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Making His Own Good Fortune

An Immigrant Finds His Way From The Rio Grande To Business Success

April 17, 2006
By RITU KALRA, Courant Staff Writer

Armando Chavez considers himself extremely fortunate. Fifteen years ago he was washing dishes at a Greek restaurant in Enfield. He didn't speak a word of English.

Today, the 38-year-old owns Del Norte Inc., a small but thriving business that distributes Mexican products to 150 supermarkets and restaurants in the region. Retailers from Rhode Island and Boston have signed him up as their key supplier. Grocers such as C-Town Supermarkets in New Haven are among his top customers. His 2,000-square-foot warehouse in north Hartford brims with activity, with deliveries of popular Mexican sodas arriving by the truckload.

"I never thought it was going to grow like this. But day by day, more customers, more customers," said Chavez, who talks about Del Norte as if it were something he lucked into.

Good fortune has, indeed, played a large role in his story. Chavez made the journey from Mexico to Hartford 15 years ago by wading the Rio Grande and then jumping onto a moving freight train in Texas under the cover of night, hiding in a container of bird feed to avoid immigration officials.

But among the 40 or 50 migrants who hopped onto the train that summer night, Chavez, as far as he knows, is the only one still here. The two buddies he came with - who guided him to the border and then across the river - returned to Mexico long ago, unable to piece together a living from the erratic work they found in Texas. Everyone else was snagged by immigration officials right there at the train tracks. Chavez alone continued to Connecticut.

Today, Chavez is a legal resident, a homeowner, the founder of a growing business with three employees and in the process of opening a retail store in Enfield next month. He is a symbol of the powerful impact that immigrants can have on local labor markets - not by taking jobs Americans don't want but by fulfilling a demand that wouldn't otherwise exist.

That he alone among dozens who began their journey together on the same evening 15 years ago managed to succeed in a foreign country is no matter of mere chance. The fact is, like any successful entrepreneur, Chavez works hard for his luck. He is a smart gambler. He seizes opportunities, but only when he feels the time is ripe. He takes big risks, but not blind ones. And he doesn't make a mistake twice.

Breaking Down Barriers

For Chavez, the journey from dishwasher to business owner began in 1991. His father, who had left Mexico a year earlier, called the then-23-year-old diesel mechanic and told him there was work available if only he could find a way to Enfield, Conn.

Chavez did not know what kind of work his father had in mind, nor did he speak English. His girlfriend (she is now his wife) was pregnant. Still, the decision was easy. With his father promising a job, the gamble promised not only adventure, but a guaranteed payoff.

"Why I came? It's to have a better future, a better life, you know," said Chavez. "I trusted my father."

After finding his way to Houston, Chavez took a bus to Springfield, where he arrived on a Tuesday night. The next morning, his father took him to Caldor discount store to buy two sets of shirts and pants. By Wednesday evening, less than 24 hours after he arrived in Connecticut, Chavez was at work.

His father had gotten him a job as a dishwasher at a local pizza shop. Within six months, he had learned enough English to be promoted to making pizzas. Shortly afterward he switched to another pizza shop, where he cooked and earned tips working as a waiter.

"You have to, in this business, you know, you have to learn English. Otherwise you're going to be in the same place forever," said Chavez.

The language barrier, Chavez says, is the main reason that so many Latino immigrants end up in low-wage work. It's not that they're willing to take jobs that other Americans don't want, he says: It's that they often don't have a choice.

"Most of the people coming here who take low-paying jobs, it's because first of all they don't speak the language. If you go to a restaurant and they have an opening for a cook and a dishwasher, which one are you going to take? If you want to be a cook you need to speak English. If you don't speak English, you're going to wash dishes."

The Big Break

Chavez's uncle runs Texas Fast Food, a small restaurant in El Mercado, the Spanish market on Park Street in Hartford. A few years after Chavez had settled into his pizza-making routine in Enfield, his uncle took him to a warehouse in New York where he bought Mexican produce for the restaurant. Soon Chavez began to drive down to New York weekly on his days off from the pizza shop, helping his uncle by bringing back food for the restaurant.

As word spread through the community, newly arrived immigrants turned to Chavez for the cheeses they missed from back home. The orders grew steadily. One day, his uncle introduced Chavez to Ramon Flores, who runs El Mercado and was just beginning to stock Mexican products. It had been two years since Chavez's initial trip to the New York warehouse, and he promised Flores that he could supply fresh Mexican groceries more reliably than anyone else.

Flores agreed to take a chance and became Chavez's first institutional account. Over the years, Flores proved to be a valuable customer and a trusted mentor who gave sound advice.
"In the beginning I told him, `If you want to grow, make sure you're clean. Open a bank account. Pay taxes. Do it clean,'" Flores says he told Chavez.

Chavez heeded the advice and, through his father, obtained his legal residency.

"Now look at him," says Flores. "He has customers all the way to Maine. That's a lot for a little guy who comes from nothing."

Though landing the account with El Mercado was a major breakthrough, it also posed a dilemma: Chavez's car was simply too small for all the food he was now hauling back weekly. And though the side business of buying groceries was growing steadily as the local Latino population expanded, Chavez wasn't making enough money to buy a bigger car.

The problem soon resolved itself, thanks in part to Chavez's particular combination of thrift and optimism. He drove from Enfield to Massachusetts, where gas can be cheaper by as much as 10 cents a gallon. He filled up the tank for $15, and purchased a scratch-off lottery ticket with the change from his $20 bill. That five dollar investment in hope won him $500 - enough to buy a used van.

"That was a miracle. I said to myself, `I guess God wants me to do business,'" said Chavez, still shaking his head at the memory. "That's something I never forget."

Growing Pains

There's a second thing Chavez says he will never forget.

Among the dozens of business cards that are thumbtacked to a wall in a tidy office next to Del Norte's warehouse on Main Street, one stands out for him. Several years after Chavez had begun to buy groceries for El Mercado, an owner of Puerto Vallarta in West Hartford asked him to supply the Mexican restaurant's produce. But by then, the business had grown so much that Chavez was once again short on space, and even tighter on time.

Chavez worked 12-hour shifts at the pizza shop. On his days off he started at 4 a.m., driving to New York to buy produce and then returning to make deliveries through the neighborhood. He rarely spent time with his wife or their three sons.

"For eight years, not a single day off," said Chavez. "That caused me almost divorce."

So when Puerto Vallarta asked him to supply produce, it seemed reasonable for Chavez to refuse. He barely had enough room in his van. Besides, he remembers thinking, Puerto Vallarta was tiny. He could afford to turn away the business.

Wrong. Today there are four Puerto Vallarta restaurants in the area. For Chavez, that's a large account. But now he's lost the opportunity.

"I have every restaurant in Hartford except them," he said, shaking his head. "I learned my lesson. Now, anybody calls me, I tell them I'll meet them tomorrow. I'm not going to lose another customer."

The card stays on his wall as a reminder of that lesson, and as motivation.

"I still keep their card because I figure some day, maybe I'll get them," Chavez said. "I'll keep trying."

The Leap

By 2003, Chavez had outgrown the original van he had purchased from the winning lottery ticket, a larger van and the truck that followed. The weekly trips to New York were no longer sufficient to supply his customers. It was time to open a warehouse of his own.

But taking such a big step was intimidating. Chavez had just purchased a house and now had mortgage payments to make. Leasing space - in the North End of Hartford, adjacent to a set of railroad tracks - was a daunting commitment. The warehouse cost $1,500 a month to rent, and then there was the $10,000 in annual insurance payments for his inventory, trucks, drivers and new drivers he would have to hire.

"Do you know how many tortillas you have to sell to make that much? I was afraid to open the warehouse," Chavez said. "But I figured, you know, there are no warehouses in Hartford. The Spanish population is growing and growing, somebody some day is going to open one. And I've been running this for a long time. So I figured, why not? And hey, not bad so far.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
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