A Farm-to-Table Restaurant’s Struggle to Find a Home in PR Highlights How the Odds Are Stacked Against Small Businesses

Jessica Muñoz

When Jessica Muñoz gave birth to her daughter Aliyana three years ago, her purpose became clear. She wanted to go back to her native Puerto Rico and use her corporate experience to create a profitable venue that promoted her traditions and culture.

“There isn’t a space where [artists] can collaborate, exchange ideas, help each other get into competitions to represent Puerto Rico, and be able to go to the U.S. or different countries,” said Muñoz to me at La Hacienda San Pedro in Santurce.

Muñoz packed her bags, left her husband, and her five-year marketing job in Switzerland within months. She moved to Carolina and started working on developing La Salita Café—a farm-to-table restaurant and artist hub within San Juan’s gentrified neighborhoods.

“I’m sticking to a core value which is promoting todo lo que es de acá,” said Muñoz. Most of the profits of La Salita will come from the coffee and food they serve which will be 100 percent local.

Although Puerto Rico’s lands offer a diverse share of crops all year round, barely any restaurants offer seasonal dishes with all Puerto Rican grown ingredients. In fact, 85 percent of the food consumed on the island is imported. (Most of it, of course, comes from the U.S.)

Laws in Puerto Rico are setup to increase the island’s dependency on the U.S., rather than foster sustainability. Multinational corporations get tax exemptions, while farmers need to pay higher prices for fertilizers and tools because of imposed taxes on imports.

A local produce stand.
Read more

Muñoz knew starting a business during Puerto Rico’s economic recession was going to be challenging, but she was surprised by the lack of support.

“You don’t have the same love for small business owners here as you do in the U.S.,” she said. “Here they sprinkle this idea of, ‘yes, we can give you support.’ But when you try to reach for it, it’s like looking for a grain of salt on the ground.”

Muñoz described the support given by U.S. institutions in PR as ineffective, lamenting that the Small Business Administration’s entrepreneur mentorship division, SCORE, has been inactive on the island for years. She went to other institutions and found that a lot of what was taught was too elementary for someone with her experience, or others charged $30 or $50 for a form you can find online.

“It’s been a year and a half now and I’m still nowhere,” Muñoz said. When we met, she had just lost a location. She had negotiated for the owners to hold the place while the bank processed a loan, which takes an average of 3-4 months.

She was almost at the three month mark when she bumped into the manager of the properties and found out she had lost the location to a taco fast food chain.

“I understand from the bank end of it that’s it’s secure for them, the risk level is very low [from a chain] so they approve it really quickly. But at what point do you take a step back and say ‘we need to do something para apoyar la comunidad?’”

Yet, Muñoz is determined to make local food approachable. “I need to do this, I can’t give up. If we all give up, que va a pasar?” She’s now waiting to hear from another location in El Viejo San Juan.

While she finds a venue she maintains a blog to educate consumers on the importance of eating local, supporting local businesses, and all the things Puerto Rico travel sites aren’t talking about. Two weeks after we talked she told me she quit her job as a barista at Bad Ass Coffee to start a monthly poetry night pop-up.

The Invisible No More Series will start on June 9th at Cafe Americain in Old San Juan from 5-9p.m. Some of the featured acts are Caiko, Ninja, Noel, Jota and Carlie.

“My daughter is the one that’s keeping this alive. I look at her and think what are you going to learn from me? When you’re my age and you have kids, what are you going to tell them the Puerto Rican culture is? What are you going to tell them about our arts? If she moves from the island in 30 years and decides to come back, where is she going to go for poetry? Where is she going to eat local products? Will she know where to go?”

Hopefully she can go to La Salita Café.