The new young face behind the counter at Chilita’s near the entry of the Tigard Library is the second resident of a program created to help launch upstart entrepreneurs and the first business owner in her family.
At just 22, Michelle Cruz, who took over the space with a soft launch in late September, is a food service veteran with a half-dozen years of experience beginning at a Mexican restaurant when she was still a teen.
Her restaurant takes its name from a childhood nickname.
“Growing up they always called me Michilita,” she said. “It’s very special to me.”
As the new Opportunity Café resident, she’ll have up to two years in the space with a subsidized but steadily increasing rent, ongoing business mentoring, and all equipment provided.
The business incubator is a collaboration between the city, which provides the space, and Portland-based Micro Enterprises Services of Oregon, which provides the funding and mentoring.
The idea is to provide first-time business owners the time, space, and skills they’ll need to make it on their own at the end of their residencies.
“Access to coaching, exposure, and customers, those are the three ingredients new entrepreneurs really need help with,” Purdy said. “On a busy day about 800 people come into the library.
While Chilita’s patrons will find coffee shop standards and some familiar favorites from her predecessor, El Cuadrilatero, on the menu, Cruz is putting a personal twist on the recipes and planning a menu she’s excited to share.
“I’m really looking forward to bringing bubble waffles (to Tigard),” she said. The puffy waffle treat is served with ice cream on top and piled high with fruits, candy, cookies, other sweets, and “any kind of drizzling.”
She’s also serving milkshakes and plans on bringing in rotating seasonal items and pastries drawn from her Mexican heritage like tamales, pozole, conchas, and flan.
“I want to bring that Mexican tradition,” she said. “My mom is from Michoacan. My dad is from Guadalajara. They’re both big, beautiful cities that have their own traditions, their own dishes.”
Cruz is no stranger to the space. She met El Cuadrilatero’s Israel Martinez while she was managing a Panda Express and he asked her to cashier part-time, then encouraged her to apply for Opportunity Café.
Martinez graduated from the incubator in September, transitioning his business from the Library space into a food cart at 1735 S.E. Tualatin Valley Highway.
The city also runs the similarly structured Launch Pod incubator, which provides upstart entrepreneurs with fully equipped food carts in Universal Plaza. The inaugural businesses, West Cost Torta and Harvest Moon Experience opened last spring.
The program has attracted attention from the city of Boston, which is interested in replicating it.
“This opportunity is designed for people with a business idea that have had some adversity,” said Joshua Jacobs, MESO’s satellite manager for business development. It’s built for entrepreneurs from diverse backgrounds. “We’re looking at shifting the paradigm and giving more support to underserved populations.”
Cruz was chosen from a field of seven applicants, some who were already MESO clients and others who found the opportunity through an outreach campaign.
“With (Cruz’s) passion and life experience, we felt like she had the promise to really do something with her vision,” Jacobs said, adding her attentiveness to details and skills she displaced during the tasting sealed her spot.
She’s renting off-site space in a commercial kitchen for most of the cooking and baking, and working in tandem behind the counter with her partner Angel Gabriel.
At 23, he already owns a pressure washing and gutter cleaning business.
“It’s better to invest your time into something that’s yours (than to work for someone else)” he said. “It’s good to do something that you have a passion for. You want to take it somewhere.”
They’ll be taking customer feedback and evolving the menu as they go.