Building a new business

When Hermelinda Luviano offered me one of the lunch plates her hard-working crew at Delicias Latinas had prepared, I hesitated. While I was eager to sample whatever was responsible for the rich aroma emanating from her corner of the Blue Ridge Food Ventures commercial kitchen, I was short on silverware, a dilemma I feared I couldn’t resolve without suddenly beckoning the Spanish word for spork.

Photos by Jonathan Welch

I needn’t have worried. Luviano’s lunches are designed to be devoured sans fancy implements: All of her protein-packed Central American dishes have been reconfigured as finger food so that her customers—construction workers all—can savor them on the job. Simmered ground beef is stuffed into empanadas. Mounds of cumin-scented lentils are served with curved leaves of iceberg lettuce.

Luviano operates one of the few outfits in the Asheville area providing construction workers with a nutritious hot lunch. Luviano, her 23-year-old daughter Deyanira Chavez and Luviano’s friend Nohemi Luna every day make dozens of individually packed plates that Chavez delivers to construction sites beginning at 11:30 a.m. sharp.

“It works better for them because they don’t have time to get food that’s substantial,” says Chavez, a salsa-dance instructor who serves as her mother’s ambassador to the English-speaking world and the business’ spokeswoman. “Usually all they can get is McDonald’s. This saves them time.”

Fast food is Delicias Latinas’ only real competition, since, Chavez reports, few workers today pack a lunch pail. When she visits new construction sites to troll for new customers, the promise of a home-cooked meal—at $6 a pop, including freshly made tortillas—is all the sales pitch she needs.

“A lot of them aren’t married, or if they are married, their spouse isn’t here, or, if their spouse is here, she’s working too,” Chavez explains.

Chavez remembers her mother, a native of Michoacán State, wanting to open a restaurant in Morelia when she was growing up there. But a dispute over the proposed location forced her to postpone her professional cooking career until she emigrated north. Earlier this year, she partnered with two other immigrant entrepreneurs—Victor Cruz, a talented baker who makes a mean Mexican doughnut, and Rosa Perez, who runs a small taco truck she parks at commercial nurseries—to share a workspace at Blue Ridge Food Ventures, which supports small business start-ups in the food industry.

“So it was like three businesses together,” Chavez recalls. “It was very hard by ourselves. A lot of people try to make it, but it’s hard to get started because there are things you have to do properly. We could afford it because we were like a small company.”

Blue Ridge Food Ventures Executive Director Mary Lou Surgi says she’s trying to help Luviano “branch out” beyond her own community and make her lunch plates available to workers on the A-B Tech Enka-Candler campus, where the Blue Ridge Food Ventures kitchen is located. “The food is fabulous,” Surgi says.

Delicias Latinas does some party catering, but the job-site lunch has become the heart of its business. Although Chavez sometimes experiments with dishes and techniques she’s seen on the Food Network, most of the plate-destined foods are made from Luviano’s traditional recipes.

“Every day we make something different so they don’t get bored and we don’t get bored,” Chavez says while scooping spiced fajita chicken meat into boxes. “Everybody’s favorite is the enchiladas, because we make the sauce with a different chile. It’s not tomato-based, it’s just hot chiles. So it has a whole different flavor.”

Chavez says the Delicias crew sometimes gets requests for regional delicacies that the workers have trouble finding around Asheville.

“They’ll really want something like shrimp or mole,” she says.

While the workers have declared a temporary moratorium on Luviano’s popular carnitas, citing fears of swine flu, they’re apparently still craving her tamales and gorditas. They’ve also announced their collective predilection for an occasional sugary treat.

“We get sweetbreads from Victor,” Chavez says, motioning toward her neighbor in the kitchen. “People like to get that, especially when it’s rainy and cold.”

Chavez hopes to eventually enroll in college, but says she doesn’t mind the mornings spent cooking with her mother. “What I like most about this is when you sell something you made, and people are like, ‘I really like that,’” she says. “You feel good.”

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