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Several Hispanic restaurants struggle to survive


Taped to the window of the Caribbean Sazon on Eastern Avenue are a glowing restaurant review, a congratulatory letter from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke on its opening and a "Closed" sign that isn't coming down anytime soon.

The Caribbean Sazon fell victim last month to a peril facing several nascent Hispanic businesses that dot the Upper Fells Point area: All their savings went to starting up and they have no cash flow and no access to credit to tide them through the first shaky months.

The situation is dire enough for the newly formed Hispanic Business Association, which represents about 30 owners in about a two-mile radius, to call an emergency meeting this morning at the Fishery restaurant on Eastern Avenue to ask the help of city and state government. Concern is focused especially on the restaurants because they serve as an anchor to an area community leaders are trying to develop as a Spanish Town, similar to Little Italy.

"The city can't let these places go. They have to protect them somehow," said Jose Luaces, president of the business association and owner of the Fishery, formerly known as the Spanish Meson. "It's the ethnic flavor of the city. How can you let that decay?"

Miguel Rivera, who owns San Luis, a Salvadoran/Chinese restaurant on Broadway, invested $87,000 of his savings, plus the savings of his brother and one of his friends, to start his restaurant.

He recently had to borrow another $3,000 from a friend to keep going.

"I've lost $10,000 in the first six months I've been open," Mr. Rivera said. "I put my heart into this place. I work 14, 16 hours a day here. . . . If I lose this place, I won't have one needle in my hand," he said, translating a Salvadoran saying indicating poverty.

Heliodoro Bravo, owner of El Taquito Mexican Restaurant on Eastern Avenue, said after making a $100,000 investment in his business, he, too, has trouble meeting all his expenses, especially when business is slow. "Sometimes, everything comes all at once," he said.

Heber Portillo of Restaurant El Salvador said his situation is stable for the moment. But he is hoping to borrow money soon to expand to a second floor and secure a liquor license, a valuable commodity for any restaurant that wants to be profitable.

Mr. Luaces said the business association will ask Hispanic liaisons to Mayor Schmoke and Gov. Parris N. Glendening to intervene on their behalf, perhaps by securing government-sponsored loans.

Haydee Rodriguez, the mayor's liaison for Hispanic affairs, said it is the city's role to show the business owners what resources are available. But securing a loan is up to the individual business person.

Part of the problem is that banks are reluctant to lend to small businesses in general, and restaurants in particular, because they have such a high failure rate.

"I can tell you that NationsBank lends money to restaurants and has lent money to restaurants," said Barry D. Blumberg, a vice president at NationsBank. "I can also say . . . that lending money to restaurants has historically had a poorer performance than some of the other retail products and service establishments."

Kathy Evangelista, who owns Lista's restaurant on Brown's Wharf in Fells Point, said she has experienced many of the same problems as her colleagues up the street in the year and a half she and her husband have been in business.

"It's all your life savings," she said. "And what they [owners] ask banks to do is to see them through the beginning, because if they make it, they'll be around for 10, 20 years."

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