commercial kitchen will be amazing,” he said. “As long as we have a kitchen and stove and some pots, we’re going to make it happen.”

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