A program that helps newcomers to the Roaring Fork Valley integrate and settle is investing in a new Latin food restaurant in Basalt. The non-profit Valley Settlement Project is using cooking to help families become financially secure and connect with their community. Aspen Public Radio’s Marci Krivonen reports.
It’s lunchtime on a Monday and the Cocina Del Valle in downtown Basalt is packed. Mario Alverde is the manager.
"It’s amazing," he says. "It’s been like this since day one. Day one - Friday at 5 o’clock - people were outside, waiting for us to open the door. They were hungry for Hispanic food."
The restaurant opened April 24th. Alverde circles the restaurant, visiting with customers as they snack on chips and salsa.
It’s Basalt resident Justin Davis’ first time to the restaurant. "I think I’m going to go with the carne asada burro. It’s right up my alley."
The restaurant is unique because of its business model and its roots. It’s the result of a partnership with the Manaus Fund’s Valley Settlement Project.
The project’s Parent Mentor program puts adult volunteers in area schools four days a week. On the fifth day, participants learn life skills, like financial literacy.
Program participants started the restaurant after hearing a talk about building business by Manaus Fund founder George Stranahan. Manaus Executive Director Jon Fox-Rubin picks up the story.
"That’s kind of the incubation of the idea, where a number of them said, ‘Gee, we love to cook and we love sharing our cuisine, so maybe we should start a business.’ So, George helped them do so and they formed Cocina Del Valle LLC."
Manaus is providing investment money and the restaurant runs as a cooperative, so every employee is a member, or owner. Fox-Rubin says the idea is to help immigrant families reach their goals.
"It’s really to foster the Valley Settlement’s mission of helping new members of our community integrate and settle and become active members of our population."
Back inside the bustling restaurant, Alma Guzman takes a quick break from taking orders. She’s a part of Valley Settlement’s Parent Mentor program so she volunteers at schools in the mornings and works at the restaurant in the afternoon.
"I’m so excited to be here. I’m going to know a lot of things about cooking and it may be financially good for my family."
Though many of the employees know how to cook, most are just learning the other side of the business, which involves interacting with the public.
"They’re learning," says manager Mario Alverde. "They have skills on how to cook. So, the second step is to learn how to serve."
The space the restaurant fills downtown has seen eateries come and go, each struggling to make it. Alverde is confident Cocina Del Valle will break that trend.
"If you make good food and have good service, you have to be successful. That’s why we try and make people feel at home. And with good food, we will do things right here."
Besides the restaurant, the co-op members also own a catering company with the same name.