Family. Adapting. Work ethic.
These are the foundations that have kept three local Latinx businesses interviewed for this article thriving.
While all businesses deal with trials and tribulations, Latinx-owned enterprises face additional challenges. Whether it be stigma from their own community or trying to attract a wider audience, Latinx businesses must work hard to build their reputations.
La Bamba, Atomic Printing, and La Tienda Latina, all mainstay Tahoe/Truckee businesses with Latinx owners, have met these issues head-on.
La Bamba: A Family Affair in Truckee
The way Pilar Gomez tells it, her father dreamed big from the beginning. José came to the area as a young Spanish sheepherder in 1977 and worked on the railroad in Truckee. He held three jobs and lived in the trailer park that sits behind the Mexican restaurant her family now owns.
“He always says he worked as a dishwasher when it was an Italian restaurant, and he always said he would own it,” Gomez recalls. “Then he did.”
José Gomez bought the property that La Bamba Mexican Restaurant and the trailer park occupy with a partner more than 40 years ago. While the restaurant went through various identities over the years, José and his wife Carmen opened La Bamba in May 1992. Carmen, who is Mexican, put traditional dishes from her country like mole and milanesa on the menu, while José brought Spanish flair, adding paella and potato soup as specials.
To keep relevant, the menu at La Bamba has changed with the times. Guillermo Vazquez, who has been a chef there for nearly 20 years, spiced things up by including carnitas and shrimp enchiladas. Chicken wings and jalapeño poppers were added as well to cater to locals who kept asking for them.
“We have a ton of locals that sustain us throughout the year,” Pilar said. “Chicken wings aren’t Mexican, but we have some locals that love them.”
When La Bamba opened its doors 28 years ago, Carmen waitressed and bussed tables, while José tended the bar. While the couple still has a hand in the restaurant, the younger generations have stepped in to take on the day-to-day operations.
“My parents only thought they were going to take it over for a year. But one year turned into five years, which turned into 10, et cetera,” Pilar said. “We will be here a while because the whole family works here. Everybody hopes to be here a long time.”
Firstborn daughter Pilar manages La Bamba and is currently the regular cook. Her brother Frank has been a waiter for 18 years, nephew Christian is now the bartender, niece Zerenea waitresses, and niece Elyse busses. The family carpools together from Reno to Truckee for their shifts.
Because the entire menu is made from scratch (save for the tamales), Pilar works eight to 12 hours a day, six days a week. She arrives at 11 a.m. if carnitas have to be made, for instance. “They take three hours to simmer and cook,” she noted.
Pilar contends that COVID was difficult on the family business for the first three months because people were not going out. The 41-year-old, who grew up in the restaurant and learned how to cook there, reiterates how important regulars and locals are to their business. During this interview, she constantly offered customers a friendly wave, and a smile underneath her mask.
“It’s the locals that keep you going, especially in this area,” Pilar emphasized.
Most of their regulars are the White residents and second homeowners from Tahoe Donner, she said. According to her, because La Bamba is a sit-down restaurant, and not a taqueria, it is a challenge to get the Hispanic community to come in.
But those who do frequent the mainstay love it. Truckee resident Brett Garrett has been a regular for 28 years.
“They are great people that always make you feel like family,” Garrett said.
~ La Bamba, 11760 Donner Pass Rd., Truckee, (530) 587-3516, labambamexicanrestaurant.com
Atomic Printing: The Last North Shore OffSet Print Shop
When Frank Tenorio opened Atomic Printing in Tahoe City 20 years ago, his shop was one of eight printers on the North Shore. But, as customers turned to the internet for their printing needs, the shops closed, leaving Tenorio’s business as the last remaining offset printing place in North Tahoe.
“Almost everything in here is from another print shop that went out of business,” Tenorio said, motioning to the six 1970s offset printing machines that sit in rows on a concrete floor. He knows where each one came from, and laments the fact that there is only one retired print mechanic left in the area he can call on when a machine breaks down.
“As it has progressed, [online companies] have swallowed the small businesses. Seventy percent of printers across the country are gone in the last 20 years,” Tenorio said. “It is about digital. Digital will finish offset printing.”
Despite the challenges, Tenorio loves the printing business and says he has a lot of fun doing it.
“It is a very fascinating trade,” the 54-year-old shared. “It keeps evolving and changing.”
Tenorio, who moved to Tahoe from Denver when he was 12 and graduated from North Tahoe High School, worked for Emil’s Printing in Kings Beach for 14 years. He started as the cleanup guy and kept moving up, learning everything about the business from cameras and printing to how to run the business and work with customers.
He opened Atomic Printing Oct. 4, 2000, with a partner before becoming solo business owner in 2005. Tenorio, who is half Mexican and half American Indian, said being Hispanic brought him more Latinx business.
“Since I grew up in Kings Beach and everyone knew me, they said, ‘Call Frank,’” Tenorio said. “The Hispanic community referred everyone to me.”
The shop originally printed brochures, fliers, business cards, invoices, posters, and newsletters, but soon added a printer for house construction plans. They personalize promotional materials such as mugs, cups, pens, and golf balls. But as customers turned online for those items, Atomic Printing added silkscreen T-shirts and embroidered hats, which now make up 50% of the business.
“Within a year, we were already having to figure out how to change with what was going on,” Tenorio said. “As printing has been evolving, so has every portion of it.”
In addition to keeping up with the trends in printing, Tenorio believes he has been able to stay in business due to the relationships he has forged over the years. He said he also provides a high level of service that online companies can’t.
“The difference between ordering online and talking to someone you know and building relationships is what has kept our small towns intact and connected,” Tenorio said. “Here, you are not a number. You are my neighbor, you are my friend; I care about you. Online, they don’t care.”
Because Tenorio has lived the majority of his life in Tahoe, he said he knows everyone, and even had someone recently place an order for hats while they were both out golfing.
“I can’t go to the grocery store or the post office without someone ordering something,” Tenorio said. “The business will sustain because our reputation will hold. The service we provide is not going to change.”
~ Atomic Printing, 1730 River Rd., Tahoe City, (530) 581-5812, atomicprinting.com
La Tienda Latina: Serving Up Mexican Tradition in Incline
Brightly-colored piñatas dot the ceiling, bins are filled with various chiles, and shelves feature mangoes, cactus, and coconuts. Customers pop in to purchase Tostilocos and a Jarritos soda. Another customer asks for a money transfer.
This is the scene at La Tienda Latina, tucked away in a corner in an Incline Village shopping center next to a thrift store. If it were not for the colorful posters advertising mango con chile, chamango, and other Mexican sweets, the store could easily be missed. But the shop has a loyal following.
“There are a lot of regulars. A lot of little kids come to get candy and chips. COVID didn’t affect business; we are essential,” said Carlos Guerrero, who owns La Tienda Latina with his mom, Rosa Guerrero.
The mother-and-son team has been running the store together since December 2013 when Rosa used her life savings to buy La Tienda Latina.
“She was the one with the idea,” Carlos recalled. “I was working at the Village Market and she said, ‘I need you to come work for me. I just bought the Mexican store.’ It was out of the blue.”
But go work for his mom he did. Carlos helped her get a business license, fill out all the necessary paperwork, and together they learned how to run a small market.
“Since I’m the oldest, I had to step up to the plate,” said the 26-year-old, who has two younger siblings. “We learned everything as we were going. It was very stressful.”
Over time, they adapted to what customers wanted. Carlos learned how to cook so he could man the food station. Money transfers were added. And they are currently in the process of adding a check cashing service.
“It keeps the business up and running. It gives us a job,” Carlos said. “What would we do if we didn’t have the locals?”
While the store caters mostly to the Hispanic community, Carlos says tourists will visit the shop to buy Mexican spices that can’t be found elsewhere in town. And they keep the store open every day, including Thanksgiving and Christmas, when others are closed.
“My mom goes all out with the food,” said Carlos, noting that Rosa makes homemade tamales, beans, and posole for holidays, which are hugely popular with customers.
La Tienda Latina is open seven days a week, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Carlos and Rosa split the day, so they both work seven days a week. When Carlos is not at the store, he works the deli at Raley’s in Incline. It’s this dedication that keeps the store going.
“It’s an everyday thing,” he said. “You can’t be lazy.”
~ La Tienda Latina, 785 Southwood Blvd., Incline Village, (775) 298-7626