YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – The number of Hispanic- and Latino-owned businesses is on the rise nationwide and locally.
And the Hispanic and Latino community in the Youngstown area is growing. Between 2010 and 2021, it showed the most population growth of any ethnic group in Mahoning County, increasing by 4,630 from 11,222 in 2010 to 15,852 in 2021.
As that number continues to grow, so does the number of business owners. There are more than 16,000 Hispanic-owned businesses in Ohio, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The number of Hispanic business owners has grown 34% in the last 10 years nationwide.
Anna Rodriguez, owner of Anna’s Cookin’ in Austintown, opened her Puerto Rican and American-style takeout restaurant one year ago. Originally from Sharon, Pa., she says the large local Hispanic and Latino population has made the success of her business even more rewarding.
“They tell all their people and say that my food reminds them of their grandma’s food. Which is the biggest compliment,” she says. “When your food tastes like a Puerto Rican grandma’s, you’re doing something right.”
Rodriguez fulfilled her lifelong dream when she opened Anna’s Cookin’ at 4750 Mahoning Ave., Austintown. She worked her way up in the restaurant business, absorbing every morsel of information she could, and even earned a diploma in restaurant management from Le Cordon Bleu.
When Rodiguez lost her sales job during the pandemic, she finally had the time and opportunity to find a brick-and-mortar store to serve dishes she grew up eating in her Puerto Rican family home.
She drove around the Mahoning Valley until she stumbled across a little shop on Mahoning Avenue, and she knew it was meant to be hers.
“When we ran into this place, I called my husband and I was like, ‘I think I found something’ and he came to look at it with me, and he said, ‘Just do it,’” she says. “So, we took out a personal loan and we put everything we had into it, and we opened up.”
Rodriguez opened the take-out style restaurant last October, and business has been booming.
She says the community has been unwavering in its support of her establishment. Her ever-changing menu is a huge draw, she says, and keeps people coming back.
Rodriguez is serving Puerto Rican dishes such as empanadas, rice and beans and potato balls. But she says the star of the show is her honey chicken.
She says there’s a sense of “Puerto Rican pride” she has in sharing the food of her culture with other people.
While she was born and raised in the United States, both her parents are Puerto Rican and she spent summers growing up in her grandma’s kitchen in Puerto Rico. She also makes American-style dishes, such as chicken and waffles and loaded macaroni and cheese.
“We switch it up every day to get people to try different things. And I think that’s what people like most,” she says. “You never know what I’m making, and you can always get something different.”
The small restaurant has limited seating, but she says that her customers like to come in – instead of ordering delivery or takeout – to grab a seat and join in on her family’s camaraderie.
Rodriguez says she wants it to feel like she made them a plate of food in her home, and with her husband and children helping her behind the counter, it isn’t too far off. She says that stems from her Puerto Rican heritage.
“Puerto Rican people, they’re very family oriented. They’re really loud. When you come in here, you’ll hear the music. You’ll hear us goofing off. I want people to come in and experience that,” she says. “I want you to feel like you came to my house, I want you to feel like family.”
The takeout restaurant is just the first step, Rodriguez says. She has dreams of opening a dine-in restaurant, adding a drive-thru, and even bottling and selling her honey sauce.
“So, there’s definitely a five-year plan. I’m not going to stop with just this location,” she says. “I hope that this will always be the main location, you know, like the first location, but definitely just the beginning.”
The Morales family has owned various Puerto Rican-style restaurants in the Mahoning Valley for over 20 years, including Papa’s Puerto Rican Cuisine in Campbell.
The family moved to Youngstown from New York City nearly 30 years ago.
The flagship restaurant, run by the Morales family patriarch, Carmelo, has been a staple in Campbell for the last 20 years.
In 2018, the business expanded with Papa’s Bakery around the corner on McCartney Road. The bakery is now headed by Jeremy Morales, but his mother is the one that had the initial idea.
“My mom always wanted to open a bakery. In Puerto Rican heritage, bakeries are huge. The bread, the sandwiches, the pastries,” Morales says.
Morales says the whole family has been a part of the business since it opened in some capacity. He and his brothers learned the ropes from their parents, and even though Morales ventured off to the tech world, his love for his family and the business brought him back.
Campbell has a large Latino population with nearly a quarter of the community identifying as Hispanic or Latino in the last census.
Morales says that fact has helped the bakery business take off, and the community is only growing.
“We have a large Hispanic population. The demographic kind of fits well with where we’re at,” he says. “We’re seeing a larger amount of Hispanics coming from Puerto Rico and really from everywhere. When Hurricane Maria came, it seemed like a lot more people migrated to this area.”
The bakery specializes in fresh bread, sandwiches and baked goods. Popular items include pan sobao, a soft sweet bread; pan de agua or “water bread” and pastelillos, a meat-filled turnover similar to empanadas.
Morales adds that between the bakery and restaurant, they sell as many as 35,000 empanadas annually.
Still, Morales says that there is sometimes a cultural barrier for people outside of the Hispanic community, especially the younger generation. “That’s probably the hardest thing. But the people who keep those traditions know what our food is, and that helps,” he says.
While the bakery and the restaurant have deep roots, Morales says he is trying to keep the bakery new and fresh. His tech background has led him to turn to social media to attract the younger generation and give a little online personality to the bakery’s staff – both new and old.
“We’re starting to try to do something through social media to set us apart,” he says, adding that he has taken to TikTok to advertise the business.
Morales’ videos have garnered thousands of views, some with over 125,000. He says that some people come in after seeing the videos who didn’t realize the shop was there.
“It’s corny, awkward and you know, kind of funny. We posted a couple of videos like that, and we got a lot of feedback. People come in and are like, ‘Hey, we saw you in TikTok!’” he says.
“We’re trying to connect our business to a social media thing while keeping the food good.”
Papa’s Puerto Rican Restaurant and the bakery will host their annual Hispanic Heritage block party at the restaurant, 284 12th St. in Campbell, to kick off National Hispanic Heritage Month. The event will take place Sept. 16-18 and include food, music, vendors and bounce houses.
Pictured at top: The Morales family has owned various Puerto Rican-style restaurants in the area for more than 20 years. From left: Jose Vasquez, Marcos Candelaria, owner Jeremy Morales, Johanny Vasquez, Giovanka Ramirez, Edgar Gomez and Leanna Soto.