This year, the California Restaurant Foundation and San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E®) announced the winners of their 2023 Restaurants Care grants, a program meant to support locally owned food service establishments. SDG&E invested $200,000 in shareholders’ dollars toward this program, marking the company’s 3rd year of making this economic recovery fund possible. 70% of winning restaurants are run by women, and 78% by people of color. Funds are meant to keep these local establishments successful by focusing on equipment needs and staff retention.
Get to know two of the resilient small business owners who are keeping their dreams cooking with the Q&A they shared with us upon receiving these grants.
Cocina Del Carmen
Carmen Colon, the owner of Cocina Del Carmen in Vista, is a single mother who immigrated to the US from Oaxaca, Mexico. Carmen has loved sharing delicious meals since she was young, cooking for large church events and parties. By opening her restaurant in May of 2020, she was able to realize her dream of being a restaurant owner and teach her children life skills through her experience. Carmen will be using the grant she received for appliance upgrades which will help her business grow and be more energy and water efficient.
Can you tell us about your background?
I have raised four children, learned to speak English and became a U.S. citizen. Many people don’t realize that Oaxacan people are foodies, and the cuisine is extraordinary. The country is located in an area of rich soil and many different herbs and spices.
What is unique about the cuisine that you serve?
We serve authentic Oaxacan Cuisine from recipes handed down from my grandmother. Our customer base is diverse with one thing in common: they all love good food! We take a lot of pride in serving a high-quality meal along with local craft beers. We make all our food fresh, hence our slogan “Always Fresh, Naturally Healthy”.
What was your experience opening Cocina Del Carmen?
We opened right at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We had spent a lot of time and money designing and building this beautiful restaurant with such charm and ambiance and at this point in the pandemic, we could only offer takeout since there was a restriction for indoor seating. I had no choice but to keep going and with my children at my side, we have been able to be a successful addition the City of Vista.
What is your favorite dish on the menu?
I get asked that question often and my answer is: anything in the Carmen’s Favorites section of our menu. I love it all, we cook food fresh when it’s ordered, so it is always tasty!
Come visit Cocina Del Carmen at 1350 East Vista Way, Vista, CA 92084 and try one of the amazing Oaxacan dishes from Carmen’s Favorites menu!
Thanh-Thanh Dang and Mario Jimenez brought the coffee shop dream that began in Puerto Rico here to Oceanside, co-creating Banana Dang. The grant was essential in helping them pay for software and online maintenance as operating costs are high. Honoring the cultural connections and history of bananas and coffee throughout the world, Banana Dang brings people together with a fun surf environment. Thanh-Thanh shares how her coffee and banana obsession has a personal history.
Why Banana Dang?
Coffee is our first love. Bananas are the world’s most perfect fruit. Our intention at Banana Dang is to creatively showcase the bean and the banana in almost all our products—from specialty coffee drinks, smoothies, to signature toast offerings and pastries. We also love surfing, so we made it a goal that all Banana Dang! shops are located near a beach, or close enough to it!
What is the story behind Banana Dang?
Banana Dang was born in Rincon, Puerto Rico, in 2007 before relocating to Oceanside, California. At the original Banana Dang location, we had over 20 banana plants in our backyard. One day, we discovered a coffee plant growing next to a banana plant! Turns out, farmers have researched benefits from growing both on the same land.
Dubbed the “World’s First ALL Banana Smoothie and Specialty Coffee Bar,” our café operated on the island from 2007-2014. After selling the property in Rincon, PR—we returned to our Cali roots and opened the second Banana Dang shop in Oceanside in 2015.
Did you source inspiration from your personal life?
I was born in Saigon, Vietnam—the highest production and biggest exporter of Robusta Coffee Beans in the world! My first taste of coffee was in the motherland where it’s prepared with super dark roast, hot water through a Phin, and served with lots of condensed milk. This was my first introduction to coffee, engrained in my brain forever. Also, Vietnam is a BIG banana producing country. So, you can see where my obsession for bananas and coffee comes from!
Who is your biggest supporter?
My husband, Mario Jimenez. We are both equal partners in life—and in business. We joke and say, I’m DANG. He’s the Banana! He is in charge of all coffee quality control and the entire Barista training program at our shop. I take care of training the banana (smoothie) side of it, and merchandising. No decisions have to go through big obstacles. It just has to be approved by the “banana” and the Dang.
Come visit Banana Dang at 115 South Coast Highway, Oceanside, CA 92054 and try one of their specialty drinks and pastries.
SDG&E Empowers Small Businesses
At San Diego Gas & Electric, our employees feel a strong sense of purpose beyond delivering clean, safe and reliable energy services to over 1.4 million customers in our region. As part of our commitment to the communities we serve, we support a variety of initiatives through shareholder contributions, employee giving programs and volunteerism. We understand that in order for our region to thrive and become more equitable, it’s important for all of us to do our part to ensure no one is left behind. Through our commitment to advancing regional economic prosperity, we have worked with the California Restaurant Foundation to empower local business owners.
“With the generosity of San Diego Gas & Electric, the Resilience Fund helped California’s independent restaurant community for a third consecutive year,” said Alycia Harshfield, Executive Director of CRF. “It’s apparent that there is still a significant need for restaurant assistance, as we received 25% more applications this year than last. While these grants will allow local restaurant owners to build more resilient businesses, we also hope to inspire Californians to support their vibrant local restaurant community in any way they can, whether that’s through dining, sharing on social media or spreading the word to friends and family.”
The Restaurants Care® Resilience Fund
The nonprofit California Restaurant Foundation (CRF), which invests in and empowers California restaurants and their workforce, has proudly awarded 184 independent restaurants with $5,000 grants in 2023. This is the third year, CFR has provided these grants as part of its Restaurants Care® Resilience Fund. The $2.1 million fund, supported by multiple utility companies, is the largest to date in terms of overall funding, individual grant sizes and grant utilization. Seventy percent of this year’s grant winners identify as female, and 78% identify as people of color.
Recipients can use the $5,000 assistance for equipment and technology upgrades, unforeseen hardship, employee retention bonuses and employee training, all of which allow California’s independent restaurant owners to invest in the longevity of their business and employees.
Eighteen restaurants received grants in the San Diego and Southern Orange County communities served by SDG&E® .. Since 2021, the Restaurants Care Resilience Fund has awarded grants to 972 independent restaurants throughout California. That’s 972 burger joints, taquerias, bakeries, and more at the heart of our communities.
The Resilience Fund is committed to providing California’s vibrant restaurant community with the financial support needed to build stronger, more resilient businesses that will continue to feed and contribute to their local communities for many years to come. All winners can be found at www.restaurantscare.org/resilience.