Waiting for Gentrification: Hard Times for South Bronx Restaurants

Alfredo Diego Pacheco outside Coqui Mexicano in the South Bronx. Photo by Stuart White.

Alfredo Diego Pacheco outside Coqui Mexicano in the South Bronx. Photo by Stuart White.

Alfredo Diego Pacheco likes to tell the story of the day he stood in a bar downtown, rooting for Spain in the final game of the 2010 FIFA World Cup. His friends had told him that his team didn’t stand a chance, and even in a bar full of Spanish tourists, he says, he was one of the few who held out hope.

Pacheco’s face lights up when he recounts how Iker Casillas—then goalkeeper for the Spanish national team—blocked a one-on-one shot from the Netherlands’ Arjen Robben, paving the way for the first Spanish win in history.

It was a great day, says Pacheco, but for him the best part of the story came just a few months later, when Casillas visited Coqui Mexicano, the restaurant on the corner of Brook and Third aves. in the South Bronx, which Pacheco, 39, and his girlfriend Danisha Nazario, 35, owned and ran until late last year.

“That’s one of the memories that makes me want to cry,” Pacheco says, standing outside his now-shuttered restaurant, which once served up simple, exceptionally fresh Mexican and Puerto Rican home cooking. “But that’s alright; everything happens for a reason.”

Alfredo Diego Pacheco pauses while cleaning out Coqui Mexicano's dining room. Photo by Stuart White.

Alfredo Diego Pacheco pauses while cleaning out Coqui Mexicano's dining room. Photo by Stuart White.

Last fall, Coqui Mexicano was hit with what Pacheco calls “the perfect storm” of financial woes, finally closing after a three-year struggle that traced the arc of the Great Recession.

His ordeal is emblematic of the situation facing many New York restaurants in newly gentrifying neighborhoods that quickly stagnated as development dollars disappeared in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse.

When Coqui first opened, just a month before the global economic meltdown, the South Bronx was changing fast. Mixed-use, mixed-income housing developments were beginning to attract more affluent residents to the historically depressed neighborhood. And artist lofts in buildings like the Piano Factory and the Clocktower promised SoHo-like shifts in the neighborhood’s dynamics.

Long ruled by fast food, fried chicken and Chinese takeout, the South Bronx would finally be able to support a restaurant with a menu that combined Mexican basics like tacos and tamales, Pacheco thought, with foods like Puerto Rican–inflected bean dishes, salads and even yuppie super grains like quinoa.

But then the economic crisis hit, and the flow of wealthier new residents that Pacheco had counted on quickly dried up.

“Development has just stopped, so any gentrification that would have come with that has just stopped as well,” says longtime realtor David Rodriguez, of Pantiga Group Inc. “The renters are still working-class people with families who just want an affordable place to live.”

Pacheco knew from the start that his food wasn’t a natural fit for these longtime residents. Eighty percent of Coqui Mexicano’s business came from outside the borough, he says, drawn in by positive mentions on foodie sites.

“People were shocked. They thought you’d have to go to Manhattan for something like this,” Pacheco says of his customers’ initial reactions. “A lot of people said it would be better in the Village or something, but I said, ‘Why not here?’”

Pacheco’s desire to bring healthy food to the area fit into his overall goal of making Coqui Mexicano a gathering place for the community, but ultimately the menu failed to catch on with the locals.

“Most people around here haven’t been exposed to that,” says Pacheco. “They don’t really say, ‘Let’s go get a salad or some quinoa and collard greens.’”

Coqui Mexicano, now shuttered, at the corner of Brook and Third aves. in the South Bronx. Photo by Stuart White.

Coqui Mexicano, now shuttered, at the corner of Brook and Third aves. in the South Bronx. Photo by Stuart White.

Fresh produce—much less healthy prepared meals—has long been a rarity in the South Bronx, and several other establishments with a healthy, “downtown” vibe have closed recently, including Alexander’s Café, Peacelove Café and even the South Bronx Food Co-op.

The business environment in the South Bronx today is far different from that of early 2008, says Lourdes Zapata, senior vice president of SoBro, the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation.

“Credit has really tightened up for reasons that everyone understands,” says Zapata, who recalls that it was much easier to get a loan four years ago. “The pendulum has really swung too far in the opposite direction, and it’s really tough for start-ups.”

Clarisel Gonzalez, an organizer of the Bronx Entrepreneurs and Business Network, says success is especially hard for businesses like Coqui Mexicano and Peacelove Café.

“They were a business with a social vision, with a social mission,” she says. “They had big aspirations.”

But no matter how admirable, Gonzalez says, big aspirations can be a fatal distraction in a neighborhood whose reputation is often enough to scare off outside customers.

“Sometimes when you come in with a social vision, you get so obsessed with that that you don’t focus on the business,” says Gonzalez. “All these things are working against them, and on top of that, they’re in the South Bronx.”

Still, Alfredo Pacheco considers Coqui Mexicano more of a learning experience than an outright failure. He is optimistic that the neighborhood will be ready for another shot in a few years.

“There will be another time, definitely. There’s nothing else I want to do,” says Pacheco, the smile returning to his face. “Except coach a soccer team.”

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